Forest Foragers: A Day in the Life of Efe Pygmies in the Democratic Republic of Congo
Kaybah!" yells ImaTufu to her toddler, who is veering too close to the fire. Chabo turns and looks at his mother, moves away from the hot coals, and continues his tottering journey across camp to carry a knife to his father. It's early December in the Ituri Forest of what until recently was northeastern Zaire, and the rainy season is almost over. Everyone is in camp because it has been too wet to forage for food. Taking the knife, Kebe picks up his son, gives him a burbling kiss on the belly, and plops the giggling child onto his lap. Chabo now has a grandstand view from which to watch his father shave thin curls of wood from the hard, springy stem of the munduruka (Vepris louisii) tree he will transform into a hunting bow. As the pile of shavings around Kebe grows, ImaTufu walks over to collect Chabo, who has fallen asleep.
Kebe, his wife, and his four children live with the families of five other men, all of them brothers or cousins. The camp is laid out in a rough circle of dome-shaped leaf-tiled huts; the open doorway of each faces a central living space. It's late in the day, and smoke from cooking fires drifts up into the leaves of the trees that tower 30 meters above the camp. Almost all Efe camps in the Ituri are like this one -- small groups of closely-related families living together and depending on one another to survive.
Kebe's clan has been at this campsite for about six weeks, and the increasingly irritating flea population suggests it is almost time to move on. The Efe still move camp quite often -- when game becomes scarce or family squabbles cause the camp to split temporarily. Still, they say that they are not as mobile as they were before the Belgian colonialists relocated them along the roads they were forced to help build in the 1940s. Kebe's camp is in the forest, but it is only 50 meters from Taki's rice field, which is almost ready to be harvested. Taki is Lese, a tribe of Central Sudanic-speaking farmers who moved into the forest from the bordering savannah at least several hundred years ago. Over time the Efe and Lese have developed an interdependent trading relationship in which the Efe exchange their labor, meat, honey, mushrooms, medicines, and occasionally their daughters for cultivated crops grown in Lese fields. Today all Efe speak a dialect of the Lese language, and at least 60 percent of the food eaten in Kebe's camp comes from Taki's fields. The two men inherited their relationship from their fathers; the connection between the Efe camp and the Lese village is very close. Taki's oldest son Teefo spent several months with Kebe in the forest during the Simba rebellion in the mid 1960s, and children in camp often call Taki Afa, or "father."
ImaTufu lays out the nightly mattress of sini (Ataenida conferta) leaves (cut in a forest clearing earlier in the day), and gently places Chabo on them. Her daughter Tufu moves the fire from outside onto the patch of dirt in the center of the hut. Folding a leaf into an improvised fan, she coaxes the smoking firewood into flames, lighting the interior of the hut. Stuffed into the lattice of saplings used to construct the hut are bundles of arrows, leaf packets of marijuana, rolled-up leaves of locally-grown tobacco, bits and pieces of tattered clothing, and a sliver of soap. These items, along with a couple of knives, a small ax blade, two chipped clay pots, a time-worn wooden mortar, and the bow that Kebe is carving make up the sum possessions of a typical Efe family.
The flames don't burn bright for long, and though the hut dims, it does not become quiet. An Efe camp at night never really seems to go to sleep. Someone is always moving around, talking, feeding a baby, playing a finger-piano, fixing a fire, making love, haranguing a Lese for some perceived injustice, singing, eating, or simply lying awake.
Tonight a thunderstorm rages and few people in Kebe's hut are able to sleep. Adjusting the leaves merely moves each leak somewhere else and everyone is resigned to huddling on the few dry islands between the rivulets of water pooling at the hut's entrance. By morning the camp is a mess. AfaNjede's family bails out the hut (now ankle deep in water) they had to evacuate during the night. Other families are digging draining trenches, and the youngest kids are splashing happily in the small lake occupying the center of the camp. At least the fleas are no longer such a problem.
By midday the sun has burned away the clouds and the camp begins to dry out. ImaTufu bundles Chabo into a cloth sling and heads off to the village to see if there is any work for her. If not, there will be little for the family to eat tonight. As she leaves camp she reminds NgamunNgenda, her oldest daughter, to go and look for some feral cassava in one of Taki's abandoned fields and to check the patch of bedicbedi (Amaranthus spp.) to see if there are enough leaves to harvest for a vegetable stew. Kebe gets back to finishing his new bow and makes sure that his arrows are fletched with a heart-shaped piece cut neatly from a Garcinia ovalifolia leaf. If it does not rain tonight and is clear tomorrow morning, he plans to go hunting across the Angilipi river with the rest of the men and the older boys. Taki's wife, ImaAnza, doesn't have any work for ImaTufu, but gives her a few green plantains and tells her that she can look for any remaining sweet potatoes in the old garden patch between the village and the road.
Only three roads cross the Ituri (an area approximately the size of Connecticut) and they have been reduced to a series of often-impassable water-filled holes connected by an overgrown walking trail. The roads were in good repair from the 1940s (when they were built) until roughly 1975. In its heyday, the road next to Taki's village was a two-lane highway with corrugated metal culverts, iron and concrete bridges, and, in places, a line of lemon grass as a median. A bus could leave Bunia in the morning, arrive at Isiro at night, and return the next day -- a 700 kilometer roundtrip. Today this trip can take months to complete. After independence in 1960, and especially following the rebellions in the late 1960s and early 1970s, President Mobutu's government had an implicit but effective road maintenance policy: neglect. A popular joke has it that President Mobutu once told the president of Rwanda (who had just defeated a coup attempt), "Look what happens when you build roads -- in Zaire we have no roads, we have no insurrection." Though disastrous for the economy, the collapse of the road system effectively reduced the likelihood of secessionist rebellion. Then Laurent Kabila surprised everyone in 1996 by racing from the east to Kinshasa in a matter of months.
Both the building and the progressive collapse of the roads in the Ituri have had a profound impact on the Efe, who, like all cultures around the world, are constantly adapting to changing conditions and new opportunities. Though huntergatherers no doubt lived in the Congo Basin prior to the advent of agriculture, the region was not always forested and over the last 40,000 years has seen enormous climactic shifts and changes in the distribution of forests and savannahs. Tropical forests have dominated the landscape of the Congo Basin for at least the last 10,000 years and may appear to be lush, but in reality they are difficult places for humans to survive.(1) The tremendous diversity of tree species generally means that each variety has relatively few individuals, often widely separated geographically. ImaTufu must walk a kilometer or more from one fruiting opi (Cannarium sweinfurthii) tree to the next. Worse, the Efe are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to harvesting the opi's delicious olive-like fruits because they have to wait until the fruits are very ripe and fall to the ground. The eleven species of primates and four species of hornbills that inhabit the Ituri have no such restriction and can strip an almostripe opi tree before the Efe can collect a single fallen fruit. Most of the food in the forest is found in the tree canopy, creating a problem for the land-bound Efe. Moreover, many forest trees flower and fruit synchronously and do so only three years out of five. This mass fruiting prevents potential predators from eating all of the trees' flowers or fruits, a beneficial adaptation. Unfortunately, having no fruit to eat in other years is hard on the Efe. To live in such an unpredictable and challenging environment, the Efe have learned to take advantage of every opportunity when it comes to food, eating termites, elephants and nearly everything in between.
With no work in the village, dinner in Kebe's hut is meager - - a few boiled sweet potatoes and plantains, a fingerful or two of leaf stew, and a small leaf parcel of mushrooms that Kebe's sister- in-law shares with the camp. Tired from a sleepless night and a day with little food, Kebe's family spends a quiet night.
Giving the sun a chance to rise above the trees and try the dew off the trail, Kebe and the rest of the men and boys huddle around a fire in the cool of the morning, drying and hardening their bows and arrows over the flames. Kombuta is both nervous and excited; this is the first time that he has been allowed to accompany the men on a hunt. He knows that all he will do is beat the game toward the archers, but is excited nonetheless. Using his lips to point to the trail leading out of camp, AfaNjede, the leader of today's hunt, indicates that it is time to leave. Following the rest of the men and boys out of camp, Kebe stops and picks up a glowing ember to light the hunting fire and (maybe more importantly) his tobacco. Making fire in a rainforest is difficult even if you know how; the Efe don't, and must carry fire with them or look for a lightning-felled tree smoldering in the forest.
For the first twenty minutes, the men follow a path through old fields, fighting through the shrubs, vines and trees that take over abandoned plots. Once across the Kibati stream, the trees are larger and farther apart and there are far fewer kere (Musanga cecropioides). Another forty minutes at a near jog and the forest changes again. The ground is sparsely covered by njanja (Leptaspis cochleata). Shrubs and the saplings of canopy trees struggle for enough sunlight to grow. Buttresses on some trees rise five meters, and the limbless trunks soar another 25 meters before branching. The biggest trees (40-60 meters in height) emerge above the canopy and the sunlight strikes them first. The perennial sound of cicadas is occasionally punctuated by the sound of a great blue touraco as it races chicken-like along the canopy's immense branches. Coming over a rise, the men startle a solitary guineafowl that flies off in a frantic beating of wings. Yet, as always, the forest seems surprisingly devoid of game.
The men rarely look where they are treading; they scan the forest for signs of animals instead. After two hours spent following trails, crossing streams and wading through swampy patches of foul-smelling mud, the men stop and gather dry kindling for a fire. Kebe revives the ember with a few swift puffs and places it in the midst of the rotten but dry wood. Soon the clearing is filled with smoke and with the wheezing of old Tufiesa, a heavy smoker, who is trying in vain to blow life into the fire. Young Kombuta takes over and the wood bursts into flames. As soon as the smoke has cleared, the men dump a pile of green leaves onto the flames and the clearing is once again filled with smoke. This time, the smoke is magical and the men hasten to pass their bows, arrows and hunting dogs over the fire before the leaves dry out and ignite. Hunting is even more unpredictable than gathering and the Efe take all practical and supernatural precautions necessary to ensure success.
Kebe dries a piece of tobacco in the ash at the edge of the fire, crumbles it in his palm, and tamps it into the small clay pipe he has fitted to the end of the hollowed-out midrib of a banana leaf. Using an arrow, he spears a red-hot ember and holds it over the tobacco. With the pipe stem in his mouth and the pipe at his feet, Kebe draws a meter-long column of smoke into his lungs, triggering a violent coughing fit that leaves tears rolling down his face and a contented, nicotine-intoxicated gleam in his eyes. Once the tobacco has been passed around and the communal cough is over, the bowmen leave to set up position in a semicircle about one kilometer away, leaving Kombuta (who is waiting with old Tufiesa, the other beater) in charge of the critical pipe stem. The next twenty minutes pass slowly for Kombuta as he is anxious to participate in his first real mota, or group bow-hunt. At last, Tufiesa gets up, calls "Aaas aaas" to the dogs, and moves off in search of animals. Kombuta and Tufiesa spend the next hour yelling, beating the brush, and urging the dogs to drive any game toward the waiting arc of bowmen. When everyone meets at the next hunting fire, Kombuta learns that a blue duiker had been flushed, and though AfaNjede's arrow flew wide, the dogs had run the animal down.
The rest of the hunts that day are not as successful as the first mota. A few animals are flushed and sighted by the hunters, and Kebe's bloody arrow proves that he has hit something, but not a single animal is captured. This is not uncommon; bow hunts are successful only about one third of the time. As the day wears on, and with only one duiker to share with the camp, the hunters begin to look for other food items as they hunt. Kombuta sees three giant snails clinging to the moss on a tree and manages to shoot them down with blunt arrows improvised from the stems of tilipi (the large-leaved marantacea used for tiling their huts). Bokande finds some mushrooms and wraps them in a couple of leaf parcels, and AfaNjede comes across a fruiting ndau (bush mango) tree. Everyone gathers to split open the fibrous, latexy fruits and pry out the wafer-thin but delicious nuts inside.
Still nearly three hours from camp, the men decide to head back in order to be home before dark. On the way, the search for anything edible continues. Mushrooms are the catch of the day, and soon the men are carrying small leaf packages of bright yellow false-chanterelles and huge gray-capped, white-gilled fungi with slimy stems. Pushing through some dense brush to cross from one Efe highway to another, Kebe smells the remains of a decaying tiko, or bush pig. Tiko are one of the few fatty forest animals and are delicious. This pig, however, is certainly not prime. The tiko's reddish fur is covered with maggots, and when Kebe tugs on a hind leg, a wave of them flow onto the ground like wriggling grains of rice. A blast of putrescence assaults the air. Kombuta gags, but none of the other men are unduly affected. Bokande quickly builds a fire and the few remaining meaty pieces are roasted in the flames to remove at least the maggots on the surface. Rancid fat drips into the fire producing puffs of noxious smoke. AfoNgoto spreads around some tilipi leaves and the men wrap the now charred, but still smelly, pieces of pig into parcels to take back to camp for dinner. The rest of the return trip is quiet, each thinking his own thoughts, and no one at camp says much when the hunters return with little to show for a hard day's work.
(1) Oslisy, R. (1995). "The Middle Ogooué Valley, Gabon: Cultural changes and palaeclimactic implications of the last four millenia" in Azania 39-40, pp324-331
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.