Life Amidst Chaos: In a Forest Filled With Its Own Dangers, DRC Violence Continues to Trample the Efe and Lese

Efe foragers and Lese farmers of the Ituri Forest in northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo have faced a constant struggle against adversity. How they have dealt with food shortages, a powerful brew of debilitating and deadly diseases, historical depredations by Arab slave traders and Belgian colonial agents, the post-independence collapse of political authority and rule-of-law, and most recently a spate of civil wars, speaks both to their resilience and their vulnerability.

Efe foragers have lived in the Ituri forest for 20,000 years, but Lese farmers are much more recent residents. The Lese most likely were forced from the adjacent savannas by more powerful ethnic groups, such as the Zande and Mungbetu, within the last 400 years. Since then the Efe and Lese have lived together in an exchange relationship, together coping with insecurity.

Even before outsiders made Efe lives more difficult, they were already vulnerable. Life for hunters and gatherers in a tropical forest is not easy. Though home to a rich diversity of plants and animals, only a small proportion of these are edible by humans. What is edible is often scarce and widely dispersed, and other forest animals are typically better equipped or situated to capture that food. Worse, the abundance of important foods such as fruits and honey can change dramatically from year to year. For the Lese things have been only marginally better. If the dry season is in fact rainy—something that happens once every three to five years—felled trees cannot be burned and fields have to be cleared by hand for planting. In these years, fields are smaller and the soil lacks the nutrient-rich ash so important for crop production in these highly weathered soils. As a result, crop production can be insufficient and families may go hungry for several months until the first harvest from the subsequent year’s field. The Efe have traditionally traded forest products and field labor for agricultural foods from the Lese, but during the hunger seasons Lese farmers often renege on their exchange obligations in order to save what food is available for their own families. Poor production in Lese fields can result in severe food shortages for the Efe.

The Ituri is not only a poor source of food; it is a humid breeding ground for diseases that have been evolving alongside humans ever since we thought of walking upright. Almost everyone in the Ituri has intestinal worms and repeated bouts of malaria, filariasis, and tropical ulcers. Many have tuberculosis and leprosy; others have schistosomiasis and sickle-cell anemia. This pernicious and persistent disease burden saps the strength of all Efe and Lese and makes many of their lives painful and short—20 percent of all children do not live to age five, and an appalling number of mothers die giving birth. High morbidity can create a vicious cycle of reduced work capacity, inadequate food, weakened immune systems, and increased susceptibility to disease.

During the latter half of the 19th century, Arab traders made increasing forays into the savannas north and south of the eastern sections of the Congo Basin forest. With the aid of the Mangbetu savanna—forest farmers from north of the Ituri, slaving and ivory raids expanded into the forest. Although the Arab influence in the region was short-lived, spanning only from the 1850s to the 1890s when slave traders were crushed by the army of the Congo Free State, it had a profound impact on the demography, economy, and language of the Ituri. The Arabs brought with them the Swahili language, from which developed the KiNgwana dialect, which was used to communicate with the linguistically varied tribes of the area. The advent of a trade language, coupled with access to trading routes, substantially opened up the region to the long-distance exchange of commodities and ideas. New hut designs and village arrangements were introduced, as were firearms and several new crops. During this period the Efe served as watchmen for the Lese, forewarning them of the approach of strangers.

After Henry Morton Stanley traversed the region between 1875 and 1877, changes in the traditional subsistence practices of the indigenous population began to accelerate. With the creation of the Congo Free State in 1884, the roadless terrain of the Ituri was extensively exploited for wild rubber and ivory. This development and the subsequent establishment of the Belgian Congo in 1908 signaled the beginning of an ever-increasing European influence on Lese subsistence practices. The dispersed settlement patterns of Ituri forest horticulturalists were considered “a hindrance to the development of permanent villages and towns, central political bodies, advanced societies, and an agriculturally based market economy.”

From 1908 to 1933, the Belgian government under the Colonial Charter attempted to provide “Native autonomy” by recognizing traditional chiefs as legitimate agents of local government in the colony. In 1933, the Belgians created regional chiefdoms as part of a new hierarchical political structure designed to coordinate the extraction of wild rubber, development of a road infrastructure, and the planting of new crops for external markets. These new chiefdoms reflected a political structure foreign to the Efe and Lese and de-emphasized the importance and power of the traditional chiefdoms. It was enforced by police recruited from farmers rather than foragers, establishing the political dominance of the Lese over the Efe.

The Belgian colonial government relocated the Lese to permanent villages on the roads away from their traditional tree crops, forcing them to plant crops such as cotton, rice, and peanuts. The introduction of these market crops resulted in increased labor costs, seasonal labor shortages, and the shortening of fallow periods. According to the Lese, in order to meet both subsistence and market needs, they needed to plant more crops, and therefore hired Efe to provide the extra labor needed to clear the fields from November through January. The value of the Efe labor likely raised them to a status that they had never had before and have not enjoyed since.

From about 1940 until 1960 the Ituri went through a period of relative prosperity under this system. Roads were well maintained—often with pressed labor—the agricultural economy was booming and both Lese and Efe had access to industrially manufactured goods for the first time. This prosperity started to crumble, however, after June 30, 1960, when the Congo became independent from Belgium. Because the Belgians had done little to prepare the country, within a month of independence chaos broke out, the army mutinied, the provinces of Katanga and Kasai seceded, and Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba’s chief-of-staff, Joseph-Desire Mobutu, staged a military coup on September 14, 1960. Mobutu Sese Seko defeated the secessionists by January 1963, but a year later a much more serious rebellion started in the province of Kivu, and spread quickly westward. By September, Simba rebels from Kivu controlled the Ituri Forest, along with half the country. Discipline was difficult to maintain over such a large area, and acts of violence and terror increased. Thousands of Congolese were massacred. Moise Tshombe, who had led the secession of Katanga province and as a result had been exiled in 1963, was recalled from exile and with international assistance began attacking the rebels. This only increased the violence, and both sides continued to commit atrocities. By the end of 1965 the Simba rebellion was supposedly over and Mobutu had ousted Tshombe. But rebels continued to fight until 1967, when Congolese troops pushed them across the border into Rwanda.

From 1971 to 1996, the nation and the Ituri Forest were at peace, but experienced a massive economic decline. To help squelch future rebellions President Mobutu allowed the collapse of the road system. Over time this caused the almost complete failure of the Ituri’s once robust export economy. The forest quickly reclaimed the abandoned coffee and oil palm plantations that had provided local people with jobs, and the lives of the region’s Lese farmers and Efe foragers returned to an almost pre-colonial state that was dependent exclusively on what they could produce locally.

By the mid-1990s, traders pushing bicycles laden with lightweight goods seldom ventured along the overgrown, muddy path to the Ituri village of Malembi, and the once-vibrant Friday market at Dingbo withered. Homemade goods replaced those once purchased at market stalls. Easily broken bisquet-fired clay pots replaced the more durable aluminum pans that people preferred but could no longer buy. Palm-oil and wood-ash soap became a poor gritty substitute for the “real thing.” But soap was needed less as clothing tattered and could not be replaced. Making salt by trickling water through burned banana skins seemed barely worth the effort. As the roads and agricultural economy fell into decline the Efe and Lese moved back to their “traditional” relationship.

The Efe and Lese had become poorer and more isolated since the 1970s. They became increasingly dependent on charity to provide schooling and health care. Their lives got even more precarious in 1996 when the peace was broken and a civil war started. The first trampling of Malembi, where about 100 Efe and Lese lived, occurred in November as a ragtag anti-Mobutu army supported by Rwandan troops raced west to depose the president. As they passed through, the soldiers stole food from the fields and medical supplies from the clinic, press-ganged Efe porters to carry their plunder, and dumped school books and handmade chalk boards into the river as they crossed the Dingbo bridge.

Three additional waves of troops swept through Malembi during this civil war, feeding off the land as they went. The war ended on May 17, 1997, when the veteran Lumumbist rebel Laurent Kabila took the capital Kinshasa and named himself president. Absence of a rural road system made most of the renamed Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) ungovernable and the new president had little sway over events outside of the capital. Well-armed militias continued to operate across the country, particularly in the east. With no means to resist, other than to hide in the forest away from the road, life for Efe and Lese families was fraught with uncertainty and plagued by human predators. Farmers began to clear fields several kilometers from the road where they were less likely to be plundered, but hunger became a regular rather than seasonal problem.

On August 2, 1998, a second civil war began when Kabila tried to expel the Rwandan military forces that had helped him overthrow the previous regime. The governments of Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda saw Kabila’s actions as a threat to their national securities as they all relied on the Rwandan military presence in DRC for protection against hostile armed groups operating in the eastern part of the country. Not surprisingly, they sponsored various other rebel groups in an attempt to topple Kabila by force. Zimbabwe, Angola, Chad, and Namibia joined forces with the loyalist army, with the expectation that their support would be rewarded with profitable access to diamonds, coltan, gold, and timber. Within five months the Kabila government had lost control over one-third of the country to the opposition Congolese Rally for Democracy.

A peace treaty brokered by Zambia in August 1999 did nothing to reduce the violence and fighting throughout the country. On January 16, 2001, Kabila was assassinated by a bodyguard and his 31-year-old son Joseph Kabila inherited the presidency. Rwanda and Uganda agreed in July 2002 to withdraw their forces in return for a promise by Kabila’s government to disarm the Hutu militias menacing their borders. By mid-September Zimbabwe began to withdraw its troops from Mbuji-Mayi, the diamond capital that it had controlled for the four years of the war.

But with the total disintegration of rule of law and remnants of weapons and soldiers still in the Ituri, the violence there escalated even more. In August 2002 over 1,000 Ituri residents sought refuge in the Catholic mission in Mambasa. By early September troops of the Congolese Rally for Democracy-National (RCD-N) were moving through Efe and Lese territory toward Mambasa to oust another rebel group, the Congolese Rally for Democracy-Liberation Movement (RCD-ML). The RCD-N were notorious for their brutal conduct, and used rape, murder, and looting to gain territory. The Efe often bore the brunt of this military campaign, called effacer le tableau, because the militias barely considered them human. The Lese were at less risk because they were at least considered citizens. After Efe men were forced to lead militias through the forest and to hunt wildlife to provide the troops with food, they and their families were often attacked by other rebel groups who accused them of providing help to the enemy.

In Gbadolite on December 31, 2002, the militia groups agreed to immediately stop all hostilities, yet violence still occurs in the Ituri. As recently as November 2004, Rwanda threatened to send its troops back into eastern DRC to hunt down Hutu rebels that use the area as a refuge and staging ground. And in December, rival factions of the “unified” national army clashed in the Kivu region, further destabilizing an already unstable situation.

Though Kabila recently visited Kisangani—his first official visit outside of Kinshasa since the civil war ended—the northeastern region of the country is by no means under his control. The access roads from Mambasa and Mungbere to Malembi are now mere footpaths, making travel long and arduous, even on the best of days in the dry season. Worse, the Ituri remains lawless. During both civil wars families abandoned their villages to aggregate in larger towns with Catholic missions where they hoped they might find greater security. The abandoned villages along the Mambasa-Nduye-Nepoko road now provide hideouts for armed teenagers in unregulated militias.

The Efe and Lese are particularly vulnerable as they have insecure and easily purloined food resources, do not have the human and social capital needed to integrate effectively into broader society, and are completely unable to defend themselves militarily. They have returned to the interdependent relationship that allowed them to survive for centuries in their naturally dangerous homeland. But after years of outside interference, without outside assistance and provision of security, the future for the Efe and Lese is bleak.


David S. Wilkie is the coordinator of Cultural Survival’s Ituri Forest Peoples Fund. He works for the Wildlife Conservation Society and has over 15 years of research experience in the socio-economic aspects of household-level natural resource use in central and west Africa, and in Central and South America.

References and further reading

Bailey, R. C., Jenike, M. R., Ellison, P. T., Bentley, G. R., Harrigan, A. M. & Peacock, N. R. (1993). Seasonality of food production, nutritional status, ovarian function and fertility in Central Africa. In Tropical forests, People and Food: Biocultural Interactions and Applications to Development. Hladik, C.M., Hladik, A., Linares, O.F., Pagezy, H., Semple, A. & Hadley, M., Eds., Paris: UNESCO. Pp 387-402.

De Schlippe, P. (1956). Shifting Cultivation in Africa: The Zande System of Agriculture. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Jenike, M. R. (1988). Seasonal Hunger Among Tropical Africans: The Lese Case. Unpublished Master’s Thesis. Los Angeles: UCLA.

Johnston, B. F. (1958). The Staple Food Economies of Western Tropical Africa. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Johnston, H. H. (1913). A History of the Colonization of Africa by Alien Races. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Martorell, R. & Arroyave, G. (1988). Malnutrition, work output and energy needs. In Capacity for Work in the Tropics. K. J. Collins, K.J., & Roberts, D.F., Eds. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Miracle, M. (1967). Agriculture in the Congo Basin. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Odom, T. P. (1992). Shaba II: The French and Belgian Intervention in Zaire in 1978. Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: Combat Studies Institute, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.

Schweinfurth, G. (1873). The Heart of Africa, Vol. II: Three Years of Travel and Adventures in the Unexplored Regions of Central Africa From 1868 to 1871. London, U.K.: Sampson Low, Marston, Low and Searle, London.

Wilkie, D. S., Morelli, G. A., Rotberg, F. & Shaw, E. (1999). Wetter Isn’t Better: Global Warming and Food Security in the Congo Basin. Global Environmental Change 9, pp 323-328.

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