The Mbuti of Northeast Zaire


Women and subsistence exchange

The Mbuti (Pygmies) die semi-nomadic people who live in the Ituri Forest of northeast Zaire. While their traditional way of life is often described as centering on hunting and gathering of wild food resources, the Mbuti rely for a large part of their subsistence on cultivated foods acquired in exchange from village-living horticulturalists. Most cultivated foods are acquired by Mbuti women, who in return provide forest products for the villagers or work in the villagers' gardens. This type of reciprocal relationship dates back hundreds and possibly thousands of years, and occurs among all Pygmies in Africa except for those who have recently settled in villages and begun to grow their own food.

One group of Mbuti, the Efe, inhabit what is at present probably the least developed area in the Ituri. So far there has been relatively little commercial exploitation of the forest. There are few coffee plantations, no large towns, and only a minimal market economy. For these reasons, the area has attracted few immigrants and population density remains low. There is virtually no competition for land, and there have been few alterations in the customary exchange relationships between the Efe and their horticultural neighbors, the Balese.

Unlike women of other Mbuti groups, Efe women do not take part in hunting. Other Mbuti hunt with nets, which requires large groups of people, including women and children, to drive animals into the nets. The Efe hunt alone or in small groups using bows and arrows or spears, and hunting is almost exclusively an adult male activity. Efe women occasionally gather edible plants, insects and fish from the forest, but the majority of their work time is spent in the village negotiating exchanges with Balese.

Efe and Balese exchange is based on a system of inherited associations between a given Efe band and a particular village. Most observers as well as the Efe and Balese themselves tend to refer to the exchange system in terms of ties between men. One reason for this is the fact that meat and honey, which are only collected by men, are highly valued by the Balese. Both groups largely define traditional exchange in terms of these prestige items. Equally important is the fact that both Efe and Balese women after marriage take up resident with their husbands' families, who may live quite long distances from the bride's home. Thus, it is only men who are likely to have lifelong contact with traditional exchange partners.

However, examining the system in operation reveals that it is Efe women who are most often involved in initiating, negotiating and terminating trade relationships with Balese, and it is primarily Balese women with whom exchanges are executed. A large proportion of exchanges a woman makes are with the wife of her husband's traditional trading partner. Exchanges of meat and honey in particular are usually made with this person. These "tributes" of prestige foods are probably crucial in maintaining the stability of long-term ties. However, Efe women establish many other trading relationships on their own initiative. Although the prospect of acquiring meat or honey in the future is probably an important factor in the willingness of Balese to enter new associations with Efe, it is most often the labor of Efe women rather than forest products which villagers receive in exchange for food and material goods. Tasks which Efe women perform for villagers include agricultural work, maintenance tasks such as collecting wood and water, and collection of forest products used in building and maintaining village houses. Cultivated foods procured by Efe women in exchange for labor form the mainstay of the Efe diet, and Efe women retain control over the distribution of all foods they procure. Their role as providers for their families is a source of pride for Efe women.

Men also provide labor for villagers, particularly when patches of forest are being cleared for gardens. A man may also on occasion take meat directly to his village patron, rather than allowing his wife to make the exchange. Men, however, request payment in non-food items such as implements, clothing, tobacco and marijuana much more often than women.

Trading relationships established by women can become very important during times of food shortage, when villagers may be unwilling or unable to continue providing food for their traditional Efe trading partners. An Efe household or even the entire band may then initiate a formal relationship with another village or villager, frequently ones with whom the women in the group have already established informal ties. An Efe group may also temporarily join another band that is associated with a more wealthy village. This joining of Efe bands is often the result of kin ties of women in the group.

Efe women have considerable freedom in their choice of subsistence strategies. They decide how much time to spend gathering or working in the village. They may work alone, or cooperate with other women in procuring food. They also exert considerable influence over group decisions, particularly those regarding the location of camps. Since women routinely carry up to three-quarters of their body weight in food from the village, camps which are located long distances from the village represent much greater work effort than those which are close. In contrast, men's preferred hunting sites are usually very far from the village, so that there are sometimes conflicts over the ideal location of camps, It is in fact rare for an Efe camp to be located more than a day's walk from the village; most are within a four-hour walk.

Although the reciprocity which characterizes Mbuti subsistence has proven remarkably resilient in the face of development and change throughout the Ituri, such influences have some consequences which are not beneficial for either the Mbuti or the villagers and may have particularly adverse effects on the status of women in both societies. Robert Bailey has outlined some of the major forces of change in the Ituri today. Following is a brief review of these forces, with special attention to ramifications for women.


The most obvious threat to the Mbuti's traditional way of life comes from the destruction of the forest and depletion of its food resources. When this happens, the forest foods which have such great symbolic as well as nutritional importance in the traditional exchange system are no longer available for the Mbuti to exploit. This drastically reduces the bargaining power that Mbuti women have in trading with the villagers, and also restricts their options in pursuing different subsistence strategies. When forest resources are depleted, what had been a system of balanced reciprocity involving considerable leverage on the part of Mbuti women is likely to change to a situation where Mbuti women as well as men become an exploitable source of cheap labor, who no longer have access to sufficient land to continue their traditional way of life.

Commercial logging has been responsible for the destruction of vast areas of forest formerly inhabited by Pygmies in other parts of Africa. However, the Ituri region, due to its rugged terrain and the poor condition of its roads, is largely inaccessible to large-scale logging operations. However, other commercial ventures such as intensive cultivation of coffee and cash crops are responsible for the clearing of large tracts of forest. Land is cleared not only for plantations but equally important for the gardens of the migrant workers whom the plantations attract from overpopulated regions.

The poor condition of the roads in the Efe and Balese territory has until recently kept commercial ventures to a minimum. However the roads in this area are now being upgraded as part of the Trans-Africa Highway Project, which will almost certainly result in the opening of new plantations. This will be followed by an increase in population density and increased competition for land. The forest will be cleared at an accelerated rate and will not be permitted to regenerate as it now does with traditional methods of long-fallow, shifting agriculture.

The Commercial Meat Trade

Population expansion and the influx of immigrants begin to disrupt the traditional exchange system long before there is a drastic effect on the forest itself. A good example of this is the introduction of commercial meat trade in other parts of the Ituri. Since there are no cattle in the forest due to tsetse flies, there is a high demand for meat in growing population centers which cannot be met by domesticated sources. Forest animals can be trapped, but commercial meat traders find it easier and more lucrative to buy meat cheaply from Mbuti and to sell it at a large profit in town. Meat traders are usually "foreigners" from nearby towns who move into a Mbuti camp for some period of time, bringing with them agricultural food and other goods to exchange for meat. The traders agree among themselves on a fixed price for a given amount of meat, which is generally less than the Mbuti would receive by trading the meat in the village. Even so, the arrangement is initially attractive to the Mbuti. Since the traders travel with them bringing their goods along, the Mbuti are able to exploit more productive hunting areas which are long distances from the village, without concern for whether the camp is too far away for the women to make trips to the village.

One result of this system is that both Mbuti women and villagers are bypassed in the exchange network. The exchange of meat for agricultural food becomes largely a matter between the traders and the Mbuti men. While women may have a say in what proportion of the meat gets traded and for what type of payment, their role in the exchange becomes marginal. Moreover, the exchange networks which have been cultivated in the village begin to deteriorate, since the Mbuti women are no longer regularly providing villagers with either meat or the labor that they need to plant, maintain and harvest their crops. Of course, the extensive harvests of meat will initially reduce the supply of game and if continued will eventually eradicate it. There comes a point when the meat traders move on to greener pastures, but the economic, social and environmental disruption they have caused will remain.

Commercial meat trading has to date only been introduced in parts of the Ituri where the Mbuti hunt with nets. Should it be introduced among the Efe, it is quite possible that they will change their techniques for acquiring meat. Although archery and net-hunting may be equally efficient on a per-person basis, net-hunting may come to predominate in this area because it can enlist the labor of women and children and thereby increase the return of meat per unit of time invested. Time efficiency is probably the most important factor in successfully meeting the demands of a meat trader. The work that women do on a net-hunt is exhausting, and women are responsible for collecting and processing the materials used in making and repairing the nets. While nets have been introduced only in limited numbers among the Efe, it is likely that their use will spread should commercial meat traders begin operating in the area. The result for Efe women will be an increased workload along with a reduction of their economically and socially important role as traders in the village.


Clearly both the Balese and the Efe can potentially benefit as a result of the change to a market economy. Increased access to education and medical care, greater demand and value for their products, increases in the availability of material goods, and enhanced opportunities to participate directly in economic and political decision-making could improve the quality of life if equally available to all and if culturally important relationships within traditional society could continue. There are a number of factors, however, which make such preservation of traditions and equal access to benefits unlikely.

The system of exchange between Efe and Balese may be characterized as balanced reciprocity, but the two groups do not share equal social status within society. Villagers consider themselves superior to the Efe, whose status as foragers rather than cultivators puts them closer to children, if not animals, in the villagers' minds. These attitudes are shared in an even more exaggerated form by neighboring tribes who do not have a tradition of close social and economic ties with Mbuti. Unlike many of their neighbors, Balese men sometimes marry Efe women, although some Balese frown on this practice. It is indicative of the status differential that Efe men never marry villager women.

This lower social status is not terribly costly to the Efe within the traditional system, because they operate to some extent in a separate sphere, where their unique skills enable them to acquire resources desired by villagers and which villagers cannot or will not acquire on their own. In addition, along with higher status for the villager come a number of responsibilities, such as intervening on the behalf of the Efe in events such as disputes involving payment of fines or taxes to local authorities.

If forest resources become inaccessible or the traditional exchange system breaks down for some other reason, the Efe must try to make it in the villagers' world, on villagers' terms. They are not likely to compete very successfully. The Efe are universally poorer, less well-dressed, less educated, and in general less "sophisticated" than their villager neighbors. They have less contact with government officials, Europeans and other "foreigners" than most villagers, and consequently are more intimidated by authority figures.

In parts of the Ituri where disruptions in the traditional system have already taken place, the Mbuti have been forced to settle in villages and plant their own crops. However, they have not been able to successfully compete for access to enough land to support themselves. Mbuti men and women have therefore had to enter the wage labor market, where they are relegated to the least secure and lowest paying jobs. Mbuti women are generally paid even lower wages than the men, and in addition they are responsible for tending their own gardens. Thus for Mbuti women, the result of economic change is a drastic increase in workload without the benefits they received from their more independent associations with agriculturalists under the traditional system.

In some senses the prospects for Mbuti women are less grim than those for the men. Women at least have the possibility of raising their status and quality of life by becoming the wives of villager men. But should this become an established trend, Mbuti men will become little more than a bachelor caste providing a cheap source of labor for plantations and farms. Deprived of the capacity to reproduce itself biologically and socially, the rich and unique culture of the Efe and of all African Pygmies will eventually cease to exist.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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