The Mbuti of Zaire

Political change and the opening of the Ituri Forest

For perhaps 2,000 years the Ituri Forest of northern Zaire has been the home for both Mbuti (Pygmy) hunter-gatherers and Bantu and Sudanic shifting cultivators. Cultivators are settled in isolated villages using only small areas of the forest. The population density in the forest including both Mbuti and cultivators, is low, averaging less than 3 persons per km². More than 70% of the forest has probably never been cut; large areas remain uninhabited. This alone, however, is not enough to assure Mbuti security. All Mbuti live as forest specialists in association with agricultural groups. Such interaction is key to their welfare and their future.

Economic aspects of the reciprocity between Mbuti and villagers have been described in some detail. Starch foods from villagers' gardens make up a significant part of Mbuti diet "year-round. Mbuti provide villagers, on an irregular basis, with "prestige foods" such as meat and honey from the forest. They help clear and harvest the gardens and participate in seasonal fishing expeditions. Mbuti also provide diverse forest products such as thatching and construction materials, firewood, medicinal plants and edible mushrooms.

Exchange relations between Mbuti and villagers are not rigidly defined; there are no fixed terms of trade. Cash is rarely involved and exchanges may even take the form of gift giving. Mbuti, as nomads, are highly unpredictable in what they will provide and when they will provide it. Villagers, on the other hand, have a fairly predictable yearly cycle of activities centered on the preparation, planting and harvesting of their gardens.

Although never totally out of touch with villagers, Mbuti spend a great deal of time in the forest. They are considered by all, including themselves, as the forest people, being the most familiar with the forest and the most efficient at extracting its resources.

Cultural Reciprocity

Important elements in Mbuti-villager reciprocity extend beyond its economic base and are critical in determining Mbuti response to current changes in the Ituri Forest. For lack of a better term these elements might be categorized as "cultural reciprocity." Under various circumstances Mbuti use the more hierarchical and formalized social structure of villager societies, whereas on other occasions the villagers use Mbuti to act as spiritual intermediaries with the forest.

Villagers in the southern and central Ituri play a prominent role in Mbuti marriages and deaths and in mediating outbreaks of violence among the Mbuti. Although the Mbuti themselves will decide who will marry whom, and although they may not abide by the recommended terms in cases of arbitration, they nevertheless turn to villagers when wealth or formality is needed. Villagers often organize the resources needed for a wedding feast and delegate the responsibilities at a funeral. It does not matter if a death happens in a remote forest camp, the body will be brought back to the village for burial. Likewise, any crime occurring in the forest, particularly involving blood-letting, is brought by Mbuti to a village tribunal.

Just as Mbuti use the more elaborate political structure of villagers to regulate certain aspects of their own social system, so villagers require the social and spiritual unity of Mbuti to assure their own relationship with the land. In the harvest festivals of Kaheku and Pakombe cultivators of the southern Ituri, Mbuti even take precedence over village ritual authorities in their relationship with the land. At harvest, the first regime of bananas is for the ancestors and is left to rot on the plant. The second goes to the Mbuti, and only the third is for the mwami (king).

Mbuti ease and independence in the forest is recognized as a manifestation of their spiritual unity with it, a unity the villagers cannot achieve in their more hierarchical, agriculturally-oriented lives. Mbuti participate at major ceremonies associated with the fecundity of gardens and clan, including coronation ceremonies of the mwami, the opening of new barazza (men's communal house) and the calling of the village eshumba (male ancestor cult).

The exchange relationship between Mbuti and villagers has been flexible enough to survive a number of migrations and political changes in the past. Arab influence entered the forest more than a century ago. Although it is difficult to document the influence of slave-trading and elephant hunting of this period on the forest peoples, the Ungwana communities remain today as evidence of the invasion.

The Baungwana are Swahili-speaking agricultural peoples who have not only established themselves in the forest, but have had Mbuti associated with their villages for at least three or four generations. These relatively recent relationships resemble the traditional Mbuti-cultivator interactions in many ways. The Baungwana are Moslem, and they come from a different cultural background, but in the Ituri they are still small-scale, subsistence cultivators. Not only do they need forest products, but also, even more so than the traditional forest villagers, they see the forest as powerful and alien. The Mbuti therefore are valued for their forest skills.

The Rebellion

The Simba Rebellion, 1964-1970, a more recent political upheaval in the Ituri, illustrates not only the flexibility of the Mbuti's interactions with outside groups, but also their vulnerability and limited influence over the political future of the region. The rebels entered the Ituri from the west along the roads built during the Belgian colonial period. At first they attempted to establish an alternative authority in the region. They met little resistance from within the forest, but they were poorly organized and government forces soon followed them. In the ensuing disorder, many of the Ituri's peoples were slaughtered.

The village people were most directly affected. They represented the established authority, and as agriculturalists had resources needed by hungry rebels and soldiers alike.

During the rebellion, the Mbuti sometimes fled with their villagers, helping them to survive in the forest or find their way across it. Other Mbuti associated themselves either with the rebels or with government soldiers. Villagers and Mbuti alike shifted their allegiances simply as a function of whoever commanded local authority. There appears to have been no ethnic or political continuity in this response. The Mbuti by the fact that they provided access to the forest and its resources, in particular meat and wild foods, were caught in a confusing political power play in which they had neither any stake nor any control. No doubt Mbuti continued to depend on cultivated foods and therefore allied themselves with the agricultural group they perceived to be dominant. Often, however, their skills in the forest were exploited to different ends. Groups of Mbuti were engaged by government soldiers to guide commandos to rebel strongholds which were themselves supported by other Mbuti groups. In the end, in late 1970, when the last Simba commander, Kasongo, was captured, he was executed with his Mbuti guide.

The rebellion was a major turning point in the history of the Ituri. Traditional political authority was disrupted. Populations were reduced or relocated, and the forest opened to new people. As old allegiances disintegrated, Mbuti forged ties with immigrants, meat traders and gold prospectors who moved into the forest after the rebellion.

Opening of the Forest

In principle, Zaire's central government has the authority to allocate and manage the land and its resources. In reality, remote regions such as the Ituri are posts for those in political disgrace. As a result, corrupt and ineffective administration prevails.

After the rebellion in the early 1970s, the government attempted to settle Mbuti as farmers in permanent villages along the roads. This project was abandoned, however; and the Mbuti have since" dispersed. Today, Mbuti have little direct contact with government authorities. There are sporadic attempts to tax them, and soldiers or police are occasionally sent into hunting camps to confiscate tributes of meat.

More important than the actual intrusions in Mbuti life, however, is the fact that the presence of government officials has eroded local village authority and thus one aspect of the villager-Mbuti reciprocity. Disputes which previously would have been settled locally may now result in Mbuti being brought to government tribunals and even incarcerated. Indeed, government tribunals are preferred by newly settled immigrants because they are more likely to be partial to their interests and not those of traditional forest peoples.

In particular, the authority of traditional forest cultivators has been undermined by the immigration of market-oriented farmers from the densely populated regions bordering the forest to the north, south and east. In addition to farms, these people set up small shops and restaurants at truck stops along the road which become the foci for further development. Immigrants frequently buy land from local people with the result that traditional land tenure weakens and the associated clan-based power structures lose prestige. Immigrants, unlike shifting cultivators, consider their settlements permanent. Their more intensive farming techniques lead eventually to permanent deforestation.

Initially, Mbuti are attracted to wealthy immigrants and provide them with highly valued forest meat and construction materials. As the towns grow, however, Mbuti lose their importance to the new settlers. Extended families may provide adequate garden labor, and settlers soon look beyond the forest for protein sources, including salt fish from the Rift lakes and beef from the savannas. More oriented to the road than to the forest, they have little need for Mbuti forest skills.

Immigrants do not usually develop reciprocal relations with the Mbuti, preferring cash payments instead. Mbuti cannot depend on such trading partners every time they require garden food. Frequently they are forced to resort to menial, low status jobs such as carrying water for restaurants, or washing clothes in order to get the cash they need to buy food. If Mbuti neglect their traditional trading partners in favor of more wealthy immigrants, they may even lose the option of returning to them. Thus they can become further locked into the new, road-oriented communities.

Mbuti continue to be recognized as forest specialists, but their skills are often used to their disadvantage. It is not unusual, for example, to find Mbuti hired by local timber concessions to identify and cut trees, or for Mbuti to deplete local wildlife populations in the interest of commercial traders. It is Mbuti who guide and scout for illicit prospectors and elephant hunters, and it is the same Mbuti who may guide government soldiers and police on raids of such operations.

The immigrant dominated, roadside communities do offer some advantages not available in the more traditional settings including schools and missionary-run health clinics. Few Mbuti profit by these in a consistent way, however. Prejudice against Mbuti makes it difficult for them to integrate themselves into the new town life. Progress in Mbuti education and health care has been painfully slow, far outweighed by the increase in alcoholism and disease associated with town life.


In the end, Mbuti, like the forest itself, are vulnerable. They have no legal rights to the forest, yet they do not live completely isolated in the forest; perhaps they never have. Their relationships with agricultural groups are important to them economically and socially. As traditional trading partners are displaced by more wealthy and powerful immigrant groups, Mbuti switch allegiances. The pioneer settlers, however, do not consider Mbuti a significant element in their lives. They have no enduring respect for their forest skills, just as they have little long-term interest in the forest itself.

The Mbuti's well-being is best assured where the interests of their associated groups recognize the importance of the forest itself. Mbuti exchange relationships with traditional forest shifting cultivators reflected these values. Such relationships will disintegrate with the influx of cash croppers, commercial agriculturalists, plantation owners and eventually large-scale logging enterprises, all interested in short-term exploitation or conversion of the forest.

The forest is threatened and value and respect for it is being eroded. Mbuti, as forest specialists, therefore, have a less significant position in society. As the forest is increasingly opened to new settlements and exploitation, Mbuti will become an impoverished minority with neither recognition nor rights to the resources they consider their own.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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