Efe people




The Efé are a group of part-time hunter-gatherer people living in the Ituri Rainforest of the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the depths of the forest they do not wear much clothing, using only leaf huts as shelter for their bodies in the intense heat. The Efé are Pygmies, and one of the shortest peoples in the world. The men grow to an average height of 142 cm (4 ft. 8 in.), and women tend to be about 5 cm (2 in.) shorter.

The Pygmies who live there today call themselves Mbuti. The Mbuti includes such groups as the Efe, the Aka, and the Bayaka Pygmies.

Efe people map

Pygmies are lighter skinned than their neighbors. They are a gentle, peaceful people who have the ability to be camouflaged so well in the forest that they can be passed without ever being noticed.


Location and overview

The Efe are one of three groups of pygmies, collectively named BaMbuti, of the Ituri forest of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The other groups are the Sua, and the Aka. Of these, the Efé occupy the most land, from the north to the southeast of the forest. One of the main ways in which these groups are distinguished is by the neighbouring non-pygmy tribes with whom they cooperate. The Efé, who differ from other pygmy groups in that they hunt with bows and arrows instead of nets, are associated with the Lese people. The Efé language is related to that of the Lese, and is Central Sudanic in origin. (The pygmy groups in the region generally speak the language of the tribes with whom they associate.)


Economic and cultural features

The Efé are primarily a foraging society, but they do sometimes perform wage labour for the Lese villagers. Efé men hunt and gather honey while the women gather food and also fish. Some may also farm in the middle of the forest. However, they will abandon them while the crops are growing to hunt and gather, since that is what they know best.

Recently, the Ituri forest has been logged at a tremendous rate, and Efé have been hired to assist with the logging.

Today, Pygmies no longer inhabit the forest areas alone. Many groups of farmers have infiltrated the region and built villages there. The two peoples have developed an economic, mutual dependence, and live together peacefully. Because of this, the Pygmies usually speak a dialect of the tribe with which they are associated, whether Bantu, Nigristic, or Sudanic.

Pygmy men hunt deer, pigs, hippos, and elephants. Some Pygmy groups use nets to hunt, while others use spears or bows and arrows. Usually, the only domestic animals that are kept are hunting dogs. Forest resources, such as meat and honey, are traded to farmers for corn, salt, clothes, and iron tools. While the men are hunting, the women are busy collecting wild fruits, roots, insects, lizards, and shellfish. They also do most of the fishing.

Pygmies live in nomadic bands that range in size from 20 to no more than 100 people. These bands wander across the hunting territories that are collectively owned by the whole group.

Pygmy villages are permanent, but campsites are used while the men are hunting. The villages consist of houses and cooking areas. They are usually free of weeds and trees, except for banana or coffee plants. Campsites, on the other hand, are located in the forest, so the sun does not always find them. Perhaps this accounts for their lighter skin color. A typical campsite is small and contains only about 20 to 35 people. Round huts are built and arranged in a circle. They are usually constructed with flexible poles set in the ground in a circular pattern. The poles are bent to where they come together at the top, then tied and covered with leaves. Leaves and bark are used to cover the poles.

A Pygmy generally has only one wife, but polygyny does exist, especially among the Baka. A Pygmy man obtains a wife by giving a gift, or "bride price," to the girl's family. The Mbuti, as well as other Pygmy groups, also practice "sister exchanging" as a means of obtaining wives.

Pygmies typically dress in simple loincloths that are made from the beaten bark of trees. In some tribes, the back strip on the loincloth extends nearly to the ground, giving a "tail-like" appearance. They like these long strips because they look good while they are dancing.

The music of these forest-dwellers differs considerably from the music of their neighbors. Although Pygmies do not have many instruments, they do have drums, whistles, and two-stringed bow-guitars. Their "singing" consists of yodeling, and most songs have only sounds rather than words. They do not often sing in unison, but rather one person sings or yodels at a time.


Attaining necessities

Hunting is a primary way in which Efé men contribute to the food supply of the tribe, which they were observed doing 21.1% of the time during 12-hour observation days. They hunt either alone or in groups, using either spears or bows and arrows (the arrows may be iron-tipped or poison-tipped, depending on the type of prey). Monkeys are hunted alone using poison-tipped arrows, which is done by solitary hunters who locate groups of monkeys feeding in trees and stand where they think the monkeys will move. Once they are within 21 metres (70 ft), an Efé archer fires several arrows and, if he hits one of the monkeys, he will either try to follow it up to 100 metres (330 ft) through the forest (waiting for the poison to set in), or he will return later (the same day or the next morning) in order to bring it back to camp. Poison-tipped arrows are labour-intensive to make (the poisonous roots and vines have to be gathered and then crushed up to turn them into a juice that can be used to coat the arrow tip), and are made in batches of about 75, with about 5.9 minutes spent on each arrow. Duikers (a type of antelope) are hunted either in groups or ambushed alone from trees with iron-tipped arrows. The ambush hunts are called ebaka, and they are performed by building perches in fruit trees from which the duikers eat dropped fruits and waiting there during feeding hours, which are early morning and late afternoon. If the hunter hits a duiker, he will jump out of the 2.5- to 3-metre perch and chase it, and call the dogs to join him. Sometimes, though, the animal gets away, since they can run the distance of several football fields away in the dense forest, even wounded. Group hunts, which are called mota, take place with between 4 and 30 men who use either spears for large animals (like forest buffalo and elephants) or iron-tipped arrows for duikers, other species of antelope, and water chevrotain. They also use their dogs to drive game out of their hiding and/or sleeping places and to chase down wounded animals.

Another exclusively male task is to gather honey, which takes place from June through September. Honey season, however, can last until November if it is a particularly plentiful season. Women perform most tasks unrelated to hunting and honey-gathering. These include gathering firewood and water, which women do about 5 percent of the time. Generally, they do this with at least one other person, very occasionally a man. Gathering forest foods, namely fruits, nuts, tubers, mushrooms, caterpillars, and termites takes up a lot of their time, as does labouring in the villages. Women also spend 17% of their time preparing food, and are almost solely responsible for maintaining the camp.


Family life

One interesting feature of the family life of the Efé is the degree of cooperation involved in caring for children, particularly babies. Sometimes Efé infants will even be nursed by a woman other than the mother if the mother's milk has not come in yet. Other women help more in caretaking than the baby's father, and studies indicate that Efé babies spend just 40% of their time with their mothers and are switched around between caretakers 8.3 times per hour, with about 14 people looking after the infant on average in 8 hours of observation. Also notable is the fact that children constitute only a quarter to a third of the population, and nearly half of women have either no or one child during their lifetime.

The Efé ideal is to marry by sister exchange, but this happens for only 40 percent of men. There is no bridewealth and very little bride service. The Efé are not allowed to marry anyone related to their grandfathers, and they trace their heritage patrilineally. Generally, residence is patrilocal and the composition of camps roughly follows that of a patriclan.


Relationship to the Lese

The Efé can be said to live in cooperation with the Lese, who live in villages of between fifteen and a hundred people and grow their food. The Efé make their camps on the outskirts of the forest near a Lese village for about seven months of the year (save for the best hunting season, January through March, and honey season), and are never more than eight hours away on foot from a village. The Efé generally trade the meat and honey they acquire in the forest for material goods or the cassava, bananas, peanuts, and rice grown by the Lese, and the meat provided by the Efé accounts for over half of the meat eaten by the Lese. Important goods that the Lese villagers provide for the Efé are tobacco and marijuana, which about half of men and a third of women smoke. In addition to trading meat and honey with the villagers, Efé men and women also provide their labour in exchange for foods, tobacco, marijuana, iron, cloth or other material goods. Women do this about 9.6% of their time, usually helping to plant, harvest, and prepare the food from Lese gardens in return for food from the garden. Efé men, on the other hand, mostly perform work related to clearing fields in December, and spend about 3.5% of their time doing it. They are usually paid with cooked food, some of which they eat right away and some of which they bring back to camp with them; but they are also occasionally paid with marijuana or tobacco. Men spend more time in the villages doing things other than working, like drinking palm wine with the villagers and generally socializing. Lese and Efé men even establish partnerships, which can be inherited and constitute a special bond between a Lese and an Efé man. However, these partnerships can be dissolved when an Efé man returns borrowed items to his Lese partner.

One aspect of the Lese–Efé relationship that is less than cooperative is the way in which they view each other. Efé often steal from Lese gardens, particularly around April and May when there is little food and the Lese are ungenerous about payment for Efé labor.

The Lese, on the other hand, view the Efé with something of a condescending attitude and see themselves as entirely separate entities. Efé are viewed by Lese men and women alike as being female. The Lese also see strict dichotomies between themselves and the Efé – they characterize the Efé as uneducated savages and see themselves as more civilized since they go to school and live in villages. Another interesting image they create is that of red versus white – the Efé and the meat and honey they provide are described as red, and the goods the Lese provide (dried corn, cassava, etc.) are closer to white in colour. However, Lese men describe Efé men as "devoted friends and protectors" and also find Efé women "stronger, more sexually attractive, and more fertile than Lese women". The Lese also believe that the Efé can hunt witches and protect the village from them.



Pygmies believe that a god named Tore created the world and is the supreme being. He is identified with the forest, since everything is dependent on it. They only call upon Tore during times of crisis. He is usually summoned by a trumpet blast, which is supposed to imitate his voice. Some groups believe that after creating the first humans, Tore was no longer interested in the affairs of the world, and so he withdrew to the sky.

Pygmies also believe that "forest spirits" influence the souls of the dead. The Efe, in particular, believe that after Pygmies die, their borupi, which means "rhythm" or "life," is carried away from the body by a fly. They believe the fly takes them to Tore.

It is rather difficult to accurately describe the Efé religion, as there is not a great deal of information that deals specifically with the Efé. The main source used was a collection of Bambuti legends, i.e. legends that the author felt belonged to some extent to all of the pygmy groups of the Ituri forest, but the tribe from whom the legends were gathered were one of the net-hunting groups, not the Efé. Because of the lack of information, it seems imprudent to relay any of the specific legends. The legends, though, tend to fall into three categories: “creation myths; legends of origin and tradition, legends dealing with social relations, and legends dealing with relations with the supernatural".

Another interesting aspect of Efé religion is that it is also shared with the Lese. Many of pygmy legends deal with their larger partners, and the associated tribes have myths dealing with the pygmies. Even some religious ceremonies are held in common, such as the ima celebration in which girls who have reached menarche and been secluded in a hut together are carried back out into the village. Bailey describes the period of seclusion as being three months, but Grinker states that it is more like six months to a year and that the girls’ feet are not allowed to touch the ground without being wrapped in palm leaves and that whenever they have to use the bathroom, they must be carried to an outhouse wrapped in palm leaves so that the sun does not touch them. This period is also supposed to make the girls fat, and they are supposed to consume a lot of palm oil and meat while they are being sequestered.



The Efé speak Lese without any dialectical distinction from the Lese themselves. They also have a relationship with other farming peoples in the region: the Mamvu and Mvuba (close relatives of Lese) and the Bantu Bira, Nyali, and Nande.