Mbuti people


Mbuti / Bambuti

The Mbuti people, or Bambuti, are one of several indigenous pygmy groups in the Congo region of Africa. Their languages are Central Sudanic languages and Bantu languages.



The Mbuti population lives in the Ituri Forest, a tropical rainforest covering about 70,000 km2 of the north/northeast portion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Bambuti are pygmy hunter-gatherers, and are one of the oldest indigenous people of the Congo region of Africa. The Bambuti are composed of bands which are relatively small in size, ranging from 15 to 60 people. The Bambuti population totals about 30,000 to 40,000 people.

There are three distinct subgroups:

Settlement architecture and organization

The Bambuti live in villages that are categorized as bands. Each hut houses a family unit. At the start of the dry season, they leave the village to enter the forest and set up a series of camps.This way, the Bambuti are able to utilize more land area for maximum foraging. These villages are solitary and separated from other groups of people. Their houses are small, circular, and very temporary.

House construction begins with the tracing of the outline of the house into the ground. The walls of the structures are strong sticks that are placed in the ground, and at the top of the sticks, a vine is tied around them to keep them together. Large leaves and grass are used in the construction of the hut roofs.


Food and resources

The Bambuti are primarily hunter-gatherers. Their animal foodstuffs include crabs, shellfish, ants, larvae, snails, pigs, antelopes, monkeys, fish, and honey. The vegetable component of their diet includes wild yams, berries, fruits, roots, leaves, and kola nuts. While hunting, the Bambuti have been known to specifically target the giant forest hog.

The meat obtained from the giant forest hog (as is the meat from rats) is often considered kweri, a bad animal which may cause illness to those who eat it, but is often valuable as a trade good between the Bambuti and agriculturalist Bantu groups.

Mbuti people Mbuti people

There is some lore that is thought to have identified giant forest hogs as kweri due to their nocturnal habits and penchant for disruption of the few agricultural advances the Bambuti have made. This lore can be tied to Bambuti mythology, where the giant forest hog is thought to be a physical manifestation of Negoogunogumbar. Further, there are unconfirmed reports of giant forest hogs eating Bambuti infants from their cribs in the night. Other food sources yielded by the forest are non-kweri animals for meat consumption, root plants, palm trees, and bananas; and in some seasons, wild honey,Yams, legumes, beans, peanuts, hibiscus, amaranth, and gourds are consumed. The Bambuti use large nets, traps, and bows and arrows to hunt game. Women and children sometimes assist in the hunt by driving the prey into the nets. Both sexes gather and forage. Each band has its own hunting ground, although boundaries are hard to maintain. The Mbuti call the forest "mother" and "father" as the mood seizes them, because, like their parents, the forest gives them food, shelter, and clothing, which are readily made from abundant forest materials.

The Bantu villagers produce many items that the hunter gatherers trade some of their products for. They often obtain iron goods, pots, wooden goods, and basketry, in exchange for meat, animal hides, and other forest goods. Bushmeat is a particularly frequently traded item. They will also trade to obtain agricultural products from the villagers through barter.

Hunting is usually done in groups, with men, women, and children all aiding in the process. Women and children are not involved if the hunting involves the use of a bow and arrow, but if nets are used, it is common for everyone to participate. In some instances women may hunt using a net more often than men. The women and the children herd the animals to the net, while the men guard the net. Everyone engages in foraging, and women and men both take care of the children. Women are in charge of cooking, cleaning and repairing the hut, and obtaining water. The kin-based units work together to provide food and care for the young. It is easier for men to lift the women up into the trees for honey.


Kinship and descent system

The Bambuti tend to follow a patrilineal descent system, and their residences after marriage are patrilocal. However, the system is rather loose. The only type of group seen amongst the Bambuti is the nuclear family. Kinship also provides allies for each group of people.


Birth, Marriage, and Death

Birth for the Mbuti begins much as the rest of life will continue, that is, in a hut made of the forest surrounded by members of the band. A woman generally gives birth in her hut with the assistance of female kin. Sometimes a baby will be sprinkled with juice from vines, which are then tied around the baby’s wrist with a piece of wood from the forest. This helps to make the baby strong in that he or she is part of the forest. All men and women of the generation of the parents will help to raise the child, and all children his or her age will be considered brothers and sisters.

Sister exchange is the common form of marriage. Based on reciprocal exchange, men from other bands exchange sisters or other females to whom they have ties. In Bambuti society, bride wealth is not customary. There is no formal marriage ceremony: a couple are considered officially married when the groom presents his bride's parents with an antelope he alone has hunted and killed. Polygamy does occur, but at different rates depending on the group, and it is not very common. The sexual intercourse of married couples is regarded as an act entirely different from that of unmarried partners, for only in marriage may children be conceived.

Death is yet another transition for the Mbuti. Life ends in the same style hut and on the same type of sleeping mat into which the individual was born. The men dig a shallow grave in the hut and then collapse the roof on top of the body. There is a period of ritualized grieving where loved ones will mourn loudly, but this ends quickly so as not to offend the forest. The group then moves to a new camp. It is thought that the spirit of the deceased will join the spirits of other deceased Mbuti who live in the forest as they had lived in life, only invisible to those still alive.


Political structure

Bambuti societies have no ruling group or lineage, no overlying political organization, and little social structure. The Bambuti are an egalitarian society in which the band is the highest form of social organization. Leadership may be displayed for example on hunting treks. Men become leaders because they are good hunters. Owing to their superior hunting ability, leaders eat more meat and fat and fewer carbohydrates than other men. Men and women basically have equal power. Issues are discussed and decisions are made by consensus at fire camps; men and women engage in the conversations equivalently.

If there is a disagreement, misdemeanor, or offense, then the offender may be banished, beaten, or scorned.The worst crime is to sacrifice the safety or welfare of the group. The ultimate punishment is the threat of ostracism from the band. Social inequalities are prevented in that the Mbuti do not individually own property, material possessions (beyond a hunting net or a particular cooking pot), or other resources.


Rituals and Religion

Unlike their village neighbors, the Mbuti do not practice witchcraft, sorcery, or magic, but they do have a rich tradition of ritual and religion. There are two central rituals of Mbuti culture: the molimo and the elima. The elima is a formal ritual to mark a young woman’s first menses. This is a time of sexual freedom that may ultimately lead to her selection of a future marriage partner. All of the young women who have recently received their first menses will move to a special elima hut with a group of their close girlfriends. Here they are taught the elima songs as well as aspects of motherhood and sexual relationships. Far from being seen as a time of female pollution, the Mbuti view this as a joyous occasion marking a girl’s transition to womanhood and thus motherhood. Sexual freedom is not, however, without some rules and limitations. The girls go out by day whipping boys as an invitation to the elima hut that evening, where they must fight their way through the girls’ mothers and other older women to gain access to the hut. If a particular suitor is deemed unfit for any reason, he will likely be barred access. It has been speculated that girls practice a natural form of birth control in that there have been no known accounts of pregnancy resulting from the elima ritual. At the end of the ceremony, the girls will take their place in Mbuti society as adult women.

One of the most important rituals for the Mbuti involves awakening and rejoicing the forest to restore order during times of death, prolonged periods of poor hunting, and other crises that threaten the social solidarity of the group. The molimo is both a tube-shaped instrument (capable of making a wide range of sounds) as well as a ceremony. The instrument is kept hidden from women and children and is brought out only at night for the duration of molimo festivals.

The molimo ceremony lasts approximately a month, and everyone cooperates by providing food and fire for the molimo hearth. Vigorous hunting during the day is followed by equally vigorous singing and dancing by the men at night. Men sing and dance throughout the entire night accompanied by the haunting sounds (often in imitation of the leopard) of the molimo trumpet. Dancing reaffirms the age group bonds at the same time that it affirms belief in the continuity of life and the band despite death. Women and children are secluded from the ceremony at night until the end of the ritual, at which time an old woman dances through the molimo fire, scattering it. This is to portray women as both givers and destroyers of life. The men quickly repair the fire. This dance reenacts the time when women originally possessed the molimo before men stole it. Both men and women are, therefore, regarded as central for a productive forest life. Regardless of the purpose for holding a particular molimo, the goal is to restore harmony by awakening and rejoicing the “mother and father” forest.

"Molimo" is also the name of a trumpet the men play during the ritual. Traditionally, it was made of wood or sometimes bamboo, but Turnbull also reported the use of metal drainpipes. The sound produced by a molimo is considered more important than the material it is made out of. When not in use, the trumpet is stored in the trees of the forest. During a celebration, the trumpet is retrieved by the youth of the village and carried back to the fire.


Contact With the World Outside of the Forest

The Mbuti’s most enduring contact with the world outside of the forest is the relationship with villagers. It might appear that the Mbuti are subservient to villagers in that they are dependent on villagers for plantation foods, metal objects, and even for the substance of their culture. The villagers even refer to themselves as owners of the Mbuti. However, the behavior of the Mbuti when they are in the village mimics that of villagers only superficially and is quickly abandoned once they are in the forest. For example, in the village the Mbuti have a “chief” who negotiates with villagers, but this individual has no authority over the band once the Mbuti are in the forest. The owner of one Mbuti might wish to marry “his” pygmy to a pygmy of another owner to create political and economic alliances. The Mbuti feign acceptance of this marriage solely so that they may enjoy the marriage feast that must be provided by the couple’s “owners.” However, once the Mbuti are back in the forest, the band does not consider the couple to be married.

The Mbuti participate in other village rituals such as the nkumbi (circumcision ceremony). Villagers believe that a boy must be circumcised to become a man and to be able to join the ancestors on death. Villagers involve the Mbuti in this ceremony so that they too will be able to go to the place of the ancestors and thus serve them on death. The Mbuti do not share the beliefs of the villagers, but they participate to gain the villagers’ necessary respect. For the Mbuti, it will be many years after the ceremony before the circumcised boys will be considered as adults. A result of the nkumbi is the bond of brotherhood between an Mbuti boy and a village boy who are paired through the nkumbi ritual. They are expected to trade with each other for life.


Current Trends and the Future of the Mbuti

It is tempting to view the Mbuti as a pristine group of exotic “others” yet untouched by modernity. However, significant contact first began some 300 to 500 years ago as agriculturists moved closer to the Mbuti, bringing new technologies and beliefs. Immigration of agriculturalists was followed by the Arab slave trade and colonialism.

During the colonial period, the Belgian administration enforced an increase in agricultural production of villagers with stiff penalties. Chiefs desperately sought “their” Mbuti to help them with the production. The Belgian government put much pressure on the Mbuti to leave the forest and to resettle as agriculturalists. At this time, the Mbuti remained able to escape into their forest world, but the seeds had been sewn for widespread change.

After the colonial period, the newly independent government of Zaire continued policies of forced resettlement but did so to emancipate the Mbuti, allowing them to contribute to the national economy by farming. They were to be given citizenship and thus subject to taxation. Model villages were constructed to teach Mbuti how to be farmers. Unaccustomed to sedentary life, many became ill and died from contaminated water, nutritional deficiencies, and heat stroke.

By the early 1990s, the effects of globalization were becoming even clearer. The Okapi Faunal Reserve was created to protect the Mbuti and their traditional way of life by, for example, forbidding poaching of animals such as elephants and leopards. Civil wars and the erosion of political control of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, however, made enforcing these laws impossible. The forest has increasingly been cleared for agriculture, logged, and mined for its valuable natural resources such as coltan, a metallic element used in electronics. Such exploitation results in the loss of game and in pollution of the territory. No longer able to hunt and gather, the Mbuti are often compelled to work for cash wages, for the first time introducing sources of material inequality in the band.

The rich cultural traditions and lifestyles of the Mbuti are threatened as their forest foundation is increasingly destroyed. Many Mbuti youths today do not know of the elima, and they hunt excessively for surplus to sell. Previously sacred rituals not to be performed outside of the forest, such as molimo songs, have been brought into the villages. The future of the forest people described more than 3,000 years ago by the Egyptians hangs in the balance as the reach of globalization and modernization continues to expand.