The forest is the core element around which traditional Mbuti life flows. They sometimes refer to the forest as mother or father, acknowledging it as the source of their food, clothing, and materials for shelter. Mbuti reverence for the forest extends beyond being merely a source of supplies to viewing it as sacred, as a "deity" from which they ask for help and give thanks through their ritual ceremonies, including the molimo. They think of the forest as a place to return to for safety.
Although the Ituri Forest seems dense and impenetrable to outsiders, the Mbuti are at home in the rainforest and know its paths, valleys, and rivers intimately. They have great endurance and are able to orient themselves and travel long distances quickly and easily. Their skills as quiet, stealthy hunters allow great success at killing animals and birds to provide the needed protein for their diets. They also are wise gatherers of mushrooms, roots, and other vegetation, who know which items are poisonous and should be avoided. Other food sources include termites and honey, and plantains obtained through trade with Bantu villagers. They live in small groups of families, building camp sites of small, round huts from pliable saplings covered with large leaves to shed the rain. These villages are temporary, and are abandoned when the group moves on to an area with more plentiful game and vegetation. Each new Mbuti camp site is close enough to the periphery of the forest to provide relatively easy access to the particular Bantu village with whom each Mbuti group has a political and economic relationship.
Hunting occurs only when meat is needed for consumption or trade with the Bantu, and the successful hunter typically shares with others of his group. Men do the hunting, particularly when they are hunting with bow and arrow, but women and children play a key role when nets are used. Long nets are spread by the waiting hunters, and the women and children flush game into the nets. Men and women share roles as gatherers of vegetation, as well as child care. Women are in charge of building the huts and do most of the cooking.
The Mbuti are characterized as good natured and happy. Since food
and firewood is so plentiful, only a small portion of their day is
spent hunting or doing chores, leaving an abundance of time for
singing and storytelling. They are peaceful and avoid conflict with
outsiders, preferring to return to their "real" world of the forest
rather than deal with unpleasant situations. Instead of having a
central figure of authority, they live cooperatively and solve
problems among themselves by arguing relentlessly until a
compromise is reached. In extreme cases, the group may ostracize
an individual, forcing them to live alone in the forest for a period of
time, eventually allowing them to return to the group.
Earlier in the day, food and firewood are gathered from every hut in the camp, signifying unity and cooperation in invoking the molimo. In the evening, men gather around a central fire to take part in the dancing and singing; women and children must stay in their huts with the door closed. At some point in the singing and dancing, young men leave the central fire and go to the forest where the molimo is stored. They carry it back, stopping along the way to immerse it in water so that the trumpet can drink and rubbing it with leaves and dirt as a symbol of water, earth, and air.
When the youths arrive at the camp with the molimo, they circle the
periphery of the camp, making sure that the kumamolimo, the
singing and dancing around the central fire, is good enough to enter.
When the singing is most intense, the youths enter with the trumpet,
adding its sound to that of the others. One youth holds one end
while another sings into the end, slowly pivoting around the central
fire. Depending on how well everyone dances and sings, the
trumpet might stay only a few minutes or all night. After leaving the
molimo trumpet is again stored in a tree until its next use.
Stanley's exploration of the region during this period resulted in Colonial exploitation, which created a ripple effect eventually felt by the Mbuti. Bantu villagers, who historically lived an agricultural lifestyle in adjoining regions, were forced from their land and migrated to the areas along the edge of the Ituri Forest. Over the years of contact, the Mbuti and the villagers have developed an unusual relationship where they are somewhat interdependent, yet fiercely guard what independence they do have. Both view the other as inferior; the villagers have assumed a position of authority and view the Mbuti as heathens from the forest, but a good source for cheap labor. And, since the villagers are afraid to enter the forest to hunt, the Mbuti are also their source for meat. In turn, the Mbuti depend on trade with the villagers for plantains and other supplies grown on village plantations. From the Mbuti point of view, they have no obligation to the villagers. Instead, they acquiesce to their wishes only if it serves their purposes. Once that need is satisfied, they disappear back into the forest, regardless of any commitment they may have agreed to. This reciprocal relationship is punctuated by frequent highs and lows, depending on the situation.
In the years following the war, political upheaval has continued to
cause the Mbuti to adapt their traditional way of life. Pressure by
the Zairean government caused some Mbuti to leave the forest and
live among the villagers. The ever-growing population of villagers
has enticed some Mbuti to over-hunt in the forest to meet the
villager's need for protein, leading to depletion of the once-rich
animal population. Large areas of the forest are also being opened
by gold seekers.
Click here to return to introduction.