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The Mbuti People of Zaire


The Mbuti are the inhabitants of Zaire country in Africa continent. They live in the forest and are located in the interior part of the Ituri rainforest on the northern part of Zaire. The Mbuti people are pigmies with the tallest of them not exceeding five feet tall. They are divided into subgroups where the biggest group comprising 16 people. The total population of the mbuti does not exceed 40,000 people who are located in the same vicinity. They neighbor the Balese, Mamvu, Budu, Bila and Mangbetu who are not pigmies but share believes and language.

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The Bambuti as they are generally termed are divided into four cultural groups. These cultural groups consist of Efe, Sua, Mbuti, and the Aka. These groups of the Mbuti culture do not have a universal language despite the fact that they are all from the same group of Mbuti. They borrow their language from other Bantu speaking neighbors. Language and trade are the only things that the Mbuti people have in common with their neighbor. The neighbor’s are not pigmies but average men who practice agriculture while the Mbuti exclusively depends on hunting and gathering.

The Mbuti are Bantu speaking people where each cultural group speaks the language of their neighbors who are also forest dwellers. The Efe speaks the language of Balese. The Sua have borrowed the language of the Budu where the language is BaBudu. The Mbuti which is a sub cultural group and they have taken the language of the Bila of which the language is BaBila. The last cultural group the Aka who happens to be the minority of the four speaks the language of the Mangbetu.

The Mbuti are hunter gatherers who depend on the foods they gather in the forest. They have specialties of assorted foods that they gather in the forest, the delicacies ranges from crabs, snails, ants, larvae, fish, forest yams, and shellfish to fruits such as berries, cola nuts, wild fruits, roots and leaves. The Mbuti people are known for the prowess in hunting. They hunt and eat the meat of the antelope, wild pigs, and monkeys (Walker& Hewlett 1990). Although they hunt the giant hog the meat from the hog is not eaten as it is considered poisonous and can cause illness to the eater. The hog’s meat is instead used in trade among the Mbuti groups of people.

Historically, the Mbuti people came from the Democratic republic of Congo where they had inhabited the rainforest in Congo. They were forced to migrate to the Ituri forest rainforest in Zaire when conflicts had rocked them. They were constantly attacked by other indigenous people who wanted to occupy the forest in search of resources. This fights left a destructive effect where a big number of them were killed in the fights. While in Congo they were at threat of being cannibalized by a group of people who believed that Mbuti’s meat had bizarre power. This belief stated that if you eat a Mbuti you automatically gained a supernatural power. The myth made them prone to be eaten by armed forces of a particular group of people in Congo. Some of the Mbuti men and women were forced into slavery by the men who captured them. These were the main causes for their decline in number.

Economic organization

The Mbuti are nomadic where they move from one settlement to the other in search of food. When they have exhausted all the resources in a particular place they tend to move to a more suitable location. This is usually in the search for grounds to hunt and gather food. Their livelihood depends on the forest. They depend entirely on the forest for their survival as well as economical benefits. The Mbuti enjoy the plenty of resources that exist within every locality they migrate to. They are not restricted to anything and can hunt and gather their foods at their free will.

The Mbuti people are very peaceful they ensure that they do not infringe other people territory. This is because of the abundance of the forest and at the same time the population of the Mbuti people is very little hence a surplus of forest land. After a day’s work of hunting, gathering, cooking and any domestic work the Mbuti men, women and children retire to their huts where they sit and tell stories laughing. This is a way of keeping them happy. If an argument erupts among them they quarrel until they come to an agreement. In severe cases the issue that brings conflicts is solved by men. They then could send the troublesome person to the forest and later restore him back. Fighting and war is unheard of in this group of people. They tend to isolate themselves from their neighbors as much as they can.

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As all their resources are centered in the forest their livelihood is in the forest and depends little from the outside. The forest provides all the basic needs that they require that is it provides a home, shelter, medicine, and food for them. Hunting is done by use of bows, nets, arrows and other traps to hunt their game meat. In this community hunting with nets and traps is not reserved for the men only. Both men and women hunt in the forest while the children gather small items like the fruits. When the Mbuti have to hunt with bows and arrows, children and women are left behind. This kind of hunting requires skills and strength something the women and children cannot handle (Mosko 1987).

The Mbuti people do not practice agriculture they solely depend on hunting game meat and the food they gather in the forest. Although their neighbors practice horticulture the Mbuti live in isolation and do not engage themselves with other people’s activities. The only activity they get involved with is trade within their subgroups and neighbors. Most of the items they require come from their neighbor the Bantu people The mode of exchange in trade is barter trade where they exchange bush meat, animals hides, forests fruits and vegetables for wooden baskets, pots, irons who making arrows and spears, and in some extend agriculture produce from their neighbors.

The clothes that the Mbuti wear are made from the bark skin. This is one of their culture were clothes are made by men from tree barks. The bark of the tree is pound and made flat and smooth to touch. It becomes ready to be painted. The women use fruits and leaves to make concoction that is used to paint the fabric. The painting is normally done to give homage to their deity who is the forest.

There different clothes for different occasions. For instance, There are clothes for the molimo ceremony where young boys and men wear. There are other occasions like the initiation of young boys into adulthood. This occasion has a particular code of dressing that has its own unique painting. All the paintings are done in the sense that they give homage to the forest through the symbols painted on it. Babies have a special kind of clothing made using the tree barks. Clothing for a little child is pound more to make it more soft and comfortable to wear. The Mbuti do not wear clothes that cover the entire body parts. They have clothes that only cover sensitive parts of their bodies exposing the other parts.

Mbuti Beliefs and Values

The Mbuti people are strictly animists who believe in the spirits of the forest. The forest is the most important aspect in their life. They consider the forest to be very sacred and call it mother and father. Their physical and cultural sustenance depends on the forest. To them the forest is their god. They hold important ceremony in honor of the forest called Molimo. The ceremony is motivated by the belief that the forest is the center of their life. The ceremony is noisily celebrated to thank the forest for the provision. In cases where death of a member occurs the ceremony is held and this time with a lot of noise. This is done with the belief that the forest was asleep when the bad omen happened to them. This is usually a wakeup call to the forest to remember its children (Turnbull 1963).

The molimo ceremony is a valued aspect among the Mbuti people. On the day of the ceremony the forest people collect firewood and food from all the huts. This is a symbol of unity among them. When darkness fall fire is set and all the men young and old gather to perform the molimo ceremony. The men play the trumpet which is made from the wood in the forest while taking turn to dance around the fire. Women and children are prohibited from attending the ceremony and they normally remain inside the huts. The trumpets which are also referred to as molimo just like the ritual are stored on top of a tree after been blown. Before it is blown, the trumpet is immersed into the water for it to drink water. It is wiped by leaves and dirt which simplifies the four most important things in the life of the Mbuti’s life which is water, air, forest, and earth (Turnbull 1963).

The Mbuti people are well conversant with the food they gather and hunt. They have taboos and beliefs on different kind of food. The beliefs make them shun from particular kinds of foods where they term them poisonous and other sacred to be eaten. Some foods from the field are to be eaten and some which cannot. They do not eat the rats and the giant forest hogs. These two animals are believed to be poisonous and can cause sickness if eaten (Walker& Hewlett 1990). Giants hog are hunted for the meat which they trade with their neighbors in exchange of other goods.

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The huts in the Mbuti group of people are built in round shapes. Here, women are responsible for building huts. The huts and settlement area are located along the edge of the forest. This is due to the belief that the center of the forest is sacred and cannot belong to anyone in particular. The place is reserved for ritual performance and cannot be tampered with anyone (Mosko 1987).

The Mbuti people believe that a complete family consists of a father, mother, child and the forest. The child is seen as a blessing from the forest. The survival of a child according to the Mbuti people does not depend on the mother and father alone but the forest too. Before a child is born the pregnant mother has to perform a ritual to interlink the baby with the forest.

When the baby is still unborn, both the father and mother sing forest songs to the baby in the womb as a sign of connecting the baby with its creator the forest. These are beliefs that are to be adhered to for the baby to be born and grow in the forest casting any evil from the unborn baby. When the baby is born the father is usually supposed to be present to help in the baby birth. The child is then washed by water from a special stream in the forest. This is also done to give homage to the forest.

The kinship of the Mbuti is one. Despite the fact that they do not come from the same subgroup or cultural groups their belief is that they are all related. This relationship is brought by the fact that the forest is their mother, father, lover, sibling and their god. This aspect bounds them together as kinship of the same parent (Turnbull 1983).

Social Change

Over the years the Mbuti people have experiences gradual change in their culture. Although very few of them embrace the outside culture majority have changed. One of the aspects that have brought the social change towards the Mbuti people is marriage. The Mbuti community has in the recent time lost many of the women to the villagers who marry of their girls. This has been a factor that has been brought by the conflict that erupt in the sister exchange among the Mbuti people. This entices the Mbuti girls to seek a hand in marriage to the villagers who happen to be kind to them. The other factor has brought to intermarriage between the Mbuti and the neighbor is the fact that more female gender are being born (Turnbull 1983). This brings inequality in the balance ratio of men to women. The females who miss suitors opt for the village men for marriage. Polygamy is not practiced in the Mbuti community and hence shortage of male suitors to fit the overwhelming number of females in the bands.

By late 1970 the social structure of the Mbuti changed. Initially the Mbuti people were strictly hunter gatherers. Their contact with the other villagers changed them as they started to get interested in the produced grown by the villagers. This aspect changed them and this is where they started to trade for the exchange of farm produce with the meat and fruit they hunted and gathered. Their culture and way of eating changed and as days goes by they are embracing the life and cultures of their neighboring community.

According to recent research it has been determine that the villagers have cropped inside the forest and settled their in the quest of land a settlement. The Mbuti people currently do not live in isolation but share their homestead with the villagers. Being the weaker ones they gradually adopt the villager’s way of life. This mingling with the outside world has brought the fact that the Mbuti pigmies have adopted the wearing of clothes made from fabric. This was unlike their ancient relatives who were wearing only tree barks for clothes.


Mosko, M. S. (1987). The Symbols of “Forest”: A Structural Analysis of Mbuti Culture and Social Organization. American Anthropologist. 89(4), 896-913.

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Turnbull, Colin. (1983). The Mbuti Pygmies: Change and Adaptation. Orlando: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.

Turnbull, Colin M. (1962). The Forest People. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Walker, L. P. & Hewlett, B. (1990). Dental Health diet and Social Status among Central African Foragers and Farmers. American Anthropologist. 92(2), 383-398.

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