The Mbuti Culture

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The Mbuti Culture

The Mbuti Culture The way a culture makes their living impacts many aspects of cultural behaviors and has been a very effective way to organize thoughts and studies about different cultures. For most of human history people have lived a foraging or in other terms, hunting and gathering type of lifestyle. It has been said that foraging is the oldest form of human society and it was dated all the way back to the Paleolithic period, which was at least a million years ago (Nowak & Laird, 2010). The Mbuti are Bantu speaking foragers, who live in small, independent communities within the northeastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. There actual location is found in the southern part of the Ituri Forest (The Mbuti of northern congo, 2006). Mbuti people have a nomadic lifestyle within a certain territory and live in a subsistence economy, meaning they only produce what they need to survive (Nowak & Laird, 2010).

They make their living by hunting and gathering, and this has had a big impact on their kinship, political organization, and their beliefs and values. The Mbuti culture has also had to overcome many changes throughout the past seventy years. Among foragers such as the Mbuti, there’s an endless movement of goods through kinship ties and residential closeness that have a positive impact on people’s obligations to one another. The responsibility to share and the traveling lifestyle prevent the buildup of individual wealth. No one person owns or has control over the resources and there are no differences in wealth among individuals (Nowak & Laird, 2010). However, individuals do have rights over the natural beehives or termite mounds which they have located and marked (The Mbuti of northern congo, 2006). The Mbuti culture has certain beliefs and customs regarding marriage. When people from the Mbuti culture marry, it involves the payment of bridewealth or either the exchange of sisters or other close female relatives.

The bridewealth was usually paid with iron implements or bark clothing, but today it’s paid in cash. Nowadays, exchanged marriages are the most common in bridewealth and they account for nearly half of the marriages in some bands. A rightfully married couple most of the time lives virilocally, which leads to the band structure of partilineally related men and their wives and children. Families are involved in clans with each specific clan having certain names and totemic animals that are avoided by members (The Mbuti of northern congo, 2006). “Actual band composition is, however, more composite, with uxorilocal residence, and band fission and fusion” (The Mbuti of northern congo, 2006, p.3). Aside from kinship, the political organization is another feature that is greatly impacted by the primary mode of subsistence. It has been said that, the main difference between our society and the Mbuti’s society is that, ours is based on discrete or “separated individuals”, while theirs is a single corporate group (Ground, 1983).

Within each band, there is a spokesperson called the kapita. Until recently, the kapita’s role was limited to liaison work with horticultural villagers and regional administrators. The kapita handled things such as tax collections, census taking, and administrative demands. If those demands were not in-fact handled, the kapita was called into the local administrative office. Oddly enough, the kapita authority was recognized by other band members, through recognition of his sufferings on behalf of the community. Conflicts within the band were handled usually by face-to-face interactions, especially when it had to deal with labor, food, material culture, and bridewealth (The Mbuti of northern congo, 2006). Decisions that needed to be made concerning the entire band such as camp movement or certain hunting grounds are made in the course of men’s gatherings in what they call the tele. The opinions that came from the elderly and more experienced individuals were respected the most. Sometimes the aged women were allowed to join in on the discussions, but the younger women had to listen quietly from their families homes.

Usually when conflicts arose, one of the disputants moved to another camp to calm down. If the conflicts resulted in injury, the matter was submitted to the local village’s court (The Mbuti of northern congo, 2006). Another aspect of the Mbuti culture, that the primary mode of subsistence impacts is their religious beliefs and values. For the Mbuti people, their physical environment is clearly all accommodating, their food is fresh in hand every day, and they don’t have marked seasons so in return, they live day to day rather than thinking about the past and future. Their attention is on the present moment as well as the present space. They do not worry about what isn’t here and now and that goes the same for time and space as well. Like for instance, if the hunting and gathering isn’t good near the camp, they would just simply move the camp. This method helped to restore the habitual “goodness” for the “here” and the “now” (Turnbull, 1985).

“Even the visual aspect of the Mbuti world has a profound effect on their thinking” (Turnbull, 1985, p.9). They see the forest clearings to be cavernous, their houses are sphere shaped, and their concept of space is also spherical. They believe that each hunting camp and house is its own sphere surrounding the greatest sphere of all, the forest. All in all, every Mbuti is in the center of his own sphere that moves with him through time and space; he is always equally adapted to everything that is around, at any given moment (Turnbull, 1985). The Mbuti people believe that forest animals are an important source of food; however, some of them could cause awful diseases and other hardship if they were eaten imprecisely. For example, they felt that pregnant women and babies were vulnerable to certain animals and these animals were called kuweri. It was stated, that about eighty percent of the sixty mammals were avoided for that particular reason for at least a part of the life-cycle (The Mbuti of northern congo, 2006).

Mbuti were famous for their dancing and singing; this was performed for amusement as well as the essential part of the rites of passage. Some examples were circumcision, girls’ puberty, marriages, and funerals. There were also known for communicating with the dead ancestors, who supposedly caused the living to sing and dance. The different kinds of songs were associated with different types of activities such as net fishing, elephant hunting, and honey collecting (The Mbuti of northern congo, 2006). One ritual that the Mbuti often practiced was the Ritual Performance of the Molimo Made’ and Molimo Mangbo. This particular ritual involved the use of a trumpet that was made out of wood and was secretly hidden in a tree, deep into the forest. “The ritual itself involves both dance and song for the trumpet (referred to as “the animal of the of the forest”) as well as for all other participants” (Turnbull, 1985, p.12).

Singing and dancing takes place every night that the ritual lasts and the appearance of the trumpet is unpredictable. The Molimo Made’ might only last one night, but it seldom ever went past three or four nights and the trumpet would usually make at least one appearance per night (Turnbull, 1985). “This ritual is intended to “cure” noise-or akami- and the trumpet appears in the form of the elephant in direct response to such akami” (Turnbull, 1985, p.12). On the other hand, the Molimo Mangbo continues for about a month or so, and the trumpet only appears when there’s ekimi (Turnbull, 1985). “This is the molimo that cures death itself, by “making it good”, a process that demands the total ekimi it brings, with the trumpet appearing as the leopard” (Turnbull, 1985, p.12). In both cases, a young Mbuti member goes off into the woods to find the trumpets hiding spot after dark. There isn’t anything special about how they go retrieve it, but the youth are all boys and are close to the marrying age. When the boys do in-fact find the trumpet, there is a certain ceremony that one boy must perform because the trumpet isn’t sacred all by itself (Turnbull, 1985).

“Like any Mbuti ritual paraphernalia, it is not sacred merely for what it achieves” (Turnbull, 1985, p.12). If the trumpet just so happens to be rotten or is becoming too short, it is left there to rot without ceremony. Each time that the trumpet is taken down from a tree, the young boys inspect it and test the sound (Turnbull, 1985). When the trumpet arrives at the camp, the ritual will differ according to whether or not it is of greater or lesser molimo. If it’s lesser, the trumpet will circle the camp numerous times sounding shrilly just as if a herd of elephants were surrounding the camp. Then the young boys will all put one hand on the trumpet and run head first into the camp. They go right through the central place and attack the house that’s on the opposite side. Sometimes they might would run directly into it and beat on it with their fists or tear off some of the leaves, or they might even uproot the sticks that were used to make the foundation.

After that, they run back through the central place and attack the house that was closest to where they came out of the forest. This is repeated and every time they make sure to cross the central place and if anything should be in the way, it was destroyed (Turnbull, 1985). The Mbuti people, who were in the houses that were being attacked, tried to plead with the young boys to go away, but neither the people who were barricaded in their homes nor the young boys would make direct references as to why the akami had brought out the molimo made’. The Mbuti people knew everything was over when they heard the boys singing as they took the trumpet away after its final attack. The song that the boys sang was a rather aggressive, defiant and potentially destructive sound, like the elephants would make. When the boys got back to the hidden place to put the trumpet back into the tree, they would make a shrill trumpeting sound into the instrument.

If it was a molimo mangbo, the trumpet would again circle the camp, kind of like before, but growling and coughing sounds would be made, like a leopard (Turnbull, 1985). “It occasionally breaks into song as the singer echoes the sound of all those gathered around the central fire, the kumamolimo. Sometimes this is all the youths will do, refusing to enter the camp at all” (Turnbull, 1985, p.14). If this was to happen, then the kumamolimo knew that it was in-fact their fault, because they didn’t sing and dance well enough. This would be repeated every night until the singing and dancing around the central place was sufficient enough to entice the greatest dancer and singer of all (Turnbull, 1985). When the trumpet did decide to enter the camp, it was welcomed because it brought ekimi rather than akami. The trumpet may stay all night or it may only decide to stay for a few minutes, but that depends on how well everyone sings and dances.

“There is always a sense of sadness when the trumpet finally leaves as suddenly as it came, for it brings to the camp a degree and quality of ekimi that, the Mbuti say, mere humans can never achieve by themselves” (Turnbull, 1985, p.15). At the end of the festival, when the curing is complete, the dancing becomes more intensive and makes it more communal rather than individual, with very specific uniqueness to the occasion. Within the final week of the festival, an old woman joins the group of men and she also brings a number of nubile girls. The girls take over the men’s position of singing and dancing until the tribute is paid. Then one night the woman will dance around slowly through the fire, scattering the burning logs to every side. “After that, the men jump to their feet and kick the logs back into the center, dancing around as if in a communal act of regeneration, clearly imitating the act of copulation as the fire springs back to life” (Turnbull, 1985, p.15).

It has been stated that this would happen several times and then the old woman triumphs. An old man would slowly stamp through the ember, putting out every last one until the fire that fed the molimo was indeed gone. The trumpet sounds for the last time and this time, it leads the singing. This camp remains very special until the camp decides to move. It’s special because it has been transformed by the molimo mangbo (Turnbull, 1985). Needless to say, the Mbuti Molimo Ritual is a major ritual in Mbuti life. The molimo is associated with the death after a successful kill has been made and could also take place at the time of a crisis such as a poor hunting season. Mbuti’s current situation is very different now then back in the day. The profitable meat trade began in the nineteen-fifties and intensified in the nineteen-seventies and has inspired market-oriented hunting for the Mbuti. The Mbuti had links to the outside economy only indirectly with their villager patrons before the development of the meat trade.

The meat trade aloud traders from outside of the forest to visit Mbuti camps and do face-to-face transactions with the hunters and this avoided the traditional kpara relationship. “The kpara relationship has declined as it’s economic basis of meat and labor has lost its former importance” (The Mbuti of northern congo, 2006, p.4). In the nineteen-eighties, the gold dust mines opened and this caused the immigration to progress. The Mbuti population has increased by as much as forty percent during this same time period. Deforestation and degradation of resources was caused by the sudden increase in population (The Mbuti of northern congo, 2006). The Mbuti have become more involved in the market economy and they have had to start paying government taxes.

“Most Mbuti men in the Teturi area now pay half the tax paid by villagers, and hold their own national identity cards. In addition to tax collectors, there are soldiers and civil servants demanding meat and labor from Mbutis” (The Mbuti of northern congo, 2006, p.5). The main reason that the sedentarization plan failed is because of the flight of Mbutis from officials and government agents back in the nineteen-seventies. To say the least, the Mbuti are gradually becoming incorporated with the Zaire/Congo state through the ways of taxation, elections, national identity cards, and participation in other national events (The Mbuti of northern congo, 2006).

In conclusion, the Mbuti are Bantu speaking foragers, who live in small, independent communities within the northeastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. There actual location is found in the southern part of the Ituri Forest (The Mbuti of northern congo, 2006). Mbuti people have a nomadic lifestyle within a certain territory and live in a subsistence economy, meaning they only produce what they need to survive (Nowak & Laird, 2010). They make their living by hunting and gathering, and this has had a big impact on their kinship, political organization, and their beliefs and values. The Mbuti culture has also had to overcome throughout the past seventy years as well.

Ground, P.L.B., & Berger, P.L. (1983, April 10). Western complaints. New York Times, pp. A. 13. Retrieved from Nowak, B.S., & Laird, P.F. (2010). Cultural Anthropology. Retrieved from The Mbuti of northern Congo. (2006). In The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers. Retrieved from Turnbull, C.M. (1985, Autumn). Processional Ritual among the Mbuti Pygmies. The Drama Review: TDR, 17(3), 6-17. Retrieved from


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  • Date: 21 October 2016

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