December 3, 2004
The BaMbuti Pygmies and Their Forest Home
in the emerald forests of central Africa live the BaMbuti, a Pygmy race having their own unique way of life and culture. This way of life
and culture is intricately patterned by their habitat: the Ituri
Forest itself. In the 1950s anthropologist Colin Turnbull visited the
BaMbuti of the Ituri Forest.
He lived among them and did extensive fieldwork which he describes in his book The
Forest people. What Turnbull discovered above all else is that the BaMbuti are a
people who live by the forest and for
The Ituri is one of three tropical rainforests
that can be traced back to the Pleistocene era. It contains the largest number of plant and animal species of any African
forest. While much of Africa’s contemporary rainforest is of a more recent origin,
the Ituri existed prior to the last ice age, and even increased its area after the ice age. It is also considered one of the
more stable forests in the world in an ecological sense. It is however subject to change due to the influence of humans.(a)
While some societies considered the Pygmies to be legend and myth, it is clear that the
ancient Egyptians knew of their existence 2,500 years before the time of Christ:
“In the tomb of the Pharaoh Nefrikare is preserved
the report of his commander, Herkouf, who entered a great forest to the west of the Mountains of the Moon and discovered there
a people of the trees, a tiny people who sing and dance to their god, a dance such as had never been seen before” (The Forest
The BaMbuti pygmies live in the forest, but more than
just living there, they are a part of the forest and the forest is a part of them. The Pygmies Turnbull visited made these
following statements in reference to their forest home:
“We are the people of the forest. The forest, the great
provider, is the one standard by which all deeds and thoughts are judged; it is the chief, the lawgiver, the leader, and the
final arbitrator” (125).
“When we are the Children of the Forest,
what need have we to be afraid of it? We are only afraid of that which is outside the forest” (74).
“The forest is our home; when we leave the forest,
or when the forest dies, we shall die. We are the people of the forest” (260).
To the Negroes of the villages the forest is considered a frightful place, the abode of the
spirits of the dead (43). They viewed the forest as a place to be avoided, with the exception of the occasional venture such
as one named Kaweki went to fish in the streams. Outside of that, the forest was considered a place of wild animals, malevolent
spirits, and Pygmies (55).
One of the greatest
events that connect the BaMbuti to the forest is the honey season. During this time the BaMbuti would set up a special camp
and partake of rituals consisting of dance and song. They considered their songs “a song of magic that would travel
with the smoke of the honey fire to call the bees to come and make more honey” (277). Honey is an integral part of the Pygmies diet during this time. They eat not only the
honey itself, but the grubs and bee larvae that are in the honey.
Most of the music made by the BaMbuti was through an instrument called the Molimo. The Molimo
itself is a type of sacred trumpet and it can be made out of any piece of hollowed out woods and in one case during Turnbulls
stay a Molimo was made out of an old metal drainpipe. What material the
Molimo is constructed of appears to be irrelevant. Unlike some cultures that believe their sacred objects must be made from
a certain type of wood, stone, or animal part, the BaMbuti place the importance of the Molimo on its “spirit”
and the sound it makes. Hence the Molimos were not considered sacred objects themselves, and in fact Turnbull records that
there was very little ritual accompanying it.
However, the Molimo does appear to have ritual significance. They are kept in a secret place
in the forest, hidden from the women, and the men gather at the “hearth of the Molimo” – called “Kumamolimo.”
There they light a Molimo fire, sing songs, and “feed” the Molimo. The BaMbuti believe the Molimo must be given
a “drink” before it is brought into the camp, and at the Molimo fire the trumpet is passed through the flames,
hot ashes are rubbed over it, and live coals are placed inside of it. For something that Turnbull did not view as being accompanied
by ritual, it seems there are certainly ritualistic practices associated with the Molimo.
The song of the Molimo is the song of the forest. The sounds produced by it imitate animals
and in fact the Molimo is often referred to as “the animal of the forest.” In times of hardship or if the pygmies
felt something was unbalanced, they would hold a Molimo festival to “make the forest happy again” (51). The Molimo
connects the BaMbuti to their forest home in many ways. It is an integral part of their life and holds great meaning for them.
Today the people of the Ituri forest face many dangers that were not as widespread at the time
of Turnbulls visits in the 1950s. The Bambuti have suffered from alcoholism and violence at the hands of both rebels and regular
armies. Within the forest, their relationships
of exchange with local farmers are being severely disrupted by the influx of farmers from outside the area who want to grow
cash crops. Pygmy rights to forest lands do not appear to be recognized in customary or national law. The impact of logging
in the Ituri also is damaging to their environment. Ironically, the BaMbuti are also at risk due to some conservation initiatives.
Plans for a forest reserve to protect the central Ituri Forest, for example, includes an area where hunter-gatherers are not permitted to hunt
or gather. (b) Such restrictions would certainly affect the traditional culture of the BaMbuti even though the intentions
of the conservationists would help preserve the forest.
Turnbull himself grew to appreciate the Ituri forest and seemed able to identify with
it to nearly the same degree as the Pygmies did. He writes:
To be alone
was as though you were daring to look on the face of the great God of the Forest himself, so overpowering was the goodness
and beauty of the world all around. Every trembling leaf, every weathered stone, every cry of an animal or chirp of a cricket
tells you that the forest is alive with some presence (277-278).
Even as outside observers we can determine
that the forest is a special place to the BaMbuti and is far more significant than just a place to live and a place that provides
their food and building materials. The BaMbuti seek no commercial profit from their environment and this is what often sets them at odds with “outsiders” who enter the forest and exploit
do a people who do not have the capacity to resist the changes being forced upon them and their environment survive? The future
appears bleak unless people in the dominant society realize the importance of the BaMbuti as an individual race and act in
order to protect their habitat and preserve their culture. There are some organizations attempting to help the people of the
Ituri forest, but it seems that commercial enterprise and war has a more powerful impact. Anthropologists like Colin Turnbull
have contributed to our society a glimpse of how important the Ituri forest is to the indigenous people who have lived there
for millennia. We can only hope that others make such contributions so that the BaMbuti will be able to live as they have
in their natural environment for many more years to come.