The forest people
Better known as “pygmies”, the forest peoples or indigenous peoples live in the forests of the Congo Basin. The term “pygmy” was first used at the end of the 19th century, when explorers began to penetrate the interior of the central African basin. Its origins lie in the ancient Greek word vipugmaîos, meaning “as high as a fist”. In anthropology, pygmy peoples are defined as ethnic groups whose average height is exceptionally low. The average adult male is less than 150 cm tall.
The indigenous peoples of the Congo : the first inhabitants?
Later, they were referred to by local names such as “Batwa, Bambuti, Babinga”, which were used as synonyms or contiguous for “Pygmies”. This last term, often considered pejorative, has now been replaced by the term “indigenous people”. This term has its roots in the struggle for the rights of the indigenous peoples of Latin America. There is also debate about who is and who is not indigenous in Africa. It refers to the category of “first occupiers”. But who was the first occupant is much more difficult to establish in Africa than in America. We know that tribes in Africa, before colonization, always migrated for different reasons. It is therefore difficult to qualify some of them as “first inhabitants”. In Congo Brazzaville, it is forbidden to use the term “Pygmy”. It is considered an insult and is punishable under the Penal Code.
Indigenous peoples : a multitude of different groups scattered throughout the Congo Basin
Indigenous peoples are often defined as the small, nomadic forest dwellers of the Congo Basin who live by hunting and gathering. In reality, these populations form a multitude of different groups scattered throughout the Congo Basin. The size of these groups varies from several tens of thousands (Baka, Aka, Mbuti…) to less than 500 (Bedzan). They generally live in close contact with other non-pygmy communities and share their language.
Residing in the forested areas of Central and West Africa, the indigenous peoples are still trying to preserve their hunting culture, which has existed for thousands of years. They currently number around 900,000 people, most of whom live in the Congo Basin. Small communities also exist in neighboring countries such as Rwanda, Burundi and Zambia.
A 5,000-year-old culture
For thousands of years, they have roamed the forests of Central Africa with bows, nets and assegais, hunting and gathering to feed themselves, moving their camps according to the hunting grounds. With their neighbors, the Bantu farmers, they have a bartering relationship, exchanging game and the products of gathering for tools and necessities, before returning to live in autarky under the forest canopy.
They have a long and difficult relationship with their Bantu neighbors. Their balanced bartering relationship was broken during the colonial era at the beginning of the 20th century. Today, indigenous families often work for a Bantu, and pygmy labor is used to meet the growing demand for timber and bushmeat. The Bantu will then ship the bushmeat to the town.
Lifestyle of the indigenous peoples (Pygmies)
Their way of life lasted for centuries, since the resources of the equatorial forest were sufficiently abundant: they built huts from the foliage; hunting pangolin, duiker – a small antelope – monkey, wild boar, etc. provided them with a meat diet and wild plums called safou as well as wild mangoes and nuts embellished their daily lives. Their knowledge of plants enabled them to cope with disease. As a people with an oral tradition, dance and song have always accompanied their way of life.
Traditional life of indigenous peoples
Aboriginal peoples live in groups ranging in size from 15 to 70 people, depending on external factors – the availability of game, trade relations with outside communities, the prevalence of disease and the size of the forest area. These groups are traditionally nomadic, moving to new parts of the forest several times a year and carrying all their possessions on their backs. Their nomadic lifestyle allows the group to move according to the availability of resources. This approach, combined with low population densities and a lack of encroachment by outsiders, has historically allowed wildlife populations to recover after a group has abandoned an area.
A semi-nomadic people of the Congo
When indigenous peoples establish a temporary camp, they generally clear the undergrowth, small trees and saplings, leaving the canopy trees intact. Under the canopy, forest dwellers are protected from the intense tropical sun and maintain a habitat for honey-producing bees and game. By leaving the canopy intact, the area can quickly revert to a healthy, productive forest after they leave. Their huts superficially resemble the igloos of the Inuit of the central Arctic, with a domed lattice of saplings and walls of shingled tree leaves.
Close to Bantu villages
Most African forest dwellers traditionally spend a large part of the year near a village where they exchange bushmeat, honey and labour for cassava, vegetables, metal products and cloth. According to anthropologists who have studied the dynamics between forest peoples and villagers, it is common for a forest family to establish a symbiotic relationship with a sedentary village family. These relationships between a single forest family and a single village family can persist for generations.
The organization of pygmy societies
In indigenous societies, the roles of men and women are traditionally distinct. Women do most of the gathering, carrying baskets on their backs. Men concentrate on hunting and harvesting honey. Honey is often the most prized and sought-after forest product among the indigenous peoples. They climb up to 30 metres into the canopy to reach the hives containing honey. Once at the hive, the climbers burn wood to produce smoke that stuns the bees, allowing the honey to be harvested.
The role of hunting among pygmies
Indigenous peoples depend on hunting for their main source of protein. Each forest group has its own technique. For example, the Efe hunt their prey almost exclusively with bows and arrows. Others use a combination of bows, arrows and nets to capture their prey. The BaAka are perhaps the best-known net hunters. The BaAka men arrange them in a semi-circle to form a wall, up to a kilometer long. The BaAka women throw the game into the nets, where the men use spears to kill the animals.
While indigenous peoples have generally lived within the carrying capacity of the local ecosystem, the growing bushmeat trade is altering the sustainability of hunting practices. Demand for bushmeat is increasing in villages, urban centers and even foreign markets. African forest peoples are sometimes hired as trackers for elephant poachers.
Belief in the afterlife
While preserving their belief in animism in general, Pygmies believe that everything in nature has a spirit as well as a material existence, and that every object is controlled by a spirit.
As they believe in the afterlife and the spirits of their ancestors everywhere, they hide their dead in tree bark or caves. It is also possible to find Muslims and Christians among the Pygmies who have come into contact with settled life in recent years.
The future of indigenous peoples
Internal migration, logging, the depletion of resources due to over-hunting, and confrontation with the modern world have led to a deterioration of the traditional habitat and a change in mentality. These rapid changes are leading to a rapid erosion of the indigenous peoples culture, making it difficult for them to adapt and redefining their future.