Anthropology 106 with Dr. Kearton

Before I broke my arm, I chose to write a paper called MBUTI RELIGION

First the comment from Dr. Kearton:

Paper seems to be about the relationship between music and religion in Mbuit society. If so, why keep it a secret?


(comment from Dr. Kearton: How so?)

This paper is concerned with the religion of the African Mbuti (Pygmy) people living in the Ituri Forest in the Belgian Congo. The net-hunting people I have studied are hunters and gatherers living in a vast expanse of rain forest. The Mbuti occupy only the dense forest where the migration of game and the nature of vegetation are relatively unaffected by outside influences.

The Mbuti hae been in the forest for many thousands of years. A record of an expedition sent from Egypt in the Fourth Dynasty to discover to discover the source of the Nile states that the commander of the expedition 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 sang and danced to their god. The Mbuti of today lead much the same kind of life characterized by singing and dancig to their god.

It is important to recognize that to the Mbuti the forest is considered generous and friendly, while the village cultivators regard it as hostile. The forest supplies the Mbuti  with all their needs such as water, food and shelter. The forest is interlaced with many streams, and throughout the year there is plenty of game and vegetable foods. Firewood and the materials needed to build shelter are always at hand.

The Mbuti roam the forest at will, in small isolated bands or hunting groups. The fact that they average less than four-and-a-half feet in height is of no concern to them. Their taller neighbors who laugh at them for being so puny, are as clumsy as elephants–a reason why they must always remain outsiders in a world where one’s life may depend on one’s ability to run swiftly and silently.

The world of the forest is a closed, possessive world, hostile to all those who do not understand it. In many villages, there is the same suspicion and fear of the forest. It is from the plantations that the food comes, not from the forest, and for the villager’s life is a constant battle battle to prevent their plantations from being overgrown by the forest.

The villagers speak of the world beyond the plantations as being a fearful place, full of malevolent spirits and not fit to be lived in except by animals and BaMubti, which is what the villagers call the Mbuti. 

The villagers, some Bantu and some Sudeanic, keep to their plantations, and seldom go into the forest, unless it is absolutely necessary. For them it is a place of evil they are outsiders.

The Mbuti have no fear of the forest, for them there is no danger. Their life consists of little hardships because the forest supplies them with all their needs. Consequently, there is no belief in evil spirits, and for the Mbuti, the forest is a good place.

The Mbuti are a practical people whose physical existence is determined in a day-to-day context. Thus, they are content with the present, rather than the past or future. When discussing the future in this life or the next, the Mbuti deny speculation not having been there, they do not know what it is like, and not knowing what it is like, they cannot predict what their behavior will be. The Mbuti who does speculate on the future is a person who acts “emptily,” or whose head is loose and not properly attached to the  body.

Author Colin Turnbull found this denial of absolute knowledge about the future or of afterlife to be a common characteristic among the Mbuti he encountered. This did not prevent individuals from having ideas about the unknown; rather, ideas about the unknown were considered to be fruitless, and sometimes took the form of established legends.

The Mbuti believe in a power greater than themselves which is not of the natural order,they see and know around them. This belief can be considered a spiritual power which the Mbuti do not claim to understand but which they utilize to explain the unknown. The terminology used to explain the unknown is not standardized among the various bands of Mbuit.

The Epulu Mbuti use in one instance five terms interchangeably–pepo, keti, boru, roho and satani. These terms indicate for the Mbuti that man himself is in part spiritual and that life deserves not from the flesh but from other sources. Each of the five terms denotes this personal force, but each one also is used to denote to different species of that force.

[more coming, remember this was written in about 1970. Colin Turnbull, whose books I was reading, were published in the 1960s, so I don’t know what current research reads like.)

It is generally believed among the Mbuti that each man and each animal is endowed to some extent with such power. This power derives from a single source  which is the forest  itself. There are many names which represent this power source, but “the forest” is simplest to use for this is how the Mbuti themselves describe it.

Also deriving from the prime source of spiritual power are certain disembodied spirits which, like the Mbuti, inhabit the forest. These spirits have no power to harm or help. There is a vague belief that there is a conflict of interest at times between the spirits and the Mbuti helps to explain strange occurrences. For instance, someone who trips while chasing an animal may say that he collided with a “keti,” which is the term used by the Epulu Mbuti  for this spirit, who was chasing the same animal.

The disembodied spirits are thought to live a similar life as the Mbuti, for as they themselves say, what other kind of existence can there be in the forest? There is no competition or rivalry between the spirits and the Mbuti, and the spirits are thought of only when explanations are needed.

The Mbuti also believe in individual personality, which is essentially of the body than of the spirit, but which is enhanced and activated by the spirit. Thus individuals justify their thoughts or actions by saying that their “heart” is pleased. The heart is usually thought to be the location of this personality and when displeased the heart jumps and leaps about in the chest.

The first term used to express the general concept of personal force is PEPO. PEPO is the life force of breath which animates all living things.

KETI are the disembodied spirits which are animated by the life force PEPO. The KETI lead a comparable existence to that of the Mbuti, and sometimes the two worlds become confused. Hallucinations and dreams are the result of accidentally slipping from the one world into the other.

Any meetings between the KETI and the Mbuti are considered as abnormal and not to be sought. Here is a fear that a Mbuti may cross-over in the KETI world unable to return back. In this case, the Mbuti say that you might not even know you had crossed over because of the similarity of the two worlds. Thus, dreams are thought of as being real experiences in a mirror world from which one can learn.

BORU is the term used to designate the “house” (flesh, body) inhabited by the life force PEPO. The Mbuti do not tolerate violence which causes abuse or mutilation to the  body because they fear that the PEPO will escape through the open wound, causing death.

ROHO is the personality associated with the heart. The heart is spoken of as being hot or cold, noisy or quiet: Hot and noisy are bad qualities while cool and quiet are good. The state of an individual’s ROHO may be used as justification for his actions.

SATANI is a term derived from the villagers indicating evil spirits. Since the Mbuti do not believe in evil spirits they only use the term when recounting a village tale. The Mbuti believe only in the keti who are no better or no worse than the Mbuti.

From the description of the two levels of existence, human and keti, and of the principle of spiritual animation, it seems plausible that there should be a source of this spiritual force. That source is, of course, the forest.

The Mbuti frequently sing and shout to the forest and address it as “father,” “morher,” “friend,” or “lover.” The Mbuti explain the usage of all these names when they say that “the forest is everything.”On the hunt the men address it as “father,” the women as “mother.” A man receiving a sudden favor is apt to address the forest as “mother.:” A woman who is having a hard time finding the leaves she wants, will,when getting into a tangle of undergrowth, almost certainly start addressing the forest as “father” and accuse it of being far too severe and strict.

The Mbuti personify the forest to the extent that they say gives them not only food and shelter, warmth and clothing, but also affection. This aspect of affection was emphasized by Kenge who was found dancing alone in the night. When asked why he was dancing alone, he replied: “Buy I’m not dancing alone. I am dancing with the forest, dancing with the moon.”

The perennial certainty of economic sufficiency, the general lack of crisis in their lives, all lead the Mbuti to the conviction that forest is benevolent and that the natural course of life is good.
Dr. Kearton’s comment: “Good summary but you have not told us exactly you mean to undertake.”

Next Chapter: The Power of Sound

Dr. Kearton’s comment: Why is this so important?

Birth is the period in which to establish a relationship of strength ad affection between the forest and the individual such as tying a vine to the wrist or around the waist. This relationship is reinforced at puberty in the manner of song. Song requires continued effort which is direct and personal and powerful. It is believed that song attracts the attention of the forest and also pleases it.

There are distinct musical forms for distinct occasions of importance in forest life such as hunting, honey gathering, puberty and death. Songs sung by the Mbuti in the village are different in musical form from those sung in the forest and are spoken of as “empty sound” or “noise.”

Among the Mbuti are four major types of songs. Two concern a economic activities and the other two are more religious in nature being concerned with puberty and health. The puberty songs deal with women and youths, and are first learned and sung at puberty but may be sung at periods such as growth, birth and marriage. For example, elima sons or puberty songs may be sung at birth if there is special concern over the child’s welfare.

Death songs are usually song at the death of an adult during the molimo festival. Dr. Kearton’s comment: (Which is?). Some death songs may be sung at other times of crisis that threaten life.

Whereas elima songs are of more importance to women, molimo songs are more important to men. However, male youths play a role in the elima festivals since it is a celebration of their puberty as well as that of the girls. During the molimo festival, also, the roles of the sexes are reversed with the women taking over the men’s songs.

Song form reveals other areas beside food getting activity, life and death. For instance, there is a concern for cooperative activity since each type of song requires a group to sing it. If there is a solo it is sung over a chorus and the solo is passed from one individual to another. Certain parts of songs are sung by youths, hunters or elders,  according to age which reinforces the concern for age differential in their social structure.

All the songs share the same power of sound to awaken the forest and indicate the area of interest of the Mbuti at that moment. This attracts the forest’s attention to the immediate needs of the Mbuti. For this to be of optimum use to the Mbuti, the sound must be pleasing to the forest.

It is not surprising then, that sound so carefully controlled as song should be considered as the “strongest” possible kind of sound, activated by the breath that is so mysteriously connected with pepe. Song is used to communicate with the forest and the emphasis is on sound not on the words.

The Lesser Molino

[Dr. Kearton’s comment: bird, plane or superman? Was there another Molimo? And what is it?)

The lesser molimo is used in reaction to a crisis over which the Mbuti have no control. For instance, continuous bad hunting or long illness becomes a matter of the forest. The lesser molimo differs from the greater molimo in that it lasts only a few days since there is usually a change taken as an indication that the forest has awakened. The dancing is done by the youths only, and most important is the exclusion of the molimo trumpet in the lesser molimo festival.

All adult youths and men are expected to attend although there is not the same criteria for non-attendance as during the greater molimo.
Next Chapter: The Greater Molimo

[comment by Dr. Kearton: I now know there two Molimos but I still do not know of this man or mouse.]

There is no rule as to when a greater molimo should be held. It is based on nature of death, the importance of the deceased to the band, and conditions like hunting at the time. A combination of poor hunting and sicknesses associated with the death of a child in the band could bring about a molimo to awaken the sleeping forest.

Whomever initiates a molimo festival must take the responsibility to see that everyone cooperates in providing food or he himself. Since most molimo festivals do not last less that a month, the undertaking is a great economic responsibility limiting the number of festivals held.




[more coming….remember this paper was written in 1971.)


About June Morrall

1947 - 2010
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