Aka fieldsite in the Congo Basin
Primary Site Researcher
Adam Howell Boyette
Adam Howell Boyette is a PhD student at Washington State University. Under the supervision of Barry Hewlett, Adam is conducting ethnographic and empirical research on the learning of sharing behaviour in Aka children and adolescents. His other interests include evolutionary and cultural facets of play behaviour, and the role of developmental processes in cultural transmission.
The Aka live in the northwestern region of the Congo Basin, in the tropical forests of southwestern Central African Republic (CAR) and northern Congo-Brazzaville. The region is approximately 100,000 km², stretching from the equator to 3 degrees north latitude. The dense, humid forest in this region is heterogeneous in composition. It is dominated by solid ground semideciduous forest, but is spotted with solid ground evergreen forests, swamp or marsh forests in the riverine valleys, and open savannah.
Secondary forest also exists in regions recently abandoned by slash and burn agriculturalists. The distribution of game varies across these various forest types and Aka hunt a number of species in each environment.
The northern part of the region has a tropical climate with two seasons, and the southern part a subequatorial climate with four seasons. Average rainfall throughout is approximately 1700mm (1407-2381mm), and the mean annual temperature is 24.5 degrees centigrade.
The Aka are estimated to number between 30,000-40,000 people living throughout their territories. The local population in any one area varies continuously as individuals come and go, visiting relatives in other areas for lengths of time.
Ethnolinguistic studies show the Aka to have shared a common linguistic history with the neighbouring Baka of eastern Cameroon. Some of the vocabulary of this original language exists in the daily speech of both groups, but the Aka have since adopted the language of the Bantu farmers who moved into the region several centuries ago.
The Aka language (diaka) is of the Bantu C10 family and is today distinct but mutually intelligible with the dialects of neighboring farmers. Sign language, paralanguage, song, and forest-sound imitation are also crucial aspects of Aka linguistic identity.
Aka identify as a 'people of the forest', in opposition to the neighbouring 'people of the village'. To outsiders, Aka are famous for their skill in elephant hunting, honey collecting, and magic. Local group identity is defined by kinship and relation through marriage, and, depending on the region, identification with particular farmer families and clans of farmers.
For example, Aka in the Lobaye region of CAR have a traditional 'patron-client' relationship with specific farmer families, consisting of exclusive exchange relations. This type of relationship is common throughout the Congo Basin. In this case, each farmer family has territorial rights to one of several trails that lead south from the village of Bangandu, which are used to access forest resources.
These are clan trails and the Aka families associated with villagers of each clan are, at least by the villagers, identified as members of that clan. It depends on the particular Aka family how strongly they identify with their 'patrons', but each family enjoys substantial autonomy in this relationship, due to the Aka forest specialisation and the villagers' general fear of the forest environment.
Political and social organisation
Aka society is acephalous and highly egalitarian. In general, the nuclear family is the primary economic unit, consisting of a wife-husband pair and their children. A camp consists of a community of as many as 15 nuclear families, though usually only 20-35 people.
There are also regional bands, though the Aka do not have a term to describe these units. They consist of 50-150 individuals who share hunting and gathering territory. Each band may consist of a core of 2 to 4 'clans', though the clan level of identification is of more importance in relations between Aka and villagers than it is between groups of Aka.
There are three 'specialists' within Aka society, who have important ritual duties but no special power outside of their domains. The kombeti or mbai 'elder' is usually an older male within each camp whose knowledge and opinions are especially valued. This individual is concerned with the moral standards of the group and may speak to the forest as a representative of the camp to call for peace and fruitful hunting and gathering.
The tuma is a master elephant hunter and recognised as important in spiritual success in the hunt. Finally, the nganga diviner-healer is an important figure in Aka society. The nganga has special knowledge of medicinal plants and how to communicate with the spirits. These individuals may become so widely known and their powers heralded that heads of state will travel from the capital in Bangui to seek their divination or healing abilities.
Thus, the nganga can be a substantial source of income for Aka communities. There is one famous nganga in the Lobaye region whose family essentially runs a roadside clinic, which seems to have a fairly regular patient load.
Economic practices and daily life
Most economic practices are collaborative affairs, and daily life consists of attending to subsistence and maintenance work, often leisurely and sociably. On average, one-third of the Aka diet comes from gathered forest foods, and the other two-thirds from hunted game, usually mammals.
Aka knowledge of forest plants and animals is extensive. They primarily subsist on 63 species of plant, 20 insect species, and the honey from 8 species of bees, as well as meat from 28 species of game. Hunting technology is specialised for specific game, and what technique is used on any day will depend on the number of men available in camp and the time of the year.
During the dry season, when camps are closer together, communal net-hunts are arranged, and several camps will join together. Men, women, and children may participate, one group acting as the 'beaters' flushing game out of the bush toward the surrounding hunting nets where a second group of participants waits with spears ready.
Also during the dry season, men may hunt individually during mornings or late in the evening with cross-bows and poison darts. Wife and husband may also hunt porcupines together with hunting dogs if camp has too few members for net-hunting. Use of snares varies widely, but every young Aka boy (and probably many girls) is proficient in the construction of basic game traps before his adolescence.
Gathering activities also vary by season, though many fruits, nuts, fungi, and the leaves of Gnetum africanum are gathered opportunistically, as are forest snails and tortoises. From about August through September (the height of the rainy season), moth caterpillars fall from the taller canopy trees to search for suitable ground in which to bury themselves to form chrysalides.
At this time, the Aka camp near to areas known for their quantities of caterpillars and all members of camp will spend the day gathering them. This resource is of great importance to the villagers throughout the Congo Basin as well, and the Aka trade large quantities to villagers who will dry them and sell them at markets throughout CAR. Dried, caterpillars can last for several months.
All food acquired by any camp member is shared with all other individuals in camp, even visitors, unless there is a particularly small portion, and then it will be shared within the nuclear family. Sharing is often formalised between families in camp. This is especially true of meat, which has specific distribution norms.
Schooling and literacy
The Aka are largely illiterate. There are four mission schools in Bangandu that Aka children can attend if a child's family or village patron will pay for tuition and supplies. Few Aka attend these schools. A group of anthropologists have established a free school in the Bokoka neighborhood of Bangandu at the request of the Aka, and many children along the Bokoka trail, Bombolango, have begun to attend regularly.
Aka religious beliefs are individualistic in nature. In general, there are two types of 'ancestor spirits'. One type is more personalised and may have a name or belong to a particular family, and the other is nameless and generalised. Depending on the strength of one's attributions, these ancestor spirits may mediate between the living and the great Forest Spirit, Dzengi, who is responsible for the productivity of the forest. There is also consensus that a creator spirit exists, Bembe, who is no longer active.
Ceremonial dances are held frequently to ensure the productivity of the hunt, but also on the occasion of a death. To deal with private matters, more intimate rites may be performed, perhaps with the assistance of an nganga.
The Aka have adopted villager beliefs about witchcraft and sorcery to various extents. Witches operate in secrecy and send poison darts into their victims. An nganga is the only one who can diagnose and cure the attack of a witch.
The Aka concept of ekila, is a dynamic, individualised set of taboos that serves a function of spiritual and moral guidance. It is based on the multifaceted connections between one's own growth and one's relations to people, animals, and the forest itself through sharing and the hunt. Ekila beliefs stem from the association of menstruation with hunting success, the smell of menstrual blood having the effect of alerting game to one's presence. It is extended, however, to a wider set of personalised prohibitions and proscriptions.
A girl is called ekila when she begins to menstruate and now must adopt certain food taboos to protect her reproductive vitality, but also a hunter learns to take care of his ekila by always sharing and avoiding the jealousy of others. Children learn of their family's ekila practices and beliefs when they reach the age of production (boys, when they join adult men's hunts) or reproduction (girls, when they reach menarche).
Traditional medicine is most commonly used to treat ailments. An nganga (medicinal specialist) is consulted if common knowledge medicine doesn't work.
There is a clinic in Bangandu, but the Aka choose not to take advantage of its services for fear of discrimination.
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