When I first arrived in the Ituri Forest I was shown a camp a group of Efe Pygmies all typically lived in, and told “everyone lives here but the old man and his wife … he’s a bit contentious and there was an argument.” Having read all the literature written in English about Pygmies, I was aware of the fact that these foraging people, who moved frequently — perhaps ten times a year or more — would often change the composition of their residence groups to reflect forming and breaking alliances among people who often, but not always, lived together. After hanging out in the camp, which was empty, long enough for the ethnoarchaeologist I had come to Zaire to “replace,” we went back to the road via a different path and passed Kobou and his wife (pronounced “Ko-bo-oo”) in a small clearing in a freshly cut garden. “Strange,” I thought, “They live in a square hut. Everyone else lives in a dome-shaped hut. I guess some Efe live in square huts.”
But no. Kobou is the only Efe we know of to always build square huts. Maybe somewhere else in the Central African Rain Forest, but not around these parts.
Thin, old, bearded, fierce eyes contagious laugh and one leg. Kobou1 was the father of one of my main informants. Kobou would come by the research base camp whenever I was there, more or less daily. He’d sit in a chair and chill for a while, then we might chat about one thing or another. Then he’d say “I’ve come to get my plantain” or “I’ve come to get my mohogo” or “I’ve come to get my [fill in the blank with something to eat that we had growing in our fields]“. The base camp did have a rather large garden, and the main purpose of the garden was so that Kobou and a handful of other Efe could come by now and then and claim some of the food.
“You’d better cut your plantains, then,” I’d say.
More often than not he’d reply, “I did already,” pointing with his chin to some big bunch of plantains at the edge of the clearing that I had not noticed. Then he’d speak to a child or other handy person in KiLese (the local language) and that person would drag the food over to Kobou. Kobou would then pull out some vines he always seemed to have handy and create a tumpline strap or other carrying device incorporating the plantains or other food item, stand up on his one leg, grab one of his hand-fashioned canes, attach the food to himself and grabbing the other cane head off to his camp. Unless his wife was with him, then Mrs. Kobou would carry the food.
1Here and elsewhere, when I write about people in the Congo, I use fake names. There are reasons.