The Aka or Bayaka are a nomadic Mbenga pygmy people who live by hunting. Although the Aka people call themselves BiAka, they are also known as Babenzele in Western Central African Republic and Northwest Congo (RPC).
They live in a variety of terrains in southwestern Central African Republic and northern Congo (Brazzaville region), in 11 different ecological zones of the Western Congo Basin. They are a related, but distinct, people from the Baka people of Cameroon, Gabon, northern Congo, and southwestern Central African Republic.
The BiAka have a high predominance of the L1 genetic haplotype, which is believed to be the most divergent human dNA haplotype. It is believed that the modern human ancestor developed in the East Africa area, where the Efé (and other Mbuti) and the Hadzabe of Tanzania also exhibit the L1 haplotype. During a period of "interglacial optimum" weather, the Sahara became lush and green, allowing easy migration along its southern border. It is theorized that during this period, migration of early man occurred from the Eastern Congo basin to the Western Congo basin. The BiAka therefore represent some of the most distinct existing modern humans.
The Aka tribe gain sustenance from 63 plant species, 20 insect species, honey from 8 species of bees, and 28 species of game. They also trade with their farmer neighbors for agricultural goods and, more recently, often plant their own small seasonal crops.
These hunter-gatherers have a symbiotic market relationship with neighboring villagers (collectively known as Ngandu). While the Ngandu are primarily farmers, they will also occasionally hunt for bushmeat, and also keep domesticated livestock. They exchange their village goods, including crops of manioc, plantain, yams, taro, maize, cucumbers, squash, okra, papaya, mango, pineapple, palm oil, and rice for the bushmeat, honey, and other forest products the Aka collect. There are over 15 different village tribes with whom the approximately 30,000 Aka associate.
Fathers of the Aka tribe spend more time in close contact to their babies than in any other known society. Aka fathers have their infant within arms reach 47% of the time and have been described as the "best Dads in the world." Men unable to obtain multiple wives as a result of belonging to the lowest rungs of the economy substitute resources for parental obligations. It has been observed that they pick up, cuddle, and play with their babies at least five times as often as fathers in other societies. It is believed that this is due to the strong bond between Aka husband and wife. Throughout the day, couples share hunting, food preparation, and social and leisure activities. The more time Aka parents spend together, the greater the father's loving interaction with his baby.
Unlike the Mbuti pygmies of the eastern Congo (who speak only the language of the tribes with whom they are affiliated), the Aka speak their own language along with whichever of the approximately 15 Bantu peoples they are affiliated.
In 2003, the oral traditions of the Aka were proclaimed one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
Association with European colonists
With the slave trade of the 18th century came migrations of tribes in the area, with resultant pressures on the Aka. In addition, at the end of the 19th century the Aka were the major elephant hunters that provided ivory for the ivory trade. This trade used the tribes with whom the Aka were affiliated as middlemen. From 1910 to 1940, rubber production was desired by colonialists, and forced labor of the tribesmen with whom the Aka were associated increased the demand for bushmeat, and some villagers escaped into the forest, where they put added demands on the Aka. The Aka were never involved in the forced labor schemes directly, but the increased demands for meat and skins encouraged the more efficient method of net hunting instead of spear hunting. This shift in hunting technique changed the social structure of the Aka.
In the 1930s the French encouraged the Aka to move into roadside villages, but like the Efé of the Ituri forest, most Aka disappeared into the forest and few joined the villages (except in a few villages in Congo-Brazza).
Today, the world economic structure encourages Aka participation in coffee plantations (of the Ngandu and other neighboring farmers) during the dry season, which is also the hunting season. This has changed their societal structure even further. Employment with the ivory and lumber trade bring in far more money than their traditional lifestyle, further putting pressure on their culture.
Their complex polyphonic music has been studied by various ethnomusicologists. Simha Arom has made historical field recordings of some of their repertoire. Michelle Kisliuk has written a detailed performance ethnography (with audio and video companion website, Oxford University Press, New York). Mauro Campagnoli studied their musical instruments in depth, comparing them to neighbouring pygmy groups such as the Baka Pygmies).
Aka musicians appear on:
- African Rhythms (2003).
- Music by Aka Pygmies, performed by Aka people, György Ligeti and Steve Reich, performed by Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Teldec Classics: 8573 86584-2. Liner notes by Aimard, Ligeti, Reich, and Simha Arom and Stefan Schomann.
- Echoes of the Forest: Music of the Central African Pygmies (The Musical Expeditions Series/Book and Compact Disc) (Ellipsis Arts 1995)
- A New Jersey author named Louis Sarno traveled to live with the Bayaka (whom he called the Babenzele) and wrote several books about his experiences there. His Kurtzian saga has been met with mixed reviews. He has co-operated on several ethnologic recordings of pygmy music, notably in this compilation that includes the recordings of Colin Turnbull and Jean-Pierre Hallet of other pygmy peoples in the Congo.
- BOYOBI: Ritual Music of the Rainforest Pygmies by Louis Sarno (Sound Photosynthesis 2000)
- What happens in the rainforest between 11pm and 4 am? The spirits of the forest are alight and can morph into animals running through the camp. Celebrational music can assuage fears and satisfy the spirits. A hemp-aided musical journey of the nighttime Aka, from festivals that can last as long as 2 years! Also distributed as: BOYOBI: A Hunting Ritual of Bayaka Pygmies (Sound Photsynthesis).
- Bayaka: The Extraordinary Music of the BaBenzele Pygmies (CD and book) by Louis Sarno (Ellipsis Arts 1996)
- More focused on the instruments and music of the Bayaka, beautiful and melodic.
Books about the Aka
"Seize the Dance! BaAka Musical Life and the Ethnography of Performance" by Michelle Kisliuk (Oxford University Press, 2000).
- Song from the Forest -- My Life Among the Ba-Benjelle Pygmies by Louis Sarno (Houghton Mifflin 1993).
- In the mid-1980s, a New Jersey native hears pygmy music on the radio and decides to travel and live with this remote people, an idyllic picture fixed in his head. Disillusionment sets in as his initial wonder slowly wears off and he realizes the pygmies are interested in him only for food, liquor, and tobacco. Following his initial three month sojourn, he returns two years later and lives "permanently" with the tribe, becoming infatuated with a young tribeswoman with whom he can hardly communicate, which includes an emotionally turbulent "courtship" and unconsummated "marriage." Though riveting, the cultural friction is tangible.
The World Wildlife Fund of Washington, DC, has worked with the BiAka since the 1980s to protect gorilla habitats, minimize logging of forest, and promote other conservation efforts while empowering the BiAka and other indigenous peoples.
Other Pygmy groups
Anthropologists studying the Aka
- The Aka call themselves Baaka and their language Aka. In the Lobaye region, these become Bayaka and Yaka due to epenthesis whenever there is no consonant starting a syllable. In Bagandu, the forms are Biaka and Diaka, and in the Sangha River region, Babenjelé and Aka. (It is not clear if these are endonyms or exonyms.) The names in Sango and Lingala are Ba(m)benga and Beka. (Duke, 2001, Aka as a Contact Language.)
- Michael Nichols (2001). "Gallery: Ndoki: The Last Place on Earth".
- Johnson ED, Gonzalez JP, Goerges A. "Filovirus activity among selected ethnic groups inhabiting the tropical forest of equatorial Africa". Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 1993;87:536-538.
- "Men have nipples to sooth crying baby until it can be fed". Medical News Today. June 13, 2005.
- Barry Hewlett (1991). Intimate Fathers: The Nature and Context of Aka Pygmy Paternal Infant. University of Michigan Press. ISBN 978-0-472-08203-2.
- "Congo Basin: Protecting Africa's Tropical Forests: People". World Wildlife Fund.
Michelle Kisliuk Seize the Dance! BaAka Musical Life and the Ethngraphy of Performance. Oxford University Press. 2000.
- Article: "Are the men of the African Aka tribe the best fathers in the world?"
- Aka Pygmies of the Western Congo Basin
- Fieldwork about Baka, Aka and other pygmy groups
- African Pygmies with photos, music and ethnographic notes