The Lese people practice swidden horticulture in the Ituri Forest, Congo (formerly Zaire). Living in the same area are the Efe people, sometimes known as Pygmies (but that may be an inappropriate term). The Efe and Lese share a culture, in a sense, but are distinct entities within that culture, as distinct as any people living integrated by side by side ever are. The Efe are hunter-gatherers, but the gathering of wild food part of that is largely supplanted by a traditional system of tacit exchange between Efe women and Lese farmers, whereby the Efe provide labor and the farmers provide food. The Efe men also work on the farms sometimes, but their contribution to the family’s diet is more typically from foraged goods, including plants but mostly animals, and during a particular season of the year, the products of honey bee nests.
For several years, in the 1980s and early 90s, I lived in Zaire (now Congo) for several months out of each year (generally between May and January, roughly), and for much of that time I was in the Ituri with the Lese and Efe. During that time, I spent much of the time in the forest with the Efe (very few of the researches on that long term multidisciplinary project did that — most spent their time with the Lese for various reasons).
To go from our study site to the grocery store (which was not really a grocery store because they did not exist in that part of Zaire, but a city with markets) was about a week’s trip or more. Only a few days of that was driving, the rest fixing the broken truck, doing the shopping, etc. So, one did this infrequently. There was no local market during my time there, though one opened up 10 clicks away for a while, at which one might or might not be able to buy a chicken or a yam, if you showed up early.
I (and this pertains to most of my colleagues as well, only a few of us would be at the site at a time) would buy sacks of rice and beans and other long term food items in the city, and carefully curate them at the base camp, a small village constructed of wattle and daub leaf-roofed huts and outhouses. When I went to the forest just to live with or observe the Efe, I would bring the exact amount of food I would need to survive if all I did was feed myself. This way my presence would not affect the Efe’s food budget. But, this is a sharing culture and it would have been very bad for me to just eat that food. I feely shared my food with my fellow camp members, and they shared their food, and my food was almost exactly the same as their local food (rice was grown there) except I would have beans and they are not local. Otherwise, the same.
This meant that I ate what they ate.
Other times, I would hire Efe and maybe one Lese to go with me to the forest to carry out research. I’d be careful to hire them for limited amounts of time to not disrupt their lives too much, but there was very little difference between them working for me and, say, getting honey during honey season. I would only ask them to work with me for a few hours a day and they would otherwise forage. On these trips, I brought more food, for them, because our geographic location and the work we were doing interfered with their normal food getting activities, so I made up for that. But still, during these times we ate plenty of forest foods.
So, what do the Efe (and their Lese compatriot) eat?
Locally, the plant diet is insufficient nutritionally, and often, children are undernourished. There is a hunger season during which the plants from the forest and gardens are rare or absent at the same time, and this is often the death season. No one dies form starving, really (though that apparently can happen) but they have another dangerous disease, and the lack of food may put an ill individual over the top. During one bad hungers season, a small family attempted mass suicide, and mostly succeeded.
Locally, there is no beef, or as is the case a couple of hundred clicks away in most directions, commercially harvested fish. They have goats but the are ceremonial and seem to be never eaten. The Lese have chickens, a few, and they are eaten now and then. The wild animal foods they eat are incredibly important. Without that, they would be in very bad shape.
The most common animals they eat, as in day to day and mundane, are a form of antelope called the Blue Duiker, and monkeys, usually Mangabeys. During a certain season they eat a fair umber of another animal, like but not exactly a duiker, called a water Cheverotain. But since food supply is so unpredictable, they are always on the lookout, and they eat everything. A song bird or bat that flies too close may be batted down with a machete, a Honey Badger that stumbles up on a group of resting Efe may be chased own, an Elephant Shrew that happens on a camp will be dispatched by an archer and cooked up. The only time I ever saw the Efe not go after an animal that happened to show up is when a small herd of elephants came along, and the Efe made a lot of noise to chase them off, while at the same time making plans to hide in the nearby hide-from-the-elephant trees (yes, they have them.) And snakes. Something odd going on there with snakes (see below).
One of the focal points of my research was to look at how animals reacted to the Efe’s presence, and it is striking. Since the Efe will kill and eat almost anything they encounter, most of the animals are very careful to avoid the Efe, and even the Efe’s habitually used trails.
There is a certain amount of elephant hunting. Pygmies, generally, are the African elephant hunters, and apparently, have been so for a very long time. The importance of elephant is very under-appreciated by most experts. The data show that most of the food the Efe eat is plant food, and animal food makes up a percentage of their diet typical for tropical or subtropical African hunter gatherers. But those data never include elephant. I’ve estimated that the total amount of elephant meat they eat over medium periods of time, left to their own, is about the same as all the other meat combined. This happens because when someone does kill an elephant (a rare event compared to the daily killing of a duiker or other more common mammal), everyone from everywhere shows up and gorges on that meat for a few weeks.
So, even though most researchers would classify elephant as uncommon in their diet and therefor not a major contributor to the diet, they’ve simply got that wrong. It is a big deal.
Beyond that, the range of animals is huge, because the number of species native to the area is huge. Oddly, the Efe I was with (and these were more than one distinct group) didn’t seem to eat snakes, tough I know that others do. These Efe also often have a particular species of snake as their totem animal, and you don’t eat your totem animal. So, maybe that is the reason.
Because Efe live the life they live, one without the privilege of access to unlimited supplies of cattle flesh, swine meat, domestic birds, and commercially caught or raised fish, they have a wide dietary niche. Because they live in a remote part of the African rain forest, this list includes a lot of animals many may have never even heard of, or that most regard as exotic, though they are very common there. They live a life where the plant foods often fail them, and collectively do not provide a sufficiently nutritious diet, so they do not have the privilege of eschewing meat, and in fact, perhaps with the knowledge that meat is the real hunger-killer in their environment, they prefer to spend as much time as they can chewing meat.
And I spent a lot of time sharing their culture and ecology with them, and in so doing, had the privilege of getting much closer to truly experiencing another culture than most ever get. Close enough, in fact, to know that I wasn’t even close, and knowing that is a privilege the dilettante missionary or subscriber to National Geo can not have.