Nearly 50 Mbuti men and women head into the Ituri Forest each day to gather leaves as food for a breeding population of 15 okapis. The conditions of their employment at the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in the D.R. Congo, their village lives, and their work conditions are being described in an ongoing series of blog entries.
The Okapi Wildlife Reserve blog provides interesting, general impressions of Mbuti life. Four posts in April, for instance, included numerous, striking photos of the Mbuti people. Most of the entries about the Okapi Project are written by Ghislain Somba Byombo, a 36 year old man who is the Deputy Warden of the reserve. He seems to be very dedicated to the mission of the project.
The work of the Mbuti consists of daily foraging trips into the forest to collect the leaves that the captive okapi, a forest-dwelling relative of the giraffe, will eat. The Mbuti excel at this job due to their extensive knowledge of Ituri Forest ecology and okapi food preferences. A photo on the blog shows the Mbuti leaving their camp at daybreak to collect leaves. After about three hours of collecting every day, they return to the field station with feed for the animals.
Mr. Somba writes that a portion of the wages given to the Mbuti is paid as food rations. Three times per month each worker is given, in addition to his or her wages, 10 kg of rice, 3 kg of beans, 3 bottles of palm oil, 1 kg of salt, 1 bar of soap and 4 tobacco leaves. “Those days are party days for the entire family which is present when the distribution takes place,” he writes. For outsiders, descriptions such as that could conjure up images of a plantation economy, but it is unreasonable to be critical without knowing more about the situation.
The author goes on to indicate that the value of the rations is nearly equal to the salary paid to the Mbuti. He writes that many of the Mbuti are illiterate, “and lost if it comes up counting money.” Why illiteracy means people should have a hard time managing money is not clear. In any case, he says that the money paid to the Mbuti circulates into the local economy. He concludes that the combination of cash wages and food distributions fit in well with their gathering, hunting, and bartering life-style. The reserve management evidently worked out the solution with the Mbuti.
Some of the photos are a bit disappointing. One labeled, “Mr. Somba admiring a Pygmy woman building her hut,” for instance, is just that—a photo of Mr. Somba sitting in the forest. The woman and her hut-building are not shown. But overall the photos are often the best part of the blog.
“Mbuti Pygmies” is only one of several categories applied to the blog entries. Others are worth reviewing for an overall sense of the Epulu area, where the reserve is headquartered. A dramatic photo posted on April 29, for instance, shows an overweight truck lying in the Epulu River beneath a big bridge that it evidently destroyed when it attempted to cross. Beneath the dramatic photo, Mr. Somba writes cryptically, “in this stage, the negative side is that we are now completely blocked in Epulu and the reserve in terms of quickly providing patrol [sic] rations and equipment.”
The Okapi Wildlife Reserve, 13,700 square kilometers in the Ituri Forest of northeastern D.R. Congo, is under the general management of Gilman International Conservation, a group which partners with the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature and receives funding assistance from other international agencies. It is dedicated to protecting the surviving okapi, an endemic species of the D.R. Congo.
A primary objective of the Okapi Conservation Project is to “develop an economic and educational base on which a functioning okapi reserve can operate.” The managers of the project emphasize the importance of involving local people, including the Mbuti, in the operations of the reserve. The reserve is an outgrowth of Camp Putnam, established in the 1920s by the eccentric American ethnographer Patrick Putnam, and it was the site of Anne Eisner’s paintings and Colin Turnbull’s famous research work on the Mbuti people.