Okapi is a wildlife reserve in the Northeast of Democratic Republic of Congo in the Ituri forests bordering Uganda and South Sudan. The reserve covers a total area of about 14,000 square kilometers with such a stunning environment comprising of Ituri, Nepoko and Epulu Rivers which flow through the Okapi reserve. The reserve offers access to the local Nomadic Mbuti pygmies who live within the reserve together with the Indigenous Bantus whom you will interact with as you are doing the cultural or community encounters. The Mbuti pygmies are among the various indigenous pygmy groups in Congo and are traditionally hunter-gatherers who are also one of the oldest indigenous people in Congo.
The reserve was basically established to conserve and protect Okapis from danger which were and still the most dominant in the area though in 1997 it was added to the UNESCO World heritage sites in danger with the major threats being poaching, deforestation, gold mining, and the conflicts and wars which have dominated the eastern parts of the country thus moving within the boundaries of the reserve hence its staff flying and evacuate too. However, the reserve is most popular for inhabiting larger populations of Okapi as its name implies though there also other wildlife species which are also resided in very huge amounts.
The reserve is home to approximately 5000 Okapis, 4000 elephants, and 2000 leopards plus large amounts of crocodiles, buffaloes, and water chevrotains. Chimpanzee tracking is also a popular activity in the Park since it harbors many of the eastern common chimpanzees which are made up of numerous interesting behaviors which will make your safari a memorable one and definitely historical. Experienced local guides exist in the reserve to ensure that you enjoy your safari to the fullest without any discomfort.
You will collect a large gallery from the Park due to its abundance in wildlife, bird life and other fascinating features thus you need to travel with many extra-charged camera batteries and binoculars however while with the chimpanzees, you are not emphasized to capture photos using flashlight cameras because you are most likely to be scaring the chimpanzees and thus you are advised to move with good cameras always. Over 300 bird species have been recorded from the reserve thus being one of the most important birding sites in Africa hence being ideal for bird enthusiasts.
Cultural encounters in the Park will offer you with wonders especially when you the Mbuti pygmies, one of the shortest people on earth but with an amazing culture.
Culture of the Mbuti people
The Mbuti live in villages that are categorized as bands with each hut housing a family unit. At the start of the dry season, they leave the village to enter the forest and set up a series of camps. This way the Bambuti are able to utilize more land area for maximum foraging. These villages are solitary and separated from other groups of people. Their houses are small, circular, and very temporary and the house construction always starts with the tracing of the outline of the house into the ground.
The walls of the structures are strong sticks that are placed in the ground and at the top of the sticks a vine is tied around them to keep them together. Large leaves are used in the construction of the hut roofs as sheets. The Mbuti are primarily hunter-gatherers who feed on; monkeys, fish, crabs, shellfish, snails, pigs, ants, larvae, antelopes, honey and on vegetables such as; berries, leaves, beans, legumes, peanuts, hibiscus, Kola nuts, wild yams, fruits like oranges, mangoes and many others.
As already noted the Mbuti are hunters who always target the giant forest hogs while hunting. Giant forest hog is definitely a bad animal which may cause illness to those who eat it though it is often valuable as a trade good between the Mbuti. The Mbuti use large nets, traps, bows and arrows to hunt the giant forest hogs and other species of which each Mbuti band has its own hunting ground though boundaries may become hard to maintain.
The Ituri forest is indeed a parent to the Mbuti because, like parents, the forest gives them food, shelter and clothing which are readily made from abundant forest materials. Hunting is usually done in groups with men, women, and children all aiding in the process though women and children are not involved if the hunting involves the use of a bow and arrow, but if nets are used, it is common for everyone to participate.
In some instances women may hunt using a net more often than men. The women and the children herd the animals to the net as the men guard the net. Everyone engages in foraging where women and men both take care of the children. Women are in charge of cooking, cleaning, repairing the hut, and obtaining water. The kin-based units work together to provide food and care for the young. It is easier for men to lift the women up into the trees for honey.
For the marriage customs among the Mbuti, sister exchange is the common form of marriage where men from other bands exchange sisters or other females to whom they have ties and in the Mbuti society bride wealth is not customary. There is no formal marriage ceremony instead couples are considered officially married when the groom presents his bride’s parents with an antelope he alone has hunted and killed. Polygamy does occur but at different rates depending on the group and it is not very common. The sexual intercourse of married couples is regarded as an act entirely different from that of unmarried partners, for only in marriage may children be conceived.
Politically the Mbuti societies have no ruling group or lineage, no overlying political organization, and little social structure. The Bambuti are an egalitarian society in which the band is the highest form of social organization. Leadership may be displayed for example on hunting treks where men become leaders because they are good hunters. And basing to their superior hunting ability, leaders eat more meat and fat and fewer carbohydrates than other men but besides hunting, Men and women basically have equal power. Issues are discussed and decisions are made by consensus at fire camps; men and women engage in the conversations equivalently and if there is a disagreement or offense, then the offender may be banished, beaten or scorned and at times the offender can be chased from the forest and have them work for private landowners for little to no pay.
An important ritual that impacts the Mbuti’s life is referred to as molimo. Molimo can be practiced during the death of an important person in the tribe thus they loudly celebrate the event to wake the forest in belief that if bad things are happening to its children, then it must be asleep and should awake. In the evening, the ritual is accompanied by the men dancing and singing around the fire well as women and children must remain in their huts with the doors closed. These practices were studied thoroughly by British anthropologist Colin Turn bull, known primarily for his work with the tribe.
Molimo is also the name of a trumpet that men play during the ritual. The sound produced by a molimo is considered more important than the material it is made out of. When not in use, the trumpet is stored in the trees of the forest and it is only retrieved in an existence of a celebration.
The Mbuti are however threatened for various reasons including their territory in Congo to lack legal protection and the boundaries that each band claims are not formally established. They are no longer allowed to hunt large game and due to deforestation, gold mining, and modern influences from plantations, agriculturalists, and efforts to conserve the forests, their food supply is threatened. There is also significant civil unrest in the country. During the cultural encounters with the Mbuti will then reward with a great experience because you will know much of their entire lifestyle which is quite interesting to hear and you still enjoy their dances and songs at large.