They have been given acclaim as one of the ‘Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by Unesco’ for their knack for language being able to not only speak their own language but whichever of the approximately 15 Bantu peoples’ they are affiliated with.
They are the Mbendjele Bayaka — traditionally, highly mobile, and reliant primarily on subsistence foraging for food and medicine. They have been the subject of a National Geographic article titled “Ndoki: The Last Place on Earth”, as well as a three-part TV series.
However, this indigenous Congolese hunter-gatherer population, one of a number of “Pygmy” hunter-gatherer populations living in the rainforests of Congo and Central Africa, are now attracting the wrong kind of attention.
Last week, they were featured in the scientific journal Public Library of Science (PLOS ONE) for imbibing copious amounts of alcohol, which researchers referred to as “hazardous”.
“Our findings demonstrate the prevalence of hazardous alcohol consumption among transitioning hunter-gatherers is higher than other segments of the Congolese population and indicate negative impacts on health and wellbeing, highlighting an urgent need for targeted public health interventions,” the researchers said in their report Quantifying patterns of alcohol consumption and its effects on health and wellbeing among BaYaka hunter-gatherers.
They were concerned “by the methanol content of the variety of alcoholic drinks, which may cause disorders of the nervous system and cancers”.
In 2016, 48.3 percent of the Congolese population over the age of 15 had abstained from alcohol for the past year, by contrast, only 13.9 percent of the Mbendjele people reported abstention.
Estimated annual per capita ethanol consumption in this study was higher than national levels, at 15.4L for men and 8.7L for women compared with nationwide estimates of 12.9L and 2.8L respectively.
“Many Mbendjele drink alcohol frequently, habitually, and in greater quantities than national averages. It is also possible that the per unit effects of alcohol are greater on the Mbendjele, due to their shorter stature. Pygmy populations have an average male height of about 155cm,” say the researchers.
Apparently these high levels of alcohol consumption coupled with the high concentrations of ethanol have contributed to a deterioration of physical health, social problems such as increased violence, domestic abuse, defilement and rape and general delinquency and economic difficulties stemming from engagement in exploitative labour activities to purchase alcohol, or in some cases, being paid in alcohol directly.
These high rates of drinking were found to be prevalent (at 40 percent) even among women during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
“Some suspected cases of foetal alcohol spectrum disorders were observed, though this is yet to be studied systematically. Our results therefore indicate that alcohol-related harm to pregnant women and their babies may be higher among BaYaka populations.”
Few interviewees showed an awareness of potential harms to health from alcohol use. Several people compared alcohol to food, terming alcohol as a “need”, while others reported buying alcohol as soon as they had any money. Some were more explicit in their psychological dependence, with one man saying that he needed alcohol “to stay sane”.
The frequent occurrence of borrowing from Bantu people and exchange of food for alcohol also suggest dependence.
Some Mbendjele linked their drinking to feelings of sadness, saying that drinking helped them “get rid of bad thoughts, worries and sorrow”.
“Reviews of global indigenous health describe a high prevalence of depression and suicide in Indigenous groups compared with non-indigenous populations, which is linked to poverty, urbanisation, and a lack of local autonomy and cultural continuity. The responses hint that global patterns of Indigenous socio economic transition, substance use and mood disorders may potentially be mirrored in Bayaka people.”
Residing in the forests of Congo and Central African Republic, the traditionally mobile community, lived in camps of 10 to 60 individuals with occasional ritual performances such as Ejngi and Ngoku massanas, which bring the community together and usually all camp members participate, and in which alcohol is a crucial feature.
But increased logging and local conservation initiatives have meant many Mbendjele Bayaka have moved to more permanent, sedentary settlements seeking alternative employment, throwing them in the midst of a socioeconomic transition characterised by combined pressures of deprivation.
The report says such alcohol-related problems are principally a consequence of the social, political and economic marginalisation related to the socio-economic transition and sedentarisation . They found that these changes occurred in the backdrop of discrimination from neighbouring non-pygmy host communities.
“Previously active, well-fed hunter-gatherers... [have] become poorly nourished agricultural day labourers, and clandestine hunter-gatherers sedentarised by terror... and alcoholised to encourage debt-bondage and pass the time imbibing an increasing variety of local alcoholic drinks.”
Problems associated with alcohol use have long been identified as a major health risk facing indigenous communities worldwide, however, research and data on consumption patterns and health consequences of alcohol use and abuse are virtually non-existent for African hunter-gatherers, most likely due to difficulties in working with dispersed communities in remote areas.
Incidence of diarrhoeal diseases are very high among hunter-gatherers, and exacerbated by increased sedentism. Moreover, gastro-intestinal maladies are a major — and in numerous cases, the most common — cause of death in hunter-gatherer populations; thus, hazardous alcohol consumption in these populations is particularly dangerous.