Indigenous Ecologies Through Walking
Bayaka Mobility and Invisible Dwellings in the Rainforest
by Alice Vittoria
The word ecology has been used critically in anthropological writing to describe how Indigenous people think about and interact with the environment. Broadly speaking, ecology studies how living beings relate to each other in a particular ecosystem; as a byproduct of Western science and philosophy, however, the scientific understanding of these relations is often biased by Cartesian dualisms that contrast nature to culture, mind to body, and subject to object. In opposition to this, many Indigenous lifeworlds are relational, and extend sociability to the nonhuman, blurring the boundary of modern binaries. For Bayaka former hunter-gatherers living in the forests of northern Congo, the forest is a place where humans and nonhumans (animals, trees and spirits) are entangled in a network of social relations, have social agency and might, on certain occasions, interact with each other as ‘persons’ or ‘subjects’.
Forest walking is an initiation into Bayaka relational ecology. While it is indispensable to get around, find food and medicine, and visit friends and relatives, it is also vital to acquire intimate knowledge about the forest, an environment rich in multi-species connections and encounters with the invisible. Despite walking being an intrinsic component of human life, in the consumer societies of the Global North we walk less while our movements have become more frequent, rapid, and intense, but also more passive. Our bodies increasingly sit on cars, planes, and bikes or stand still on escalators, rolling walkways and scooters. Walking less while moving faster and farther has changed the ways time and space are experienced, how localities and identities are produced, and how human and nonhuman connections are built. Anna Tsing1 has argued that in this era of modern global encounters, the human species has never been more connected and yet never more detached and disengaged from other living organisms. But are humans really all the same in this respect?
Walking occupies the everyday life of the Bayaka. As a type of movement, it is a prerequisite for Bayaka well-being and one of the main sources of both cultural continuity and innovation. As a marker of ethnic identity, walking well confers pride, while losing balance, stumbling or falling will likely result in embarrassment for the person who has fallen and mockery from the people witnessing the fall. The Bayaka say that a person’s body must be ‘open’ to walk well. As a conceptual category, this ‘openness’ indicates a form of attentiveness and awareness that relies on all the senses, from attending to the feelings on the soles of the feet and the palms of the hands, to smelling, looking, and listening attentively. By following their parents in the forest, children learn to recognise paths and places, trees and leaves, animal tracks, and the sounds and smells of the forest. The sensory experience of walking goes beyond teaching practical skills and it is above all a leisurely and sociable activity. Walking together is a process of ‘becoming with’2, of sharing a trajectory with fellow walkers while creating and nurturing connections with the places people are walking around and through.
Bayaka engagement with forest ecology through walking also comprises encounter with danger: parasites, predators, venomous snakes but also malevolent spirits. Called mekadi (singular: mokadi), these are wandering spirits. After the death of a ‘bad’ person, generally a sorcerer, the spirit will continue to dwell in the forest, alone, naked, and miserable. A mokadi is a shape-shifter and, if encountered, it can trick people and seriously harm them, drive them mad or kill them. Generally invisible to the human eye, a pungent smell and a mournful cry are signs that a mokadi is near. Towards the end of my 15 months fieldwork and in an effort to understand Bayaka mobility and how they share the forest with nonhuman others, I asked my hosts to draw maps of their forest movements. Being already accustomed to the presence of mekadi, I also asked to include the movements of these spirits. On the resulting maps, Bayaka movements appear as linear, horizontal, and following a network of paths along which people come and go (image 1). Opposed to the linearity of people’s trajectories, mekadi movements were drawn and described as spirals (image 2). A mokadi can walk on the same path as men, and vertically in the shape of a bird. When a mokadi shape-shifts, it will do so by spiraling, from the ground to the sky. The presence of a crying mokadi in the forest will influence people’s decision on where to go and where to settle. Personhood and agency are somehow difficult concepts to define when working with Indigenous lifeworlds; despite being nonhuman and ghostly presences that can shape-shift or become invisible, mekadi are considered as persons, and as such active agents shaping the forest world and impacting Bayaka movements.
In Bayaka relational ecology, the forest is not a ‘natural’ space, rather a more-than- human landscape deeply cared for and intimately known. As a space in motion, fluid and defined by a web of connections that goes beyond the human, the forest is joy, abundance, and the source of individual and collective well-being. Bayaka relationship with the forest is one of guardianship, rather than ownership, and each clan has responsibilities to specific areas of forest that never overlap. However, modern land management systems superimpose logging and mining concessions, and protected areas over Bayaka territories, most often neglecting their rights to land. Exploitative industries and conservation NGOs reshape the forest landscape by establishing new boundaries and regulations that do not take into account Bayaka mobility and their perception of the forest landscape.
Taking the time to explore how place-making is negotiated, reveals Bayaka relational and sensory ecology, and the entangled lines of human and nonhuman movements in the forest. If Indigenous perspectives are more and more acknowledged and valued in academic circles, they remain marginal in the political sphere. As a consequence, land rights are often thought of in terms of securing access to resources. However, as emphasised by the case of the Bayaka, they are also significantly about sustaining a sense of belonging to a space in motion, the source of individual and collective, human and nonhuman well-being.
ALICE VITTORIA is a social anthropologist working with Bayaka Indigenous communities in the Republic of Congo. Her research focuses on Bayaka mobility and movement at multiple scales (from local to regional) and deals with land rights and access to customary territories in a logging concession.
Proofreading by LEE GRIEVESON