Stalking live prey across the forest floor, the man pauses momentarily to cock an ear in the direction of a murmuring rustle. The cool of the morning mist surges sharply against the moist beads collecting warm-blooded and ovoid on his chest. He shivers. Stops to check his arrows. There is a thumbnail-sized notch in his favorite shaft: scarred remains of an ambush one late afternoon by an elephant flushed from the fanged and fringed underbrush. He caresses lovingly the aft section of the arrow, pulling his short, calloused digits along a mowhawk of feathers freshly replaced. Bright forest birds, caught mid-flight and plucked into bubbling pots over soot-scrawled rock fires. These tail feathers fly the truest of all, rainbow arcs bracing the dart’s swift flight. The man knowingly mumbles the bird’s name in his abrupt tongue, invoking the raptor’s spirit, its essence, the unfathomable. He continues on the trail. The trail. A sprawling jigsaw mitred against the infinite backdrop of jungle: endless, boundless, horizonless. Walk down this path and wind up at the cliffs; this one, the ocean; another, the capital; yet another, Sudan or Cameroon or Congo.
The man knows the lay of the land, knows its rhythms, its respirations, its aspirations. Was it not this very tree where his uncle was hanged? Not that self same rock upon which was smote his first kill? A small, tawny mammal scuttles under vernal foliage nearby. It leaves hasty tracks, indelible inkings printed feather-light on the coolblack mud of the path. Too small to worry about, the hunter gathers his senses back to himself and refocuses on the surrounding wall of green ahead. He knows each plant, each tendril; no amorphous mass of photosynthesized dendrite, this. He bends gently to grasp a frond dripping with morning dew. Humid bringer of life. Cups the open-palmed petiole to his lips, sucks out the forest’s marrowed flute.
Slung to his side, cradled, cupped and swaddled in knotty cloth, a tiny baby. Much too young yet for teeth, eyes sewn shut with deepest sleep, bouncing alongside his father, learning the ways of the hunt. The man glances down at the infant, stifles a gap-toothed grin, palms the tender crescent of forehead showing, and resumes the chase.
From the moment I conceived of the idea to write a blog about fatherhood from an anthropological perspective, I have wanted to write about the Aka. You might say, even, that they were the impetus for the blog itself. Now that I’m thinking more about it, they probably were just that: the reason to start this whole shindig. This might, at first blush, appear to sound like an exaggeration. It is not. They are such badasses, I’m surprised we all haven’t heard much more about them. They certainly put us Western fathers to shame.
Dr. Barry Hewlett, professor of anthropology at Washington State University, has spent countless hours living with the Aka. The Aka are a nomadic hunter-gatherer people, pygmies all, fanning themselves across the southern portion of Central African Republic (CAR) and northern Congo. Dr. Hewlett first went to CAR decades ago for dissertation work. His time spent as a participant-observant in Aka communities formed the basis for his first monograph, now heralded as a “classic” in anthropological circles: Intimate Fathers: The Nature and Context of Aka Pygmy Paternal Infant Care.
I contacted Professor Hewlett in early December of last year. I wanted to know if there was any work to be done in furthering the study of the “anthropology of fatherhood.” To my utter amazement and delight, he – a renowned anthropologist – responded quite rapidly to my shot-in-the-dark email. He assured me that there was plenty of work to be done; insisting, even, that since the publication of Intimate Fathers in 1991, there hasn’t been an ethnography conducted with a small scale culture that focuses on fathers. “So, lots to do!” He was equally insistent that I “enjoy the new family” for the time being; something which is much easier to do at the moment than conduct ethnographies in heart of Africa. But, back to the Aka.
The Aka, as documented exhaustively by Hewlett, are rather magnanimous with their children. Infants enjoy almost 100% of their time in the strong, safe arms of a caregiver; rarely, if ever, are they put down. Up to 60% of this time is generally spent in the arms of someone other than mom. Unlike surrounding agricultural tribes, who carry their babies on their backs, the Aka prefer to sling their infants on their sides – allowing plenty of face time with the adult in charge. Aka live in small clusters of 25-35 people, usually a band of brothers, their wives, and their children. Moving on average once per month in search of fresh game, they call home a tightly knit circle of small huts. Their primary source of sustenance is wild game, which is hunted by using nets: a number of people will string up a net, others will flush startled animals into it, still others will pounce upon the tangled prey and finish the job. (Just in case you were curious, the women are usually the ones to do the “pouncing” and “finishing” part of the hunt.) The “village” center is formed by 5-8 circular huts, themselves set in a circular fashion. Though it will seem odd to someone like me who has been raised in the U.S., time spent at home is “public time” while time spent out hunting and foraging in the forest is “private time.” Since material resources are few, and the Aka are fiercely egalitarian, things like shoes, shirts, necklaces, and spear tips are passed around with great frequency. Hey, mind if I borrow your new car for a bit?
We know a little about the Aka now; what of the men?
The men, it turns out, are some badass nurturing sons of guns.
-Spend more than 50% of their time within arms reach of their infants (this is at least five times more than men in any other culture)
-Hold their infants for more than 2 hours per day (compare this to the paltry 10-20 minute per day average in an American household)
-Co-sleep with their infants and children
-Do not designate certain activities as “women’s” or “feminine” and thus, end up sharing holistically in the work load
-often offer their nipples to their infants to suckle when the mother is not available
This is a mere sampling of what Aka men do to help with the little ones. By and large, Aka pygmy men make the average American man look rather small, in terms of fathering. But, what factors are taking place here to create an environment so conducive to being a caring, nurturing, loving father? Is it something bound up in the Aka culture? Are Aka men testosterone-deprived? Is it something in the water? Are their babies just that much cuter than everyone else’s?
The answer comes from decades of intimate study of the Aka in all their settings – the home circle, the hunt, the evening meals, the ritual celebrations, etc. And, lest you fret, ye deskjockey, ye corporate American absentee father, there are specific facets of the Aka cultural milieu that precipitate such an attached, nurturing, affectionate fatherhood. In fact, these “specific facets” are not necessarily proprietary to the Aka, but are boasted by hunter-gatherer societies across the spectrum.
In foraging societies, and especially among the Aka, two things specifically contribute to the molding of super badass fathers: 1) accumulable resources are few; and 2) men are not (necessarily) the primary contributors to subsistence. Why would this matter? First, let’s look quickly at accumulable resources. That is, those things which can be accumulated and stored. Food, clothing, physical “stuff.” Since refrigeration is not super-duper accessible to the average Aka, something like basic food storage (for more than a few days) becomes a non-starter. Clothing is mostly an impediment, so you won’t find Aka popping on over to TJ Maxx for a sporty new button down. The primary “resources” the Aka have are “kinship resources,” that is, their family members, people, humans, peeps. Secondly, among the Aka, survival depends upon skillfully and successfully hunting, capturing, killing, processing, and cooking wild animals. And yes, knowing, searching for, finding, selecting, harvesting, processing, and cooking numerous wild plants. In both cases – the plants and the animals – men and women share in the action. Unlike some other hunter-gatherer societies, Aka men and women rely on each other equally to perform the tasks that bring home the bacon (and beans). We often think of “primitive” nomadic foraging tribes in terms of stoutly divided gender-roled and doled labor bases: women stay close to camp picking berries and leaves while the men tramp far and deep in bloodthirsty mortal combat against the waking animal kingdom. It simply doesn’t work like that for the Aka. Men and women put in equal mileage on a daily basis, and everyone does all tasks.
I guess I still haven’t spelled out why this would make the male members of the Aka worth a wooden nickel as fathers. Here it is. Ready for it?
If Aka men are not concerned with the above 2 concerns that concern the hand-wringing men of most of the rest of the known world, they have a lot more time for taking care of the kids. (Like, offer you my man-nipple kind of time.) What I mean is, if there are few resources to accumulate and men are not expected to be the primary winners of these, it opens up galaxies of time and opportunity for the menfolk to stoop down, pick up a crying baby, and offer soothing whispers. Since Aka men are not stalking off to herd cattle or fly planes or sell insurance or plant rows of corn, they are available to be fathers to their children. Since they aren’t plugged into the rat race of resource acquisition, to the competitive, cutthroat business of fighting other males for limited capital, they are free to spend their time carrying their children on hunts. Kind of like “bring your son/daughter to work day.” But every day. And there are deadly things to watch out for at every turn. And there’s bound to be lots of blood. And evisceration. Ok, so maybe not a whole lot like “bring your kid to work day.” But one thing’s for sure, the men of the Aka tribe are some of the world’s most badass fathers, maybe even the most badass.
1991 Intimate Fathers: The Nature and Context of Aka Pygmy Paternal Infant Care.
Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press.
The Cultural Nexus of Aka Father-Infant Bonding.