The Aka or Bayaka (also BiAka, Babenzele) are a nomadic Mbenga pygmy people. They live in southwestern Central African Republic and in northern Republic of the Congo. An ecologically diverse people, they occupy 11 different ecological zones of the Western Congo Basin. They are related to the Baka people of Cameroon, Gabon, northern Congo, and southwestern Central African Republic.
Unlike the Mbuti pygmies of the eastern Congo (who speak only the language of the tribes with whom they are affiliated), the Aka speak their own language along with whichever of the approximately 15 Bantu peoples they are affiliated.
A traditional hunter-gatherer society, the Aka have a varied diet that includes 63 plants, 28 species of game and 20 species of insect, in addition to nuts, fruit, honey, mushrooms and roots. Some Aka have recently taken up the practice of planting their own small seasonal crops, but agricultural produce is more commonly obtained by trading with neighboring villages, whom the Aka collectively term as Ngandu.
From the Ngandu, they obtain manioc, plantain, yams, taro, maize, cucumbers, squash, okra, papaya, mango, pineapple, palm oil, and rice in exchange for the bushmeat, honey, and other forest products the Aka collect. There are over 15 different village tribes with whom the approximately 30,000 Aka associate.
As a result of their hunter-gatherer lifestyle, which frequently exposes them to the blood of jungle fauna, they have among the highest rates of seropositivity for Ebola virus in the world.
Fathers of the Aka tribe spend more time in close contact to their babies than in any other known society. Aka fathers have their infant within arms' reach 47% of the time and make physical contact with them five times as often per day as fathers in some other societies. The men also help the women, by feeding their children. It is believed that this is related to the strong bond between Aka husband and wife. Throughout the day, couples share hunting, food preparation, and social and leisure activities.
The lifestyle of the Aka has been shifted from their traditional customs by European colonialism. The slave trade of the 18th century caused the migration of several tribes into Aka lands. These tribes subsequently became affiliated with the Aka. By the end of the 19th century, the Aka were the major elephant hunters providing tusks for the ivory trade. Affiliated tribes acted as middlemen in these transactions.
From 1910 to 1940, the Aka lands were part of French Equatorial Africa, and nearby affiliated tribes were forced into rubber production by the colonialists. These laborers occasionally escaped into forests inhabited by the Aka, increasing the demand for bushmeat. To meet this demand, the Aka developed the more efficient method of net hunting to replace traditional spear hunting. This caused a change in the social structure of the Aka: net hunting was seen as less physically challenging than using spears to kill game, and so women were encouraged take part in hunting activities.
In the 1930s, the French pressed the Aka to move into roadside villages. However, like the Efé of the Ituri rainforest, most Aka disobeyed and retreated into the jungle, with few joining the new settlements (except for a few villages in Congo-Brazza).
Today, economic pressures have forced the Aka to further deviate from their traditional customs. Many Aka now work in the coffee plantations of neighbouring tribes during the dry season instead of hunting as they would have done, and others have found employment in the ivory and lumber trade.
Their complex polyphonic music has been studied by various ethnomusicologists. Simha Arom has made historical field recordings of some of their repertoire. Michelle Kisliuk has written a detailed performance ethnography. Mauro Campagnoli studied their musical instruments in depth, comparing them to neighbouring pygmy groups such as the Baka Pygmies.