Where Fathers Mother Their Babies: A Glimpse Into the World's Most Egalitarian Society

Prof. Barry Hewlett has devoted decades to studying the Aka people in Africa, where the fathers are just as caring as the mothers. What can we learn from this pygmy tribe?

Smadar Reisfeld
Smadar Reisfeld
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Smadar Reisfeld
Smadar Reisfeld

When Prof. Barry Hewlett was 23, he went on a grand tour, such as American students take after completing an undergraduate degree. Europe bored him and the Far East was too popular, so Hewlett decided to head to Africa. He flew to Amsterdam, hitched to Marseille and took a freighter to Algiers. He then crossed the Sahara Desert and reached the Congo River Basin, where the Aka people reside. Hewlett was fascinated.

Charmed by the people he met, he settled in with one of the groups; they, for their part, received him with characteristic generosity. Hewlett became like one of the family, and since then he has divided his time between the Aka people and Washington State University, where he is a professor of anthropology.

Hewlett possesses a captivating gentleness and cordiality; he is soft-spoken and something in his demeanor inspires immediate trust. It’s almost as though his personality embodies the subjects of his research, about whom he speaks with deep affection. His eyes light up when I tell him this, at the end of our conversation in the lobby of a Tel Aviv hotel. “No one has ever told me that before,” he says. “It is very meaningful for me. They are amazing people, different from anyone you've ever met.”

The Aka people, like all pygmies, are dark-skinned, no more than a meter and a half in height. Like others, they are hunter-gatherers, but they differ from any other human group. “It is the most egalitarian human society possible,” Hewlett relates. “For example, in contrast to most hunter-gatherers, in which the men do the hunting and the women do the gathering, among the Aka people everyone does everything. Both women and men hunt − with a net − and everyone also gathers fruits, seeds and roots. Children also join in, so everyone is together all the time. The men and the women also prepare the food together, and everyone cares for the children.”

The fathers take care of the children like the mothers do?

“Almost. I decided to do my doctoral dissertation on father-child relations in the group after I found that Aka behavior was very different from what I’d read about in developmental psychology books back home. The textbooks said that mothers naturally care for the infants, and while doing so form an attachment to them. The father is not around much, so for him to form an attachment to the infant would require something special to take place between them. The Western developmental psychology assumption was that fathers play vigorously with their babies to show their love − strong rocking, shaking, throwing them in the air, and so on − and in this way an attachment is formed.

“I met very gentle fathers among the Aka. They hold the babies tightly, hug and kiss them a great deal, and play with them gently. The father’s bond is formed no differently from that of the mother: by being sensitive and attentive to the child. They don’t need the vigorous
interaction or rough games.”

Is it connected to the fact that men in the West are generally tougher and more aggressive?

“In the West there is greater forgiveness and tolerance of toughness and violence. It’s an element of normative behavior. It seems to me that most men would want a close connection with their babies, but because they aren't around them all that much, they just don’t know how to go about it.”

In other words, you're saying that they shake the babies, exert pressure on them and throw them in the air out of clumsiness? That’s almost touching.

“After all, they love their children too, and that is apparently their way,
however odd, of showing affection.”

It’s quite lovely, what you’re saying. What else do Aka fathers do with their children?

“Sometimes they offer their breast to them. An infant who is lying in his father’s lap might start sucking his nipple. It’s a type of pacifier, and it becomes possible because of the physical closeness between father and infant, and because there is no barrier of clothing between them. When I first published my findings, in England they were described as ‘the best dads in the world.’”

Because of the “breast-feeding”?

“In part. That generated a lot of headlines − somewhat exaggerated, I would say − but also because of the amount of time they devote to caring for the
children. Aka fathers take care of their children more than fathers in any other known society. They do it somewhat less than the mothers, but when they do it they hug and kiss the babies more, and even clean them more. Over time, I learned that the children are cared for by a number of people, of whom the father is only one. The mother, the grandmother and other adults are also involved. We call it allomaternal care or ‘multiple caretaking.’”

In what other ways does the equality manifest itself?

“There is hardly any private property: they share everything. If, for example, you like an object that belongs to someone else and you want it, he will give it to you. It’s a type of commitment. Sometimes I give someone a knife or a shirt as a gift, and later I see those objects going around and being used by others. There are no property issues. As I said, child-rearing is also cooperative, and there is a shared economy. They do not store food, and they share 80 percent of what they bring back with others. When someone successfully hunts an elephant, all the groups in the area know about it and they come and have a celebration.”

Did you ever hunt?

“I brought down a duiker [like a deer] weighing 120 kilograms by myself, and thereby I encountered another major
aspect of their equality. The Aka have no hierarchy and there is no preference of one person over another. I was very excited and proud when I got back to the camp with the deer. I expected praise and compliments; by that time I was already like one of the family. No one paid any attention to me! No one lauded me or gave me any special notice. It was very surprising, but that actually characterizes them. It is one of their ways to equalize among everyone.

“If you ask them, for example, who the best father among them is, they will not know what to say − not because it isn’t nice to rank people, but because they really think there is no way to compare. Each person is good at something else. The conception is that there is no reason to prefer anyone. That means they also show no special respect for the elderly. They too are equal, just like all the rest.”

It sounds too good, too ideal, as though there is no anger, tension or envy. As gentle and generous as they may be, they are still human beings.

“It is not an idyllic place, in the sense that there are definitely negative feelings as well. It is important to understand, for example, that a woman gives birth to six children on average, but that three of them will die before the age of 15 from diseases and infections. So, emotionally and at the personal level, there is a great deal of grief and pain, but socially things are quite serene. The Aka people certainly experience anger, and if someone’s husband sleeps with another woman, of course there is jealousy. But they have many cultural mechanisms that are geared to reducing the tensions and the competition to a minimum.

“In our society, we regularly rank people; we give prizes to winners and heap praise on the outstanding. We are constantly reminded that people are equal but some are more equal. Among the Aka, you are reminded on a daily basis that there is no hierarchy. You are made to understand that no one is preferred above others and that everyone is
basically equal.

“For example, you killed a deer in the hunt and therefore you think you're better than the others? No way. They will treat you in the same matter-of-fact way as they do those who didn’t bring back anything. But if you nonetheless display exaggerated self-importance, they'll simply get on your case. They will tease you about the shape of your body, or about your genitals, or about the way you hold a spear.”

Isn’t that a little heavy-handed?

“It's done in a very good spirit. In fact, they have a fine sense of humor. They are always joking and laughing. They like to play − the adults, too. It’s wonderful, and so different from what we are familiar with.”

Do they have standard jokes, or do they respond amusingly to different

“There are comments and reactions to situations and events.”

What do they do if, despite all the protective mechanisms and good intentions, a confrontation arises?

“They move.”

Who moves?

“One of the sides. He just gets up and moves to a different group. In any event, they change locations every two months or so. You also have to understand that each group consists of 25 to 30 people, but that it is constantly changing: people join, others leave.”

Who decides who has to move? Is there a judge or mediator?

“A group has neither a judge nor even a leader. If there is a confrontation, they all talk it over and decide. It is all very democratic, and if someone disagrees with the decision, he moves to a different group along the river trail.”

How do couples meet?

“It might happen, for instance, when a boy from one group goes for a walk and meets a girl from a different group. Funerals are also a good opportunity.”

In what way?

“A funeral is a very important event and an excellent opportunity to meet people. The groups congregate and people sing and dance. Naturally there is grief and sadness, but the Aka view a person’s death as an opportunity for those who remain to strengthen their bond, to reconnect and to celebrate life. However, if it is a child who has died, they do not hold this kind of event. The Aka believe that a child who dies before the age of 10 will return to the group, and if so, there is no reason for a wake. Losing a child is so common for them that they turned it into an event that is supposedly reversible and therefore easier to cope with.”

What about weddings?

“There are no weddings. The couple simply start living together. That usually happens when the couple wants children, at which point they move in with the wife’s family. In this period, the husband provides ‘bride service’ [providing assistance] to the wife’s family, until the first child is born. When the baby starts to walk, they can choose whether to stay where they are or move into the husband’s family.

“In the event of divorce, they just leave. As there is no property, there are no problems in that area. The children decide where they want to be, with mom or with dad. Children who are breast-feeding − which they do until the age of three − remain with the mother.”

Kibbutz comparison

Hewlett asks about the kibbutzim in Israel. I tell him they are not what they used to be. They are no longer an egalitarian and cooperative society in the full sense, in part because the standard of living rose, and with the kibbutz exposed to the outside world through the media, it becomes more difficult to maintain
modesty, cooperation and equality.

Are the Aka exposed to other ways of life?

“There is a farming village next to them − I also lived there for a certain period. Actually, there is a village alongside each Aka group that live in the Congo. The Aka trade with them: they give them fruits, meat and honey, and in exchange receive cooking utensils, knives, salt and some clothing. There are newspapers in the village and even a generator, so video films can be screened occasionally, but the Aka don’t enter the villages and are not involved in all that.”

How do the Aka people and the villagers get along?

“They quite dislike one another. The villagers view the Aka as being primitive and inferior. After all, they walk about unclothed and do not till the earth. Their technology is much shabbier, and they spend the whole day just wandering about. Animals, you know ... The Aka, for their part, think the villagers are dirty, in contrast to them, and that they treat their children well only while they are infants.”

The Aka are hunter-gatherers, while the villagers, as you say, are farmers. That’s interesting, because modern society developed from those two forms of life: first came hunting-gathering and then farming. Anthropologists always tell us that as hunter-gatherers we lived in a kind of paradise and lost that paradise when we became a farming society. Can you see it there? Is it the case that when private property came into being, a hierarchy came along, the status of women declined and man lost his leisure time and became a slave to work?

“That is exactly what we see. The life of the Aka is indeed tranquil, their approach is completely egalitarian and they have plenty of leisure-time. In the village, by contrast − where people work the land − gender and age equality no longer exists. There is an unequal distribution of resources and existence of property in the form of the land and the crops. The village people think that even the Aka people belong to them, and they pass them as a gift from father to son. However, that is mostly their imagination. Although the Aka people use the villagers economically, and vice versa, if they feel they are being exploited or not being treated well, they move away from the village and into the forest.

“Property creates social classes in the village and discrimination between men and women. The men are given greater respect and the women supposed to heed and obey them. Unlike the situation among the Aka, there is a chief and group of elder males in the village who have the final authority.”

Do the Aka people ever try to be more modern and work the land?

“That happens sometimes, but it seldom pans out, because they are unable to wait for the crop to grow. In their way of life, they don't need to, and therefore don't know how to wait, or how to defer gratifications. They eat the crop when it is still too young, and so do not reach the stage at which it is possible to collect the seeds and continue the cycle. They find it difficult to make the transition from immediate to delayed satisfaction. And in addition, when something does grow, the whole group shows up and the grower is meant to share it with them.

“In general, they lack a conception of storage. Even when they hunt, they stop as soon as they have enough. So they work half a day, get what they need and return to the camp. As a result, they have a great deal of leisure-time. In the past, the life of hunter-gatherers was described in terms of a perpetually approaching disaster, life on the edge. Nowadays it's seen more as a leisure

What do they in their leisure time?

“They practice different skills, such as tree-climbing, play noncompetitive games or tell stories. They sing a lot, sometimes accompanied by drums or by instruments resembling a harp or flute. Sometimes they dance. In 2003, the oral traditions of the Aka were proclaimed one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.”

No ‘Jewish mothers’

At one point, Hewlett shows me a video clip in which an infant, about a year old, is sitting in his mother’s lap holding a knife. Awkwardly, as befits his age, he uses the knife to hit a corncob in an effort to remove the kernels. The mother watches with interest. Afterward, the camera follows another baby who is moving around a boiling pot perched above a small fire. The baby waves his hands vigorously, but none of the adults sitting nearby are alarmed or do anything.

Without a doubt, this is not a “Jewish mother” society. The idea is for the child to learn by cutting himself or being scalded, but the images are sometimes hard to watch. It all looks like scenes from a cartoon, but it’s clear that the damage caused will not disappear in the next frame.

Their tranquillity is impressive, but also disturbing. I imagine that many infants and children are injured.

“I have never seen an infant cut him/herself.”

What did you learn from the Aka?

“Many things, one of which is that the Aka constantly say it is important to be close to your children, physically. In fact, they themselves are very physical, and I find that marvelous. Despite the vast space available to them, they choose to live in close quarters. The children, for example, sleep together in an area of half a square meter per individual − which is about a third of what people in the United States have. They are incredulous when I tell them that in our society each child sleeps in a bed of his own, and sometimes in separate rooms. They see that as a form of neglect.”

The kibbutzim used to have communal housing for the children, many of whom emerged with traumas from the arrangement.

“Traumas? Why?”

A small child wakes up afraid in the middle of the night and cries out for his mother and father, but no one comes.

“Did they have separate beds?”


“Oh,” he says, in a disappointed tone. “If they had at least slept in the same bed, touching each other, they would have felt mutual support. That could have been a great consolation.

“Something else I admire in the Aka is their approach to children. They are very attentive to them and patient with them, but definitely not centered around them. The adults are occupied with their chores, and the children romp about in the immediate vicinity. Even when a child sits in an adult’s lap, his face is turned outward, to the world, and not to the caregiver, as with us. In this way they interact with the world.

“The Aka do not talk about ‘quality time.’ They believe in quantity, and that approach was very meaningful for me. In the United States, where you have the ‘quality time’ notion, there is no point to bringing the children to work with you − in fact, it is even a waste of time − because you cannot devote your full attention to them. The Aka say that what’s important is to be with the children in a large variety of contexts. The children see you in different contexts, so they learn and you become close to them. I myself have seven children − both from a previous marriage and my wife’s − and in accordance with that placid approach, I always tried to take them with me, or at least some of them, when I went to work.”

Do you still spend a lot of time with the Aka people?

“These days I come to them for only a few weeks every year, but I never stop feeling fortunate that I met them and was able to live with them. How many people are able to make a living from the most meaningful experience of their life?”

The Collective Way

The Aka people are better known as “pygmies,” even though that term refers to all peoples everywhere who are of exceptionally low height ‏(on average, less than 1.5 meters for an adult‏). The Aka are genetically considered to be a very distinct human group. The first recorded reference to them is by Pharaoh Phiops II of the Sixth Dynasty of Egyptian monarchs ‏(about 2300 B.C.E.‏), who notes that an expedition that was sent to the forest brought back a pygmy dancer. They are also cited by Homer, Herodotus and Aristotle, among others, as small African people known as “Aka.” They have been living in central Africa for thousands of years.

The Aka are hunter-gatherers: Like the earliest human societies, their economy is based on the hunting of animals and the gathering of wild plants. The rainforests that are their habitat are rich in both plants and animals that can be used as food. However, because there is scarcity among the various species, the Aka pack up and wander from place to place about eight times a year.

They walk around naked, apart from a loincloth, though when they meet non-Aka groups they usually also cover the upper part of their bodies. They live in groups of 25-30, in a camp consisting of five to seven small structures made of branches and large leaves. Each family has its own dwelling, and all members of the family sleep in one bed. Adolescent boys share a house, and adolescent girls each have a home of their own.

Women of childbearing age give birth to an average of six children, but one-fifth of them do not survive their first year and almost half of them die before age 15. The average lifespan of the Aka is 32, although those who manage to reach the age of 15 can be expected to live to 55 or older.

An Aka father and child. Men and the women search for and prepare the food together, and everyone cares for the children.Credit: Getty Images
Barry Hewlett. Charmed by the people he met in Africa.
An Aka family. 'The Aka do not talk about quality time. They believe in quantity,' says Hewlett.Credit: Getty Images
An Aka father and child. Men and women search for and prepare the food together, and everyone cares for the children.Credit: Barry Hewlett