The Aka are about thirty thousand strong and live in forests on the border of the Congo and the Central African Republic. They are shorter than most Pygmies, with an average height of five feet, about an inch shorter than the Pygmies in Western Central Africa and nearly four inches less than the average non-Pygmy. They are among the last true hunter-gathering people on earth. Men and women collect fruit and nuts and hunt red hog and elephant with spears. They worship forest spirits, and they go to their nganga (traditional healer) for ailments ranging from malaria to lovesickness. Like so many indigenous people, the tribe struggles with survival as so-called modern civilization creeps ever more into their lives.
What has made the Aka famous—and infinitely interesting —is their devotion to fatherhood. The devotion is unique and the fathers were exceptionally close to their children.
From birth, Aka children spend almost as much time with their fathers as their mothers, during times of work and play. Aka dads harness their babies in infant slings and take them on hunts, babysit when moms need to set up camp, and bring them along when they let off steam with the guys at a palm-wine happy hour. Aka men take care of their babies 47 percent of the time—a current record, according to the advocacy group formerly known as Fathers Direct, now the Fatherhood Institute. Only Sweden—where fathers handle 45 percent of the child care on average—comes close.
Forty-seven percent! Think about how those numbers might translate in a mother’s life. That would’ve been a couple more hours a day for dozing, writing, a trip to the gym.
Aka women are still the primary caregivers in their tribe, but that “there’s a level of flexibility that’s virtually unknown in our society. Aka dads care for children while moms hunt, and cook while moms set up camp, and vice versa. Aka fathers will slip into roles usually occupied by mothers without a second thought and without, more importantly, any loss of status.
The Aka make a strong case that fathers are perfectly capable of being much more engaged with babies immediately with the right attitude and support from family and society.
There’s a big sense in our society that dads can’t always be around and that you have to give up a lot of time with your child, but that you can put that right by having quality time with them instead. But the Aka make us begin to doubt the wisdom of that line. It seems that what fathers need is a lot more time with their children, and they need to hold them close a lot more than they do at the moment. There are lots of positive contributions fathers can make to bringing up their children, but we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of touch and cuddles.
The Aka have become living proof that fathers can and do participate evenly in child care, if called upon, if expected, and if given the right circumstances and support. At a time when everybody tries to pin down universals on a father’s nature, the Aka break the rules.
Extracts from Intimate Fathers: The Nature and Context of Aka Pygmy Paternal Infant Care by Barry Hewlett quoted in, and passages, from