The prestige of the forest is immense. The Lele speak of it with almost poetic enthusiasm. God gave it to them as the source of all good things. They often contrast the forest with the village. In the heat of the day, when the dusty village is unpleasantly hot, they like to escape to the cool and dark of the forest. Work there is full of interest and pleasure, work elsewhere is drudgery. They say, ‘Time goes slowly in the village, quickly in the forest.’ Men boast that in the forest they can work all day without feeling hunger, but in the village they are always thinking about food. For going into the forest they use the verb nyingena, to enter, as one might speak of entering a hut, or plunging into water, giving the impression that they regard the forest as a separate element. But as well as being the source of all good things the forest is a place of danger, not only for women at the specified times but often for men. No mourner may enter the forest, nor one who has had a nightmare. A bad dream is interpreted as a warning not to enter the forest on the next day. All kinds of natural dangers may hurt the man who disregards it. A tree may fall on his head, he may twist his ankle, cut himself with a knife, fall off a palm-tree, or otherwise suffer a fatal accident. These hazards exist at all times, but the risk on certain occasions is that inimical powers may direct them against him. The danger for a man is one of personal mishap, but a woman who breaks the injunction against entering the forest may endanger the whole village.
These risks, personal or general, can be warded off, or afterwards remedied, by means of sacred medicines, which give men power to dominate their environment, heal sickness, make barren women conceive, and make hunting successful. There seem therefore to be three distinct reasons for the great prestige of the forest: it is the source of all good and necessary things, food, drink, huts, clothes; it is the source of the sacred medicines; and, thirdly, it is the scene of the hunt, which in Lele eyes is the supremely important activity. At this stage of description it would seem that two of these reasons are economic, not religious, but further examination shows that in reality the immense importance of the forest is derived from its role in Lele religion.
The attitude to hunting cannot be entirely ascribed to the importance of meat in Lele diet, although it is true that they have a craving for meat. Cooked maize, or manioc dough, would be unpalatable unless served with the appetising sauces prepared daily by the women from vegetables, red pepper, salt, and oil. A purely vegetable diet is so much disliked that unless meat or fish can be served as well, people often prefer to drink palm wine and sleep unfed. Mushrooms, caterpillars, grubs, and so on are poor substitutes for fish, and even fish is second in their esteem to meat. In their ideal life the men would set traps and hunt regularly to provide their families with a daily supply of meat. To offer a vegetable meal to a guest is regarded as a grave insult. Much of their conversation about social events dwells on the amount and kind of meat provided.
The craving for meat has never led the Lele to breed goats and pigs, as do their southern neighbours, the Njembe. They profess to be revolted at the notion of eating animals reared in the village. Good food, they say, should come out of the forest, clean and wholesome, like antelope and wild pig. They consider rats and dogs to be unclean food, to which they apply the word hama, used also for the uncleanness of bodily dirt, suppurating wounds, and excreta. The same uncleanness attaches to the flesh of goats and pigs, just because they are bred in the village. Even plants which are used in sauces when gathered in the forest are left untouched if they grow near the village. This attitude does not seem to apply to poultry. Between men various social conventions cluster around the giving and receiving of chickens, but women are forbidden to eat their flesh or eggs. This prohibition, like most food taboos, is unexplained, but there may be greater danger to women from eating unclean food than for men, as in many contexts women are treated as if they were more vulnerable to pollution than men are.
Knowing of their craving for meat, and knowing that recent hunts had been unsuccessful, I was puzzled early in my visit to see a large pig carcass being carved up and carried some miles for sale to Luba and Dinga tribesmen. The Lele would not eat it. A few go-ahead men keep goats or pigs, but not for food. They rear them for sale to the rich Luba lorry drivers and mechanics of the oil company at Brabanta. The Lele owners make no attempt to feed or control their livestock, which does much damage to the palms and bananas near the village. This carelessness does not result from total ignorance of rearing animals, for the Lele keep poultry and dogs successfully. In particular, the dogs are objects of an elaborate veterinary theory and practice. It seems that if they wished to make a success of goat herding they could do so.