The first days at our new home (parcelle) were sheer delight for Sarah and Basisionoko. He spent more time at the door of his kitchen laughing with the children than tending his beans. By contrast, the Station with its military pretensions was sterile. Gossip with guards was no comparison. From first morning light, there was a clutch of Mbuti children Sarah’s age and slightly older on the parcelle. They came down to wash their faces at the river. Sarah hauled out her horde of books and her two dolls. The tree hyrax came along, too.
Kole’s older sister, Musilianji, took charge of Sarah and the children as Sofi was in the forest with her current love, Avio. Loathe to miss a hunting trip; she stayed when we left camp to return to Palais. Avio had a previous rather dull-eyed wife acquired through some sort of family arrangement. His preference for the spirited Sofi was obvious and the net-hunt with Avio is where she wanted to be. Stripped down to a mulumba (bark cloth) sash at her waist, her body painted in intricate black designs, and holding a fistful of aromatic leaves she would accompany the other women to the molu, the farthest opening of the semi-circular cast of the nets. There the women would part ways, each whooping and beating the underbrush in the direction of a particular net. Avio crouched just beyond his net listening for Sofi’s song, a recognized and melodic signal, more than 100 meters distant. As she drew closer an mboloko duiker might suddenly burst through the ambaka and crash, stumbling and straining into his net. But if it didn’t, Sofi herself would eventually materialize through the leaves, winded, with eyes full of laughter and promises.
Musilianji quickly adopted Sarah. Kenge’s daughter, she was about 15 years old. They said she was born during the rebellion, maybe in 1965, maybe not until 1967. With Musilianji’s encouragement, and with help from Musilianji’s little brother, Kole, Sarah pounded bent nails into wood scraps left from the carpenter’s work. Then they arranged the blocks into houses, camps, and streams. Eventually Sarah and Musilianji went off to the kitchen to help Basisionoko pound sombe leaves.
Tshukiza, Kenge’s nephew, had gone to fetch Musilianji a month earlier. She was near Mambasa with her mother, who left Kenge five to ten years earlier when Safenia replaced her as Kenge’s love. Because Makila, Atoka’s half sister, had been given in marriage to legitimize Tshukiza’s relationship, Tshukiza needed to play some role in legitimizing Atoka’s marriage. Fetching a younger cousin of marriageable age was a first step. Tshukiza and Musilianji had walked 70 km back from Mambasa taking shortcuts through the forest to avoid the winding of the road.
Musilianji enveloped Sarah in her boundless teenage energy. She arrived early in the morning with a quick smile held by dimples that easily gave way to a hearty laugh. Sometimes she would grab up a very willing Sarah, before we had even had breakfast, and they returned up Palais path to camp. Safenia, and other women in the camp, joined in Sarah’s care. We left for a full day in the forest without worry, knowing that Musilianji and camp were a conscientious safety net around Sarah. I knew Sarah was with Musilianji in the kitchen or at camp; she might be on Musilianji’s back and they were dancing to an Mbuti jerry-can jugband, a spontaneous creation of the camp kids; or Sarah might be in the middle of a group of mothers and daughters putting intricate kange, black dye, designs on each other; they were delighted at how clearly it showed on Sarah’s white skin. Sarah was content and we were free to work.
Musilianji dancing in the Palais mud with Sarah on her back.
One morning Gilbert came down to announce that our semeki were visiting. I thought I knew what semeki meant,“in-laws”; I was mystified. Gilbert led us up to a motley group of three villagers, all of them old, who stood at attention by the zamu’s barazza. Two were barefoot; their clothes had the ubiquitous brown tinge of clothes that have been washed and worn again and again. Yet one of the men had a bright pink woman’s scarf tied as a belt indicating that this was an important occasion. We shook hands. The hands seemed young; they were strong and hard, though the bodies were thin and bent. This was Mada’s surviving family; they had come all the way from Biane to see Putnam’s revived parcelle. Mada was Putnam’s last African wife, his wife during Anne Eisner’s time, and the woman who cared for him during his final years of illness. The in-laws just wanted to see the parcelle. They spooned sugar liberally into their tea; they chatted in Kindaka with Basisionoko, then politely took their leave and returned the 20 km to Biane on foot. Other people came to see our new house. Many were old, remembering the old Palais. Usually we just shook hands, smiled, and continued with the day’s projects.
Locally we were Patrick Putnam’s heirs, but, our own idea of who we “should be”, was shaken up by a visit from Tom Struhsaker and Lysa Leland. Tom worked for the New York Zoological Society in the Kibale Forest of Uganda where he had stayed for ten years despite Ugandan political uprisings. Tom seemed to us a long-bearded sage; his passion was Red Colobus, but his life force was the forest itself. Compared to Zaïre, Uganda’s forests were no greater than bits of un-mown lawn left around irregularities when the rest was razed. But Tom saw the difference between Uganda and Zaïre as a matter of time, not of different destiny.
Lysa had somehow known exactly what Sarah would want. She brought colored pencils and a small blackboard with chalk. Her long blond hair and Sarah’s short blond mop bent together over intricate designs. Sarah was enchanted. She took Lysa to the Mbuti camp to meet her friends. She showed Lysa her tree hyrax, the cat, and the river where she and her friends bathed and played. Kenge took Tom and Lysa for a walk north of town and they had the unusual good fortune of actually seeing two okapi.
In the evening with Sarah asleep, we talked about the future and the encroaching pressures on the forest. Tom was inspired and adamant. There was already a large logging concession in the southeastern Ituri Forest. Furthermore, the crowded mountains of the southeast and the crowded savanna border in the northwest were a constant source of agricultural migration. The immigrants came with their axes and machetes and the forest fell in front of them.
“What can you do?” Tom wanted to know. “Who has authority over these forests? Is effective national authority even possible? If you don’t do something, who will?”
It was great to share our work and discoveries with Tom and Lysa, but they had ripped open a new understanding. They gave us a view from high above the forest where even the vast Ituri was an isolated island slowly diminishing in size, battered by waves on every shore. It was less troubling to stay earthbound.
If the course of the future was set, how change it? The forest towards kadiketu camp continued to be cut into new gardens just as inevitably as Sarah’s new pencils were broken in pieces and shared around. If something could be used, it got used. If something could be shared, it got shared. We never seemed to get much further in the analysis initiated with Tom and Lysa. They brought a troubling new perspective, but how to respond to it? As with Putnam, we too found the present all consuming.
Soon after moving to palais we understood Putnam’s role as untrained medical doctor. It was a role I did not want to take on ….
“No I don’t have medicine to stop your son from getting thinner and thinner,” I told the guard’s wife unequivocally. Or, “here try this for the swelling”; I peremptorily gave a single aspirin from our solitary bottle of aspirin for something I knew nothing about and felt I had no need to know about. But eventually the size of the need began to weigh on us even as I began to realize what John already knew: people have no alternative; we were a possibility in what was otherwise a void.
This weighed on Putnam. He had come to the Ituri with a debt for his own life. Gored by an elephant, he was alive because of the concern and care of the Mboli and Mbuti of Buoundo. We, however, came with simplistic confidence in our own health.
My first notion of the extent of the problem came early. We were still living at the station, the day I patched up Sabani. He worked in our garden, but that particular day took me into nearby forest with one of his younger relatives who climbed a tree he knew was in flower. I was just beginning to build my little herbarium of pressed plants. I was still dumbfounded by the casualness and agility with which Mbuti men would climb more than 100 feet into trees. First the lad assessed his options, pulled on a couple of lianas and sighted up some adjacent saplings. Then he shimmied up a liana, rested for a moment in a tree notch and continued cinch-grip by cinch-grip up the trunk where it was now a bit narrower. Then he transferred to the larger tree and walked upright along a broad branch, high above us, to where he could pull down and break off some flowering branches.
Waiting on the ground, I noticed that Sabani had a festering slash in between his thumb and forefinger. I told him that I’d give him some soap to wash it and cover it for him when we got back to the Station. It turned out he had sores on his feet too. He was the only Mbuti working for us who wore shoes; everyday the same old patched plastic sandals. When he peeled off his mismatched socks I was aghast. The smell even after thorough cleaning was like rotting meat. One of the toes was nearly gone. I gave him a pair of my socks and some antibiotic ointment. “A leper,” John said, nonplussed. Alas, an Mbuti unable to climb for honey. I soon learned of five other lepers in the Mbuti community around Epulu. Like Sabani, they just accepted their fate, making essential adjustments, but still venturing to distant hunting camps, collecting forest fruits, and staying attentive for honey even though they, themselves, could not climb.
Putnam had a small colony for lepers across the Nepuse stream, just beyond his dispensary. From the dispensary he performed emergency Cesareans and amputations and handed out aspirin for all minor aches and pains. We did mainly the latter. The Epulu state dispensary was without medicine. It had not had medicine in years. When we came, the nurse was an uninspired alcoholic who for a while convinced me that to conduct urine tests he needed us to supply rubbing alcohol. I complied until I was informed that he just drank it. In the town’s two, single counter, 4 foot by 6 foot stores it was possible to buy aspirin and tetracycline along with salt, sugar, soap, nylon underwear and baby blankets. A serious illness was treated with a combination of two to four tetracycline tablets taken in conjunction with a diversity of traditional medicine.
The only aspect of health care that interested me was childbirth. In the Ituri it generally happened without outside care from a clinic. There had been no maternity ward at Putnam’s hospital even though children and having children were central to life in the Ituri. Perhaps because women assumed that I, also a mother and would be interested, I was almost always told when someone was about to have or had just had a baby.
An Mbuti woman had her child alone or attended by camp women. Traditional midwives handled the common difficulties or slow births. The first birth in Kenge’s new camp along “palais path” was in November 1981, to Fatuma, Tshukiza’s wife. It was her first child and a long birth, thirty hours. I came and went throughout the process. Sarah too came and went and was there to see the baby even before the placenta had come. Sarah’s attention though was primarily for the game of tag on the other side of camp.
Men are forbidden from the birthing endu but women of all ages come and go, and in fact just about every woman in camp participated. They took turns sitting behind Fatuma so she could lean against them and wrap her arms around their legs. Various women came up with traditional remedies, all of plant and animal parts. When it was evident that it was going to be a long birth, it was suggested that Fatuma had eaten pangolin meat when she was a girl. The way giant pangolins burrow into the ground made them anathema to easy birth. As antidote, scrapings from a pangolin claw were rubbed into little cuts scratched onto Fatuma’s knees and belly. When that had no immediate effect, it was suggested her husband’s clothes were too tight, so Tshukiza stripped and sat wrapped in a kikwembi. It was suggested that he had fought with his wife while she was pregnant, so he washed his feet in water. Fatuma drank some of it and the rest was again used to sponge her straining belly.
The baby girl was not named until later. At least we were not informed of the name, Amafoliki, until the umbilical cord fell off and the baby was formally taken from the mother’s endu and presented to the camp and the world.
It was only a few weeks later that Maria, also staying in Kenge’s camp, gave birth, her second child. She went off by herself, supposedly to get sombe leaves, and came back several hours later with a new son. They were promptly secreted in an endu until the baby’s umbilical cord dried and fell off.
John reported similar birthing practices from the southern Ituri in a letter to me 18 November 1973:
Two weeks ago Molimo gave birth to a little boy, her second child. Even the day before the birth she accompanied her husband on the hunt, carried back antelope, firewood, and her older daughter, only two…
Molimo’s mother, Bati, was in close attendance at the birth and she stayed close afterward, bringing food, firewood and water. Bati also has taken charge of Maseka, Molimo’s older daughter.
The rest of us got our chance to hold the baby about a week after he was born. One morning Molimo unobtrusively left her endu. Carrying her infant, she casually walked to the center of camp. The rest of us clustered around her, each waiting our turn. Old Sumayini’s wife even gave the baby her shriveled up nipple to suck.
I never attended any of the villager births. I imagine that local villagers, the Bila and the Ndaka, had similar family and community ways of assisting mothers. The non-forest foreigners, however, whether the wives of Haut-Uele guards or Bas-Congo administrators brought in for the Station, whether the wives of Nande shopkeepers or their sisters and cousins all recent arrivals from the mountainous southeast, all used the state medical infrastructure, even though it was sadly inadequate.
Pregnancy, childbirth, and childcare were the only fundamental activities of Ituri life in which Putnam did not participate. It occurred to me that Putnam would have been as cut off from infants as Maipe, the aging bachelor whose endu was on the edge of Kenge’s camp. A solitary fisherman and an accomplished hunter, he sang with the men at the eshumba fire, but he ferried no children in his net, cradled none in the crook of his arm, and teased none on those camp mornings made long by rain and chill. Maipe was a particular exception. He had no wife or woman. He seemed in a persistent youth, except that, like Turnbull, he lacked the all-consuming interest most youths had in women.. A more apt comparison for Putnam, would have been the several men in camp who had wives but no children; however, somehow these men, Asumani and Abeli for instance, had managed to “adopt” children. There were children crawling over their legs, accompanying them to the river, or “helping” them with their nets. They were surrounded by sisters’ children, brothers’ children, or children of their wife’s family.
Perhaps the distraction provided by guests at Putnam’s hotel was an adequate substitute for the noise and demands made by children; perhaps Putnam went long periods without noticing the solitude, but his lack of children was a distinction that became more obvious with his increasing age. Although unimportant at twenty or twenty-five, it was a peculiarity by the age of thirty, and by forty, having had at least five wives, Putnam’s childlessness was locally viewed as a tragedy, a sad portent of an eventual end to an era.
Although doctoring was one activity at Putnam’s palais that we resisted, we resisted even more zealously the hosting that went with Putnam’s hotel. A hotel had been the very reason and logic of the first palais, but I imagine that eventually Putnam, too, came to resist the persistent graciousness needed for hotel management. After Mary Linder’s death he must have often found the hotel trying and falling far short of his original expectations. John and I never had any wish to be hosts, we had our grants from which to live and only needed to be able to finish our research. Then we would return to the United States to finish our degrees. Putnam, on the other hand, remained in the Ituri. The hotel profits were his livelihood.
Most hotel guests did not live up to Putnam’s expectations. He had expected scientists and naturalists. The very first guests at the site, even before the hotel had been built, were Prince Léopold and Princess Astrid of Belgium. Certainly Mary Linder remembered this visit as she set hotel standards. But most visitors had neither the intellectual acuity nor the social politeness that Putnam craved. Mbuti came to dance for guests at Putnam’s Palais. They sang for tourists and were the central attraction of a night at Camp Putnam. Visitors went out to nearby Mbuti camps. Certainly Mbuti eventually learned to exploit tourists. Could this small slip into the mercantile, this cheapening of what meant much to him and the knowledge that he had inadvertently encouraged it, could this have been part of what led to Putnam’s rages toward the end ?
In our time, tourists willing to wander so far from the more-accessible tourist-catering sites were slightly unusual, not always pleasantly so. Any tourist who reached Epulu considered us an oasis. No matter which direction they were coming from they had been many days on the road. Dusty or muddy, they had stayed in hotels with bedbugs, possibly hitching rides along with stinky salt fish if they were coming from the east or with hard cases of beer if they were coming from the west. They would have loved to find a tourists’ palais at Epulu. A simpler version of Patrick Putnam’s hotel would have been perfect. Expensive china would not have been necessary, just a hot bath, clean beds and clean cotton sheets.
I wrote in my journal extensively about tourists, always reminders of another world. There had been no tourists at John’s previous site in the southern Ituri. At Epulu, John seemed able to ignore them or help them without personal involvement. To me, they were often an imposition.
Journal, 14 December 1981:
“We have just come from the forest again. John and I took turns carrying Sarah. Sofi, Musilianji, and Sofi’s mbanda (i.e. Avio’s other wife) helped carry equipment, John’s samples and a full plant press. The camp was called apatina-mbau. The Ekare stream was close by; we were 10 km or so downstream from the last Ekare campsite; here the stream is wider.
Last night the moon came up full and sent wands of moonlight through mbau branches. They touched here and there between the fires: on Abeli where he was clowning to likembe music, on Tshukiza’s wife where she was trying to hush her colick-y baby, on old Foisi and Isa looking paleolithic around the central fire, on Mulanga’s wife, toothless wood nymph that she is, sucking through the long bangi pipe and passing it on to aging friends.
There were tourists in camp when we got there. We knew they would be there. A week ago Sunday, as John, Sarah, Kole, and I came back from a walk along the Epulu River, they were sitting on the stoop.
My spirits fell a meter or two: ‘tourists’.
As we walked across the parcelle they did not budge but fixed us with big smiles. I was already remembering all we had hoped to get done that afternoon.
“We’re not tourists,” was his introduction, standing to greet us, “My name is Jim.” Jim had a lot to tell us…all while we were still standing there
He chose a job to help him avoid the draft, straight out of high school. Never went to college. Society makes life hard for young guys like him. “But now I’ve quit. Now I’m travelling, for the last six months already,” Jim hitched his foot on his backpack, all that a self-sufficient fellow needed.
Maggie, was from Australia. “I’ve been doing this for four years.” Traveling, I guessed, was what she meant. She smiled, a bit more tentative than her companion. But when John went to squeeze lemons for lemonade “Don’t mind if we do” and they were both inside. When I fed the Kids, Kole and Sarah, “Don’t mind if we do” and they were sitting at our table.
John was trying to answer their questions. They wanted to visit an Mbuti camp but not a “tourist-y” one. Jim was worried the Mbuti might be corrupted. He was looking for the “real thing” that he had read about in Colin Turnbull’s book.
“Take extra food,” we advised them.
“But we want to see them eat forest seeds”, Jim insisted.
“If not food, you’ll want to give them something”, we told them.
Jim winced. “But we don’t want them to think that we’re rich white people.”
Sarah had long since disappeared with Kole up to camp. Finally I said, “John, we have lots of work to do; I think Jim and Maggie should go get established at the station.”
At Ekare camp, Sofi said they were “bad people.” They only gave tobacco in exchange for little packets of bangi [marijuana]. They didn’t care about anything except smoking their bangi.
Jim was in the endu they’d been given when we came into camp, but Maggie greeted us and offered us tea. She obviously had doubts. “I don’t know what they think of us,” she said.
Jim emerged after about an hour. He said that sometimes you have to get mad and be tough. He didn’t like people always asking for things. Although, the next minute he would say, “don’t get me wrong. This is great.” I imagined that once back in California he would have a story to tell: “How I lived with the Pygmies for a week.”
All tourists were not so presumptuous. There were the Italians who made us a spaghetti dinner, befriended Sarah and exclaimed in broken English over her all afternoon. She made it her business to see that they felt at home.
There was David, the rich kid from Arizona with large feet, who could not find replacements for his worn-out shoes anywhere in central Africa. We arranged to have them sewn up with bits of rubber and coarse thread and then he took off to find the site of the explorer, Henry Morton Stanley’s starvation camp where the Epulu River flowed into the Ituri. Through miscommunication he was abandoned in the forest by his “guides” and had to find his way back, two days, by compass, never having reached the mouth of the Epulu.
There was the British gentleman who wanted to spend two weeks in a Pygmy camp. His boots had a mirror-like patina and there was not a hair out of place on his head. When more than a week later we walked through “his” camp he was considerably more casual in appearance. A tuft of his hair was sticking straight up, he was barefoot and absolutely delighted with everything. A solicitous Mbuti group had adopted him and were solicitous: they would not let him carry anything and asked us to look at some sores he had on his ankles. They had even lashed together a small table for him. It would have been good fun to see him try to take his afternoon tea there, leaning forward the good half-meter from the matching chair fixed to the ground.
A briefer visit was made by a University professor, an “expert” in bark cloth, who drove up in a rented Land Rover complete with chauffeur and a Zairian woman anthropologist from Kinshasa, his “guide” to Zaire. Nadine was a delightful woman. With a sort of exasperated mirth, she described the trials of assisting the professor.
He refused to drink any of our spring water or water from forest streams. Instead he had brought at least ten dozen cans of Coca Cola with him, probably all the way from the United States. When he and Nadine went to a forest camp for a day, he had two-dozen cans packed in by Abeli. He told us that his visit to the forest camp was very rewarding. Everyone had sat around and produced barkcloth for him, sort of like a church auxiliary trying to make a quilting deadline. Nadine had us secretly chuckling with her account of his falling off the log bridge over the Nembongo stream on his way back. Pumping arms and legs disappeared in an explosive splash; expensive camera equipment went every which way, five Mbuti men leapt in to help him out. He came up gasping and sputtering a watery torrent of Yankee, swear words that Nadine rendered in a thick Kinshasa-French accent.
If I think that Putnam withdrew from the hotel guests, perhaps it is my own prejudice. After all he interacted intensely with Turnbull when he came through. But Turnbull, with his curiosity and excitement, must have been a refreshing exception. I cannot really know what Putnam thought either about his role as hotel manager or as doctor. Either role could have been an adequate fulfillment of his “search for life”. But certainly Putnam realized that patients, like tourists, were temporary. They came and might have benefited greatly from the interaction. Then they went. If he had written a book, he would have left something permanent. But he didn’t.
Putnam, too, must have been affected by local opinion. Locally, the important lasting legacy is children. The “search for life” is quite simple: you have children; they are your fulfillment. To have a complete and fulfilled life in New England he had to write of his experiences. To have a complete life in Congo he needed children. He died neither an author nor a father.
In Congo, children assured your future and excused your excesses in the present. For the Warden, Palana, children were his only salvation from petulance. They created Bosco’s aura of sagacity. For us, Sarah expanded our relationship to village and Mbuti. Our parcelle filled up with children because of her. Basisionoko was a prized worker not because of the merit of his cooking, but rather because, childless himself, he loved Sarah. Musilianji was invaluable because of her playfulness and the ease with which she included Sarah in everything.
Our identity as a family set us apart from Putnam and Turnbull. It gave rise to easy relationships, but also to expectations. Certainly, if you have one child, you will have two and three and as many as fate, the forest, and your own strength will allow you to bring living into the world. With so little direct contact with the outside world we became increasingly affected by local opinion. No surprise that we should decide to have another child.
One evening, John and I sat watching Sarah play with the suka, tree hyrax. It was dark; we had eaten and were alone on the parcelle. Basisionoko had returned home and the camp was singing up the path. Sarah was already three. We would not return to America for at least a year, maybe more. I cannot remember which of us mentioned it first. It seemed self-evident: We should have a child soon, while Sarah was still little, while we were still in Epulu.
I wondered how different Epulu’s history might have been if Putnam had children. Did he ever think wistfully of fatherhood? His parents certainly would have insisted on boarding school for their grandchild, at least if it had been Mary Linder’s child or Anne Eisner’s. Perhaps his father would have continued to buoy up the insolvent Palais hotel. Putnam may have thought of it only vaguely, perhaps during those solitary evenings when Anne Eisner was on a painting trip to a forest camp and the hotel was empty. In such a child-centered society, he could not have helped but think that if Mary Linder had left him a child before she died, that child would have been with him now. Certainly they would play chess together in the evening. If it had been a son, would he have learned to maneuver a dug-out and fish with traditional traps made of palm lianas?
A child of Abanzima would have been a hunter; he would have brought back squirrels and birds even while he was still very young, killed with sling shot or arrow. Perhaps he would have roasted them and brought them to share with his father. And then he could have taught him chess too, why not?
A child would have softened the isolation of Putnam’s sickness. That is when children step forward in Africa. Of course, I am only imagining this. But I do know that more than twenty-five years later, the town still considered his childlessness to have been a tragedy and saw us as Putnam’s heirs. Putnam, as involved as he was with “his” people, would have felt their sadness all the more as he sickened. He would have felt the silence of absent children. There should have been a small hand on the armrest of his chair when he sat on the terrace peering down the Epulu, down towards the Ituri. Putnam would have placed his own large and frail hand over it. The steady warmth of his child’s hand would have calmed Putnam’s own trembling and eased his labored breathing.