ITURI STORY. Putnam’s Palais – Part 5

nothing like a big cardboard box
Sarah with kids from the Palais Camp after our move to Putnam’s Palais.

Basisionoko started the kitchen fire by 6:15. On his way to dip water to wash last night’s dishes he stopped to greet Sarah. “Madami”,he called her. They got along capitally. She clutched the hand he held out for shaking between both of hers. When John and I returned from washing our faces at the river, she’d be sitting on the eroded porch steps playing with sticks, stones and a beloved wooden-headed doll.

As the Okapi Station became home to Sarah, it became our home as well. In those first months she threw rice to our chickens, played with our new kitten and chased butterflies.

Kenge said that butterflies swarmed every year, but we eventually decided the butterflies weren’t annual, but rather a repeating, unpredictable phenomenon. “Year” did not mean a twelve-month cycle. Butterflies came with severe dry seasons. How close geographically does the plague of butterfly larvae have to be to create a winged cloaking of Epulu? They came in multi-species masses, skippers, hairstreaks, and blues. High above, cumulus columns of flying butterflies followed the River, turned the blue sky a smoky gray. They settled against the cool, stone wall, making it moist. Their incessant battering of small wings filled silences like a rustling of taffeta skirts. On the ground they were a beating carpet over any damp patch left where someone urinated on their way to morning tasks. They settled on clothes drying on the line and left them pocked with tiny yellow, malodorous specks. Sarah loved to run through them, stirring fluttering clouds of blue and speckled white all about her blond head.

Everything was discovery. Sarah liked to go down to the river to “help” wash clothes, she liked to “help” wash the cement floor, and she liked to sit in the smoky kitchen picking cassava leaves from their stems to pound into sombe. Delight was daily:

Sarah is awake. I woke her from her nap because a beautiful finch flew against a window and fell dazed to the verandah, a little gray-headed “negro finch”. Sarah is now out on the porch with the bird perched gingerly on her open hand. He’s inspecting her this way and that with his little red eyes. Too frightened to fly? From a distance, seven new little chickens are peeping and peering out from various parts of their mother: two from the wing, two from the back, another from between the legs. Mama hen is angling her head, keeping Sarah under surveillance. I think mama hen views her as a constant threat, although Sarah, herself, considers she is of great service. Just as she is now “helping” the finch, so she will pick up first one chick then another to carry closer to its mother. The finch has flown. 12 July 1981 (letter to parents)

The station was ours. The guards were helpful, but barely present. Then, quite suddenly, it changed. Conservateur Palana, the warden, came back from his extended vacation, came back to the station he considered his own. He was livid to see us comfortably ensconced. Not a particularly diplomatic fellow, he came to greet us by marching up onto the porch with four guards marching behind, told us in brief clipped French that we never should have been allowed to settle into his gîte (guesthouse), then abruptly marched off followed by the four guards who just the morning before had been joking in the kitchen with Basisionoko.

Rather than confront us openly, Palana sent lackeys to do his bidding. Park guards were sent to inform us that we could no longer use the two rooms that had outside doors. These were again for guests. So much for our office and our privacy. Palana stayed out of sight, fuming.

We tried to negotiate. His wives sat outside on small stools by their respective fires, the smallest child nursing, the eldest chewing sugar cane, and a bevy of children in-between, bare-bottomed and listless. He admitted us with an immovable frown. One wife bustled in with breakfast for him. She set the covered pot on the table. A couple round-eyed children’s faces appeared in the door and disappeared as she did. The other wife, baby strapped on back, brought a thermos of tea and then hustled off, closing the door. The warden never acknowledged them, but somehow they seemed to have taken on a new importance, or at least a purpose, with his return.

The wives and children lived as isolated as a foreign-service enclave. Following their husband’s directives, they only ventured into the village on Sundays, and then only to attend church at the crumbling mud-walled chapel. Like the warden, the wives were from far western Zaire, where the great river dumped into the Atlantic. “Bas-Congo”, they told us, was the civilized part of Zaïre. Perhaps the trip to the chapel was only to emphasize their superiority. The wives dressed in their meager finest, surrounded by children each dressed in ironed shorts and matching tops, their only outfits not in tatters.

The warden neither offered us chairs nor rose to shake our hands. Perhaps the gîte did have some economic importance, but the park guards had not been turning away high-paying, or even penny-pinching tourists. We suggested that perhaps we could do some rehabilitation – put in curtains, repair the eroding cement steps. But it was useless. “Absolutely not,” he told us. We had to move out. Appropriate lodging for us, he insisted, was one of the guards’ houses. How could anyone have had the temerity to lodge us elsewhere without first consulting him?

The guards’ houses were unmaintained, windowless hovels ranged in a row along the road up to the village. The only one that was unoccupied was missing an outside wall and had only half a roof of thin, rusted sheet-metal listing over the remaining room.

Kenge and Basisionoko told us that the warden provided for himself through illegal activity, taking meat from the Pygmies for resale, extorting “taxes” from passing trucks. Possibly he was worried we would become spies and informers. But Palana’s fury seemed disproportionate. Besides Kinshasa IZCN knew full well that no one could really live on the pittance the State allotted it’s small far-flung Park posts, but it preferred not knowing how, from their Park fiefdoms, the wardens topped off their incomes.

Word of the warden’s displeasure spread quickly from Kenge to the Mbuti camps, from the park guards to the village. Kenge did not hesitate to advise us. We never should have settled at the Okapi Station. We should have started out immediately at Mambau – Palais, Patrick Putnam’s old parcelle. Turnbull also had stayed at Palais. We should waste no time, but start to build our house now.

Putnam’s Palais –? All we knew about Patrick Putnam was the disapproving references by the elder missionaries. He was someone who had gone native, who was “as pagan as the Pygmies”.

Various villagers congratulated us and offered their services and advice before we even decided to build. Obviously, there was no great love of Palana, and our being at odds with him put us closer to the village. Epulu is a small town. No secrets.

Kenge took us to see Epulu’s “hotel” owner, Jean Bosco Wangonda, known just as Bosco. Kenge said he would build our house at Palais. Bosco was lord of the largest parcelle in Epulu, a mud and wattle estate at village center. He had a restaurant with three tables, his own four-room residence, and a series of five wattle and thatch rondavels for visitors. Still farther from the road were a handful of one-room houses for Bosco’s wives, now fallen from favor. His gardens stretched back to the forest: manioc, corn, beans and peanuts. A large camp of Pygmies was located somewhere in the far gardens against the forest wall. In exchange for access to garden foods there was always an Mbuti to wash clothes or dishes, a group to help weed, and often they provided wild meat to serve the truck-driver clients.

Bosco’s eagerness to help us was rooted, however, in a simmering hostility between himself and Palana that predated our arrival. Bosco himself had once been IZCN warden at the Okapi Station. When orders came from Kinshasa to move to another post he decided, instead, to retire. He had already become locally settled. We found out later that Bosco’s entire establishment was built on land deeded to the IZCN and presumably built with money somehow acquired from his one-time prerogative over the forest. That history alone was grounds for tension between Palana and Bosco. Palana’s obsession with power would not blend well with Bosco’s civil authority, but the main source of the friction was Palana’s lusting after Bosco’s oldest daughter.

Although Palana kept his wives isolated, not so himself. He strutted around the village; everything should be available to him. Dudu, Bosco’s daughter, was no exception. She was lively and competent. She ran her father’s restaurant business whose success was due to her warm and sympathetic welcome to road weary truck-drivers. But she was not immune to Palana’s self-conscious superiority. He won her with flattering promises of a prosperous life in the guesthouse at the Okapi Station, the guesthouse now used by John, Sarah and me. Palana told her, she would run a restaurant at the station and be his favored third wife.

This did not suit Bosco. He was not going to allow this pretentious, up-start warden to steal his main economic support with nothing to offer in return. We were told a number of slightly different accounts, but clearly shortly before our arrival in Epulu, Bosco reached his limit. He rallied a large contingent of villagers that stormed the station where Palana was “holding” his daughter in concubinage. Palana ordered the guards to fire on the attackers, but they did not. Some rocks were hurled, accounting for at least a number of the broken windows in the guesthouse. Dudu left town while tempers cooled, but it was clear Bosco had put an end to any possibility of her becoming Palana’s third wife.

Wounded pride explained Palana’s indignation at seeing us in the guesthouse. We were a daily reminder of his failed conjugal/economic plans. On Bosco’s side, it was a residual smarting from Palana’s brashness that accounted for his readiness to help us build.

Bosco also knew enough about the history of Epulu to know that the traditional rivals of the Okapi Station lived at Putnam’s Palais. Bosco hoped to reinstate the old bitterness between the first Station, Captain Jean deMedina’s station, when it was built just upriver and Putnam’s older hotel, mini-zoo and dispensary just downriver.

Our own knowledge of this rivalry and its dead protagonists grew slowly. Most people in Epulu, we learned, identified with one or the other of Epulu’s historic enterprises. Their parents or grandparents either came to this site on the Epulu River late in the 1930s to work for Putnam or, later in the 1950s, to work at the Station for deMedina. Some had worked for both, but Putnam and deMedina were two very different personalities with different visions of what colonial Epulu should be.

Bosco enthusiastically agreed with Kenge. We should build at Palais, the original Epulu of the late 1930s and 40s. Bosco pointed out that Putnam, too, was an American. Apparently, in Bosco’s mind, that made him as good as kin.

Epulu first grew from two different concepts of prosperity. Both now lost. Putnam envisioned a secluded, native forest retreat for diplomats and scientists; deMedina a modern center for colonial administrators and tourists along the new east-west road. DeMedina, arriving 10 years after Putnam, saw the possibility of converting the forest’s animals to personal and state profit: captive okapi shipped to the zoos of Europe and America. His was a more real, though short-lived success.

After independence and the first Congo rebellion of the 1960s, the colonial network was gone, the road no longer repaired, and no one would risk investing in this remote part of Mobutu’s Zaire. The National Park’s Department, IZCN, realized that Epulu was a lesser, low profile post. Epulu oversaw no protected area, just a defunct capture station.

1951_Congo Belge _Ituri Forest Region
A 1951 map of the Ituri Region labels the current Epulu as Putnam. Epini to the west is where DeMedina first kept his elephants.

There was a vast un-gazetted forest that stretched 150 km to the north before reaching another road, even more deteriorated than “ours”. The forest continued an unbroken 50 km to the South to the spectacular cataracts on the Ituri River, site of the explorer’s, Henry M. Stanley’s, starvation camp in 1887. Forest continued, unsettled, south from there. Epulu, itself, was midway along a 160 km stretch of road sliced east-west between two north-south tracts, the eastern, the one heading north to Ngodingodi, was almost un-traversable.

From this remoteness, Epulu had no voice. The HMF radio would only function on one frequency over short distances. The rickety old Station truck had no fuel and no transmission. To pick up salaries that came every three months or so the warden had to coerce a ride on a transport truck stopping in Epulu on its way from Kisangani to Bunia.

We just wanted a quiet place to live while we did our PhD research; however, it was clear that our move to Putnam’s Palais was laden with local significance. The older villagers described the Patrick Putnam they knew: eccentric, irascible. Putnam’s camp started as a tiny forest clearing, but steadily grew. During the early years, there was no village near-by. Mbuti moved freely around Putnam’s buildings, hunters lounged on their coiled hunting-nets, and the sick and convalescent awaited treatment at Putnam’s little dispensary.

Putnam kept various forest animals in a sort of casual captivity: A chimp, an okapi, various snakes. After being served a dinner of meat, fresh caught on an Mbuti net hunt, a guest could view Mbuti dances in the courtyard. In the late 40s and early 50s, visitors with a sense of adventure followed the forest trails with Putnam’s wife, Anne Eisner, his third and last American wife who came from New York art society to the Ituri forest. She would go with visitors or, often, by herself to hunting camps where she spent days on end sketching.

Anne Eisner painting in Ituri PNTGINWO
Anne Eisner painting in the Ituri Forest in 1957. Photo by Colin Turnbull; Anne Eisner papers (MS AM 2369); Houghton Library, Harvard University. © Colin Turnbull. Used with permission. 

The Epulu Station was built more than 10 years later, in the 1950s to be an elephant station. Captain Jean deMedina was an ex-elephant hunter turned elephant trainer whose goal was to make Belgian’s Congolese elephants as useful as Britain’s Indian elephants. Epulu, with its accessible and abundant water, was an ideal place. He moved his herd of forest elephants from Epini, a less desirable village further west, to establish them on the east side of the new bridge across the Epulu River. He built stone houses on the west side, just upstream and around a bend from Camp Putnam. Within months he caught and kept a menagerie of captive okapi, chimpanzees and antelope, besides, of course, his elephants. DeMedina’s operations were quickly bristling with purpose and professional drive.

It was at just about the time Jean deMedina first came to set up on the Epulu River, and when Putnam was not yet 50 years old but appeared aged and frail, that Colin Turnbull, too, first came to Camp Putnam. Kenge was one of Putnam’s “boys”. Over the course of the next decade, when Turnbull made several short visits to Epulu, Kenge witnessed the building, upstream, first of deMedina’s station and later of the modern hotel.

Monsieur David, a Belgian entrepreneur, was convinced that travelers would prefer luxury accommodations to the musty, mud-walled hotel of Putnam. Putnam’s accommodations were showing more wear than repair by the 1950s. Proper colonial guests would prefer to stroll along manicured paths, under giant forest Cynometra trees at the new Epulu Capture Station, than to participate in banal cultural pageantry.

Would Monsieur David’s hotel have become a success? The Mbuti and villagers considered Monsieur David a foreigner. With him there was no basis for a reciprocal relationship of the type that defined forest culture and economic security. Colonial tourists might have chosen Monsieur David’s predictable comfort over Putnam’s busy “village”, however, this was never put to the test. Putnam died in 1953 and was buried in the forest that had become his home. Then, only a couple years after the varnish dried on Monsieur David’s gracious rooms, the rebellion of the 1960s swept through the Ituri. Monsieur David’s hotel became a headquarters for Simba rebels until bombed by government troops or mercenaries.

When we arrived in Epulu the ruin of Monsieur David’s hotel loomed under chaotic regrowth. Strangler figs sprouted from crumbling brick walls. Exposed tile floors of its second floor grimaced by the roadside. Once I watched a white-nosed monkey harvesting fruits from a Sherbournia liana where colonial administrators were meant to dine in state. The monkey sampled the fruit, threw it down, perhaps it was not ripe enough, and loped over the decayed tile roof, onto an overhanging branch and back to a larger group of white-nosed, red-tailed guenons lounging in the trees along the river bank.

John and Bosco settled on a building arrangement after minimal bargaining. Bosco would oversee building a mud and wattle house and keep costs within our budget. Kenge insisted I, too, see Palais. One afternoon I slung Sarah into a mazembe and followed Kenge across town. The Epulu River bends around the hill on which the village is built so that the quickest way to Putnam’s site was up though town and then back down to the river on the other side. There are no houses downstream from Camp Putnam.

view of Epulu River out our back door
This was the view from our house on the Epulu, and before that from Putnam’s Mambau and from Turnbull’s house just a few meters upstream.

The road was dusty and Sarah hid her face from the butterflies fluttering up in masses from open courtyards. The butterflies diminished on the narrow path we followed down towards the Nepuse stream. Sometimes Kenge and I had walked this path when studying trees. Kenge swung off to the left on a small trail of matted vegetation; the butterflies disappeared and we were in the dampness of forest shade.

We could hear a chorus up ahead. It was Mbuti men, singing as they often did when clearing our garden, bass-toned, many-voiced. Every voice sang something different but somehow it blended to a single welcoming whole. We ducked through the tunnel-like growth to where a group of five Mbuti men were slashing out a clearing for our house-site. Bosco along with an elder Mbuti man, Foisi, surveyed the work from the side. Bosco held a small child by the hand while another, slightly older boy, sat on a fresh stump, slingshot in hand. They must have been Bosco’s children.

We shook hands with Bosco and old Foisi, an Mbuti. Sarah solemnly reached from the mazembe to offer her hand that both Bosco and Foisi shook with equal solemnity. Bosco indicated how much was left to cut and where the house would be – right where Putnam’s main building had been. Bosco kicked a small ancient lump of cement that continued to resist the eroding pressure of roots and rain.
“Don’t cut those,” Kenge admonished the work team, indicating a dark copse of mbau trees.
“Putnam never cut mbau trees,” he announced definitively.

At the time I really did not know how to imagine Putnam’s hotel. Kenge said it had thick adobe walls, which must have kept it cool. Certainly with mud walls it was only one story and Kenge said that the thatch was just of local mangongo leaves. It was far larger than any local houses we knew, and from descriptions must have had numerous small, inviting verandahs and side rooms. The Epulu River was wide below us, rippling over and around clusters of rocks. On the other side was an unbroken wall of green. Tree canopies came right down to the high-water mark, although now in the dry season, small sand beaches or jumbled rocks ran here and there from the leafy shelter to the waters edge.

Kenge and Foisi stood together speaking in animated KiBila. From his exaggerated gestures and expressions, I imagined that Kenge was telling stories from the past. The men who were clearing smaller stems with machetes, stopped to listen, laughing at some ribald reference.

Painting by Ann Eisner Putnam
Watercolor on newsprint by Anne Eisner, “Beauty Salon”, 1956 (MS AM 2369) Houghton Library, Harvard University.© Christie McDonald

For more information: Images of Congo: Anne Eisner’s Art and Ethnography, 1946-58. editor: Christie McDonald. Five Continents, Milan, 2005

“See over there, that’s where Putnam’s women lived,” Kenge pointed with his chin to the uncut growth upstream. I wondered if Putnam had kept a series of small houses at a distance like those Bosco kept for his older wives. Kenge then indicated the direction of the Nepuse stream. That was where the animal menagerie had been, and across the stream was the clinic.

“Then, the only village was Putnam’s village,” Kenge said with a finality that left no doubt he felt it should have remained that way. In the early days everyone who settled near this bend in the Epulu River, came to work for Patrick Putnam. “Putnam” marked the site on all colonial maps. Kenge swept both arms in the direction we had come from to indicate where a row of houses had followed each side of the path. They were not visible from the hotel. That had been Putnam’s village. Kenge glanced at me to see if I was properly impressed. I was – not by the fact that many people worked for Putnam but by the site itself. It was beautiful.

We went and stood on the bank that rose steeply six meters above the river. Suddenly Kenge bent down, rummaged and then standing called over to Bosco.
“Look, what I found.” He turned eagerly to me holding out a thin shard of china on the flat of his hand. “This belonged to Madame Mary. She brought this with her.”

I too turned it over, felt the delicate fineness of it. Bosco was peering over my shoulder. It was a beautiful deep blue with gold designs. Wedgwood? Limoges? It had been a lovely piece. I did not want to let Kenge and Bosco down, but I was not sure what was expected. I had brought no fine china with me. Only books, measuring tapes and a type-writer. I did not even know who Madame Mary was. I handed the delicate shard to Sarah who was eager to inspect what had our attention. Kenge informed me that the first Mrs. Putnam, Madame Mary, had started the hotel together with Putnam. He spoke of her with a certain reverence.
“I was too young to work then,” Kenge explained, “She died when I was still a small boy, like that. “ He indicated the child Bosco had swept up in his arms.

Such fine china was hard to reconcile with the rough, pagan Putnam that the missionaries had deplored. Part of the appeal to colonial tourists must have been the contrast of upper-class graciousness with ascetic forest seclusion. A mud and wattle hotel filled with fine china and what else was there? Engraved silver cutlery, a silver candelabra? Perhaps original artwork was arranged over the carefully plastered and whitewashed mud walls: a 19th century European damsel hung next to an intricately designed swatch of local bark-cloth, both carefully and correctly framed.

Those first years that we were in Epulu, bits of Putnam’s story were regularly dealt to us, but a context for it was only pieced together later. We learned that Patrick Tracy Lowell Putnam, of aristocratic Boston upbringing, had been a Harvard anthropology student who first came to the Belgian Congo with an anthropological expedition. He was captivated by the infinite possibilities and freedom of the forest. In 1928, when his expedition returned to the United States, he stayed behind, supposedly to do more research, but plunged himself into forest life (Mark,J. 1995. The King of the World in the Land of the Pygmies. U of Nebraska Press. 276 pp).

Putnam briefly held a post with the Belgian Red Cross, but was fired for “eccentric behavior” which included long, unauthorized absences to explore the forest. Soon thereafter, Putnam was inspired to establish a guesthouse catering to scientific discovery. He discovered the ideal site on a trek east through the forest to see Dr. Woodhams, a missionary-dentist. The site was where an old Arab trail forded the Epulu River. There was no village nearby. Perhaps Putnam arrived late in the afternoon and needed to set up camp. He was young, tall and felt himself capable of anything. While his travel companion, likely an Mbuti, busied himself over the fire, roasting plantains and opening a can of sardines, Putnam talked with the MuNdaka youth who paddled travelers across the river in his dugout. There had once been a village near-by. All the residents had been killed and the village site was considered cursed.

Patrick Putnam; ink on paper by Anne Eisner
“Patrick Putnam” ink on paper by Anne Eisner, about 1946. Anne Eisner papers (MS AM 2369) Houghton Library, Harvard University.© Christie McDonald

Putnam had an arresting appearance. He was lean and his eyes were deep set but large and always eager, always burning. He had left behind his three Mboli wives, who were ever more demanding. But here he felt freedom; he towered on the edge of something new. After walking three full days through closed forest to the edge of the Epulu, with the rapids roaring just upstream of where he stood, he felt the promise of the place. A village cursed – but a light on his contribution to the future.

During Putnam’s time at Epulu (1930s-1950s) one of his hotel’s names was mambau, place of the mbau trees. Patrick was impressed by the golden openness under the glade of mbau trees whose dense foliage overhung the Epulu rapids. Transformed by the slanting sun of late afternoon, an mbau stand becomes timeless. The sun slips through the heavy leaves and captures the gold-barked trunks. The hadada ibis called stridently as it flies up river through the disappearing day. Patrick Putnam, a man of great imagination but limited practicality, stood in his forest of burnished columns already constructing a temple.

Two days later, Patrick arrived at Dr. Woodham’s and learned the Belgians were building a road, basically following the footpath, and so would pass near that site on the Epulu River making mambau an ideal stopover for travelers. Soon thereafter Putnam returned to the States, but he had every intention of coming back to mambau. Certainly it is a tribute to his charm and charisma that within a remarkably brief period he not only married his first American wife, Mary Linder Putnam, but also was able to bring her back as completely enthralled as himself in the dream of an idyllic hostel on the Epulu River.

His “Congolese” wives back in the forest caused him no feelings of duplicity. A western marriage was different. Certainly he explained to Mary that in his youth he had taken on certain “tradition-bound” obligations to Congolese women. Certainly she would have wanted him to respect those obligations, providing the women some sort of continuing local respectability.

Even if our own house was a much simpler construction than Putnam’s hotel had been, there were still months between the creation of an opening in the trees and our moving into a finished building. Bosco had large saplings cut for the house posts and roof beams..

baba building house
John helped bind the Ambaka stems against the posts into wattle with forest lianas.

Bosco arranged to have a carpenter from Mambasa make frames for windows and doors, as well as basic furniture. He ordered cement for the floor and arranged to have it delivered. Likewise he contracted with a trucker to add enough metal roofing to his load and to drop it off on his way through Epulu. While Jean Bosco took care of most of the negotiations we continued to live at the Station, overseeing our garden and making slow progress on our forest work. Sarah now lived in the drama of daily activities without any reference to some previous reality.

Sarah strapped the doll, Maua (Flower), you knit her on her back when we walked to the garden yesterday. We have to hike a good half hour through farm bush and old gardens. We stopped at Kenge’s camp along the way to get Safenia and the other women who would help plant rice. Kenge’s youngest son, Kole, followed Sarah. She seriously explained to him “Mtoto yangu alikua na malali ya macho. (My baby had an eye disease.) My father put medicine in her eye and now she’s all better.” What happened is one of Maua’s eyes started coming off and John glued it back on. Kole, who must be close to 10 years old, listened with great concern, examined the eye and agreed that she was better. On the edge of the garden he set about constructing a rudimentary Mbuti endu while Sarah pretended to nurse Maua in the shade of a kombokombo tree. July 1981 – (letter to mother)

With my botany team, I started a second large plot like the one we had near kiokiokio. This time it was in forest just north of Epulu where there were no mbau trees. We could work on measuring and identifying trees in these plots while leaving Sarah with Sofi at the Okapi Station. We’d be back to the Station by evening.

The Station of Conservateur Palana was less than welcoming. Another trip into the forest to collect John’s hunting data would be most welcome. It would be a trip of at least a week maybe more. Bosco had the building under control. Certainly we could take off.

Bosco had designed our house like a large version of most local houses. We had specified two small bedrooms, a small office and storage room, and then a sitting/eating room. Bosco had suggested a papyrus ceiling under the tin to cut the afternoon heat. Outside were an outhouse and kitchen.

Putnam’s hotel had taken considerably longer to build. Years later, we saw pictures in a book by the science historian, Joan Mark (1995), and a few sent to me by the niece of Patrick Putnam’s last wife, Anne Eisner: there were tall ceilings, an indoor raised hearth, beautifully carved and varnished bookshelves.

During the months of construction, Putnam must have escaped, like us, for periods in the forest. He and Mary Linder probably had a temporary camp, perhaps a tent and a lean-to. A short distance away were the endus of an adopted group of Mbuti and the hastily built one-room houses of the local masons and carpenters as well as their helpers. Many of the ideas for construction may have originated with Mary Linder as she had studied landscape architecture in Cambridge. She and Putnam plotted design over an open fire late into the night. It is easy now to imagine their fire-lit faces, animated and bent close over carefully drawn plans. The heavy mbau leaves overhead shivered slightly in the rising heat.

By day, Putnam would have directed the workers, particularly at the beginning, but as Mary learned more Kingwana, Patrick became freer to leave. He probably started with short one or two day treks to see a certain open-rock hilltop the Mbuti told him about, or the junction of the Epulu with the Nduye river, or a large glade of forest whose canopy was formed purely of ngena trees. Certainly he and Mary felt that it was essential for him to know the forest nearby because there would undoubtedly be naturalists and explorers among their guests. Patrick should be able to be their guide. But Patrick’s desire to explore, to walk for days across forest with a small group of Mbuti and finally to end up at some new landmark, was more personal and fundamental than just a desire to eventually be a competent host.

The only contemporary and intimate view of life from Putnam’s mambau was written, with a ghost writer, by his last wife, Anne Eisner (Putnam, A.E. with A.Keller. 1954. Madami. Prentice-Hall,Inc. N.Y. 303pp). By then, the early 1950s, Patrick was already sick with emphysema and engrossed in the management of Palais, the small associated hospital and village that had grown up around Mambau. Sometimes he could not even walk the distance from home to dispensary when he was needed to intervene in a medical emergency. He would be carried in a tipoy (sedan chair).

Kenge’s almost mythical reporting of Putnam recreated him as an intrepid explorer. Putnam’s own notes were lost in a mutumbu (dug-out) tip over. According to Kenge he had paddled extensively on the Epulu and Ituri Rivers. He had visited Edoro das, a magical site at least a two-day walk from his hotel and a place where the Edoro River, according to Kenge, disappears underground. He had been to the great falls at the junction of the Epulu and the Ituri. Almost every hill that Kenge mentioned within a three-day hike from Epulu, Putnam had climbed.

Our own trips into the forest were not so free. Because of John’s research we followed the movements of large numbers of Mbuti with their hunting nets so as to collect information about the duikers they killed. There was the added complication of traveling with Sarah who had just turned three and was heavy in the cloth-sling or mazembe. But certainly Putnam could not have been more eager to move into the forest than I was during the construction of our house. The metal roofing for our house had arrived and sacks of cement would be dropped off by another truck passing through Epulu. A large group of Mbuti had just left the day before to a camp north of town. It was a good time to follow. The tin could be put on the new Palais without us. Bosco said we would all have to be present to kutandika, or put the mud on the walls, but now, for a week, maybe more, we could shed the Station with all its nuisances. We would follow the hunting band with Kenge, Safenia, and Sofi.

Alas, we had barely had our morning coffee when the sky from which morning mists had never cleared grew heavier, darker. Thunder rolled and rain spattered, then streaked, and finally drove down in torrents. John settled back absorbed in an old reprint about the duikers of Gabon. Sarah ran out to the kitchen to help Basisionoko wash dishes. I took up a book and attempted to read but mainly fretted, running out to the porch every fifteen minutes or so. Maybe we would not catch up with the band of Mbuti. Perhaps it wasn’t raining where they were. The rain let up a little and I started to fetch and arrange last minute items. Kenge who was telling stories in the kitchen for Basisionoko’s and Sarah’s benefit followed my purposeful gathering with some alarm.

“Haya isha” (It’s not over) he pointed up at the sky emphatically. Obviously he saw no point in the self-punishment of a hike under rain. And sure enough, 10 minutes later it was pouring again. By about 10:30 there was a clearing that seemed substantial.
“Shall we go?” I asked John.
He put down his article and ambled out to assess the sky. “Do you think it’s going to quit?” He asked.
“Shall we go?” he called out to Kenge.
Kenge looked suspiciously at the sky and shrugged. “Tuende. Lets go”

John took the knapsack and I carried Sarah in a mazembe. We had barely walked a half hour beyond the last garden and were just coming out of the forest into the kadiketu clearing when the rain started again.

Kadiketu camp is about 3 km north of the road. It was frequently used as a hunting camp during Putnam’s time, and it was at kadiketu that Anne Eisner made many of her sketches. In 1981, however, gardens stretched more than one km north from the IZCN station, almost half the distance to kadidetu. Even the closest hunting camps were now several kilometers beyond kadiketu. Like a necrosis, the gardens dug deeper and deeper into the forest edge, but the change was not as Turnbull had imagined it. There was no big investment undermining Mbuti forest life, there was no foreign logging company or wave of western manufactured goods, in fact there was considerably less outside capital now than during Turnbull’s era.

The forest was being undermined by persistent demographic erosion, migration in from the overpopulated periphery of the forest. It was the kind of transformation that was easy to ignore, slow, progressive, inexorable. Although we noted the clearing, we did not then have a reference to know how steadily it was progressing. At kaditketu we were already in the forest, and rather than worry about deforestation we were aware of the immensity of the forest before us. It would take days, maybe a week of hard walking to cross the forest if we followed a compass direction straight north.

Now kadiketu was only a slight opening with a few lemon trees. But no one stopped to see if there were ripe lemons. We ducked our heads under the downpour, followed the path through the clearing and continued the five additional km to lelo camp where Kenge expected to find the hunters.

Despite being drenched, Sarah, thankfully, stayed in pretty good spirits. I told her to lie close to me and keep warm. We reached Lelo; no one was there. Old endus were collapsed, sodden skeletons of sticks. They had not been rebuilt. No fire had been made. We had to push on.
It started to storm harder. The forest darkened and filled with a rumbling that seemed to come up from below. Lightening, thunder, dark sheets of rain cutting through the canopy. Sarah cried. The wind ripped fruit and branches from far above. A falling elinda fruit (the size of a baseball) knocked my glasses off. The path was transformed into an ankle deep stream. Atoka knelt and in seconds rescued my glasses from the waters roiling over our path, carrying off leaves, branches, fruit, whatever fell to its pull.
It was late afternoon when we walked into the very wet camp of Boukpa. Mokeina and Makubasi started building our house as soon as the rain let up. In the meantime we crouched near the fire in Abeli’s partly finished endu and ate the peanuts I pulled from a sodden bag. 24 July 1981 – journal TBH

Putnam’s trips into the forest were more self-directed. Whereas we followed hunting groups, he set up his own exploratory missions. With spears, bows and arrows, the small group of Mbuti with whom he travelled caught monkey, perhaps mongoose, or occasionally duiker. The elder Mbuti were intimately familiar with a much larger extent of forest than a decade later when Turnbull arrived. In the late 1930s, as they built the new east-west road the Belgians required all small villages with their associated Mbuti to move from distant forest to the roadside. Previously these Mbuti had been nomadic over a large area of forest far from the road.

Putnam would have spent a rainy day in the shelter put up for him, taking notes, perhaps reading a book he’d brought along. No one now knows what Patrick wrote in his early notes. Perhaps he recorded the stories that the Mbuti told around the fire at night. Perhaps he tried to transcribe the repeated refrain of the song woven through the campfire story or a song that the Mbuti sang to accompany them along the trail. He may have made maps of streams crossed, showing what small stream flowed into what larger stream. He was an anthropologist by training and a naturalist by interest. He planned to weave the two passions together. No one should write about the Mbuti without being a naturalist.

Putnam’s notes were never assembled and never published. But while Putnam’s Palais was being constructed, he did not even imagine that he would not eventually write about this forest and its people.

During our first years together in the Ituri, John and I wandered only as far north as the Afarama River; Putnam, during his first years with Mary Linder, went more than 50 kilometers further. All that he saw, he must have assumed, would be transcribed from notes to a book. I can imagine him emerging on the rock outcrop of one of the Ituri Forest inselbergs knowing that far south Mary Linder was overseeing the final construction of their Palais. There, on the inselberg Putnam records in his notebook the change in vegetation: abundance of Euphorbs, also Cycads, maybe more than one species. Having emerged on the granite crest, the horizons were suddenly distant. He had climbed from the innards of the forest to stand on its back; he could see the Ituri wilderness stretching below in all directions from a deep green into a grayer distant mist. He noted the signs of buffalo, elephant, and leopard. He knew he looked out over the forest as no other Westerner had ever seen it. Perhaps that was enough. Perhaps just to be there was enough. There remains no more detail of Putnam’s explorations than there is of the wanderings of unnumbered Mbuti who have lived in and hunted through the Ituri forest for untold numbers of generations.

Jesse on an inselberg outlook
A different young American, Jesse, on top of an inselberg in the still very remote northern Ituri Forest in 2012.

My own notes were immediate, usually family centered, even when we were in forest camps:

Sarah and I have been awake since well before dawn. She lies with her head in my lap. Looking through the hazy near-light to the other side of camp, I can just see Abeli eating. He is observing the Islamic rhythm of Ramadan today; he will fast during daylight hours. Like the other Mbuti Moslems, he observes Ramadan some days of the holy month and takes “a vacation” from it other days.
Now morning is coming on quickly. Many people are awake, talking. John is still in the endu, awake now, curled on the mat and reading a journal article. The sounds of the forest have changed: the drone of insects is muted, more birds are singing. A small flock of gray parrots flew overhead calling back and forth. Sarah and I will go down to wash our faces in the cold water of the Ekare. We will squat on the edge looking through its perfect clarity to a sand and rock bottom. 25 July 1981 –journal

As he grew older Putnam was a talker, not a writer. Perhaps he was discouraged having lost those extensive early notes; or perhaps with Mary Linder’s death he lost his most excited reader and was unable to disassociate the sense of loss from the labor of writing—who was he writing for now? On the other hand, even if the notes had not been lost, and even if Mary Linder had still been there to listen spellbound as he read and to ask numerous questions, even so, it is still questionable whether or not Putnam would ever have written anything as grand and all-comprehensive as he was able to contemplate and approach in conversation. Turnbull’s one-day stopover at Palais turned into an inspired two months as he was caught in Putnam’s eager verbal weaving of scattered adventures across a warp of insight into local ways. Without children to assure continuity, with crippled health and perhaps sensing the finality of his increasing frailty, Putnam urged Turnbull to stay, and pushed him to write the book that eventually brought John to the Ituri in the 1970s.

In August of 1981 we were finally able to move into our new house. I remember that first night when I sat late at my new desk. John and Sarah were asleep. We had acquired a pet tree hyrax that was sleeping curled against Sarah’s neck and we had a kitten that slept by her feet.

at Palais with Suka
Sarah with tree hyrax at our Palais home.

The window in front of my desk overlooked the Epulu River. But it was the new moon and I saw nothing beyond the puddle of light from my Aladdin lantern, although I seemed to hear the river’s silence beneath the calls of crickets and katydids. The rains had begun and the river had swollen up above the rocks, cutting off the continuous rippling warble we heard while the house was under construction. Now the river had become a large smooth surface, whose speed was only obvious in the silent frenzied bobbing of branches caught along the opposite shore. Even in the dark they must be silently and persistently dancing.

I remember the feeling of well-being. We were in our own house. There was only chicken wire over the windows, no glass, and there was a gap between the walls and the ceiling, so bats would skim through, hardly noticeable, and swoop around my head, perhaps catching some of the insects attracted to the lantern. I thought of Basisionoko’s pots arranged in the thatch kitchen out-building. Waiting. He would make the first fire the next morning. And I thought of the bananas hanging in the pantry by the sacks of beans and rice.

There was a feeling of rightness, of permanence, in having a home of our own. Mary Linder must have felt a similar, excited belonging as she did the initial arranging in their new house/hotel with its same magnificent view over the river from its verandahs tucked into the forest. She finally could open the massive traveling trunks, arrange the china; she would air the linen the next day; there was the silver to polish. For her there would have been the anticipation of visiting colonial dignitaries, for Putnam the anticipation of traveling museum curators and plant collectors from international herbaria. Mary Linder did not doubt that this gracious rest-house would become an essential stop-over on any trip through the Ituri Forest.

For us it was not anticipation we felt but rather relief, relief to be out from under the resentful glare of the warden. In the 1980s there was no colonial standard for us to uphold. Rather I was aware that our cement floor, our six enamel plates with six matching enamel goblets, and our hinged wooden doors already placed us among the wealthiest in Epulu. In the impoverished context of the 1980s our new home still merited the title Palais. Obviously we were the subjects of a “déjà-vu” experienced by all the town elders and by many of our workers. They welcomed us to our new house as though welcoming us back after a long absence. That night I wrote:

It is new to us, but in the eyes of our workers and friends it is a homecoming. We are ‘back’ where we belong and by ‘coming back’ we confirm that we are carrying on a tradition that they know more about than we do. We have apparently just rebuilt Putnam’s Palais. Some of the older Mbuti who work for us worked for Patrick Putnam. For others, it is their fathers or grandfathers who worked for him, and a scattering of the home sites up the path from here still house villagers who were dedicated to Putnam and faithful to him until his death. 11 August 1981 letter to parents

Kenge relocated his camp on Palais path within days of our moving. Atoka, Tshukiza, and a few other hunters followed with their wives and families. They settled in the patch of forest that separated our new house site from the town and built their endus across the path from a giant chenje fig tree. Kenge said that during Putnam’s era there had been weekly markets under the fig tree. Women brought their plantains, sombe greens and viazi, the local gray sweet potato. They probably also sold several species of yam which had once been more abundant in the local diet, but were slowly supplanted starting in the late 19th century when the Arabs brought upland rice.

A few days later two Mbuti, Gilbert and Makubasi, came down. We had never worked closely with either of them although we had been in hunting camps with both. Their village camp was in the outer circle of gardens to the west of town. Makubasi was accompanying Gilbert whose wife had died that Monday. The official mourning was just over and now Gilbert needed money, 80 Zaires (about 10 dollars). The wife’s family was demanding unpaid bride wealth. Gilbert had one good eye, the other white and expressionless, but the good eye seemed to hold the expression of two. It was at once sad, brimming over looking at the ground, glancing up and hopeful, quick to mirth. It darted after Sarah and her friends who were playing some crazy game of tag just beyond us.

In the end we refused to pay, it seemed a dangerous precedent. To my relief there was no anger or even disappointment from either Makubasi or Gilbert. But we realized that our relationship with the Mbuti risked changing now that we had moved to Putnam’s old site. Eventually we took on Gilbert as a zamu, or night guardian of Palais, paying him what he needed rather than giving it to him.

Our little Palais settlement began to grow house by house. We put up a thatch storage room by the kitchen and a small one-room guest house. There was a thatch barazza for our old LandCruiser and another for one-eyed Gilbert.

Putnam’s original Palais had expanded as well. After Mary Linder’s sudden death during a trip to the United States, Putnam moved out of the central “hotel” and built himself a small house back in the forest. Kenge showed us where it had been, out of sight and across the Nepuse stream. Putnam was distraught. He tried western marriage again but his second American wife did not see any magic in Palais, only hardship. There were disease-laden mosquitoes, black-flies and snakes. She detested the bats, and the scream of the hyrax made her skin crawl. The Mbuti were picturesque, but they were always everywhere. There was no privacy. And those other women, the wizened so-called wives of Patrick…. The marriage was terminated.

His third American wife, Anne Eisner, loved Palais, the people, and the forest. The Mbuti were companions, able to soften the absence of New England friends. She was an artist and her experience could be her own, realized in sketches and on canvases. Eventually it had to be her own, as Putnam grew slowly and steadily more ill, and withdrew into himself. He was subject to rages and to sullen, self-imposed isolation. Anne Eisner had her own small house, next to her own small spring. Putnam’s Palais continued to grow even as its central buildings began to show neglect. Eisner cared for Putnam, gave him the intellectual repartee he craved, but his daily needs (food, personal hygiene) he entrusted again to a Congolese “wife”, a Mundaka named Mada.

Turnbull wrote “(Putnam) fitted perfectly into the traditional village structure in this area, where a number of different village tribes converge.” (Turnbull,C. 1965. Wayward Servants: the two worlds of the African Pygmies. The Natural History Press. Garden City. New York. 390pp). Putnam was indeed a local chief, between two regional tribes. To the east were the Bila. To the west were the Ndaka.

In his domain, Putnam, the American chief, took all his obligations and extended responsibilities seriously. Besides being principal elder of Camp Putnam village, he was manager of his hotel and a “doctor” at his clinic. There was also an undetermined, ill-defined extent of forest hunted by “his” Mbuti. There must have been a gradual change from the eager omnipotent young Putnam who could know all about all of the Ituri Forest and all of its peoples to a more staid Putnam, a landholder and chief, who though still confident of his knowledge eventually lost confidence that he could do it written justice.

Putnam heard and solved disputes like any local chief. He cared for the sick and received gifts from Mbuti as well as from loyal villagers, all of whom were dependent on him to some degree. This was the Putnam fondly remembered by the village that has now become Epulu, and it was against this model that we were measured. But we knew Putnam had other identities: that of anthropologist and of naturalist. These were the identities he confidently assumed back in the United States. But most of the knowledge held by those identities can only be pieced together now, we are not even certain that he had clearly organized any information beyond the level of anecdote.

According to Joan Mark’s research (The King of the World in the Land of the Pygmies. 1995), Putnam first developed his understanding of forest cultures among the Mboli in the western part of the Ituri, before ever coming to Epulu. He noticed that the gifts of meat that the Mbuti gave the Mboli were worth far less than the agricultural produce they took, the more so since the Mboli themselves were excellent hunters. They were capable of hunting their own game, and often did. Putnam’s explanation of the rapport between the Mbuti and the village was different from Turnbull’s. Older Mboli told him that prior to the arrival of the Belgians the forest had been in constant warfare: tribe against tribe, village against village, and eventually all forest-dwellers against the Arab and Banguana slave-traders/ivory hunters. The Mbuti had been the eyes in the forest and the first arm of attack.

Unlike Turnbull, Putnam did not believe the Mbuti could be self-sufficient in the forest. He took a historical view of their relationship with the villagers. Putnam explained to Turnbull that the Pygmies had been invaluable spies and scouts and that this “had at one time been the major basis of Mbuti-villager relationship” (Turnbull,C. 1965. The Mbuti Pygmies: an ethnographic survey. Anthropological Papers, Volume 50, part 3. The American Museum of Natural History. New York). Although downplayed by Turnbull, the value of Mbuti as warriors is actually mentioned in a number of texts from the early colonial period and occasionally cited as the basis of Mbuti connection to other tribes:

“They fight with ardor…almost always bringing victory” (editors. Congo Illustré 1892. “Les nains du Congo”, Brussels) ;

“the Arab slave-raiders and ivory hunters…suffered to such an extent at the hands of these small demons”. (Hinde, S.L. 1897. The Fall of the Congo Arabs. Methuen & Co. London);

“…considered as valuable allies…against an outside foe”. (Burrows, Capt.G. 1898. The Land of the Pigmies. T.Y.Crowell & Co., Boston, NYC).

“..the Pygmies…became in the forest regions one of the leading factors of power among bantu chiefs”. (Lang, H. 1919. “Nomad dwarfs and civilization. A study of the Pygmies of Central Africa.” Natural History 19:697-713.)

Putnam thought that eventually, with enforced colonial peace, and with the importance of the Mbuti as wartime ally lost, the Mbuti-villager relationship would break down.

Again, it was among the Mboli and “their” Mbuti that Putnam first established his own relationship with the forest and its people (Mark, J. 1995. The King of the World in the Land of the Pygmies). In 1928, when Putnam’s anthropological expedition returned to the United States, Putnam remained to continue discovery through submersion. His mission was nearly fatal. It was Mbuti from Buondo who took Putnam elephant hunting. The second day out he was gored. The Mbuti saved his life by distracting the elephant and carrying him back to the village.

One of the chief’s daughters, Abanzima nursed him back to health, never leaving his side. When he was able to grasp his pen and hold it to paper, what were his notes about? Perhaps genealogies, perhaps stories of origin that he heard from Abanzima, from her father or from the Mbuti whom he wanted desperately to get to know. Perhaps he wrote about Abanzima herself who brought him his food, changed his poultices of traditional medicines and rewrapped the bandages. She fanned him and turned him to make him comfortable. When he was better she helped him to an outside barazza, and eventually she became his first wife.

I imagine the Mboli viewed Putnam with the same quizzicalness that the old zamu in Kinshasa viewed John, “a young man in search of life.” Putnam was searching as an anthropologist, but also as a young American reluctant to settle into a career. His near encounter with death reoriented his mission. Although he always intended to live up to everyone’s expectations, his family in the United States and university colleagues, it was the world immediately around him that held Putnam most closely, and to which he owed his life.

Putnam did not impose a colonial structure on the peoples he was with, but rather fit into the world of the Congolese. Each role – polygamist, village chief – gave him responsibilities and stature in their eyes. But even so, the assumed responsibilities did not end his search. He became a nurse, a zoologist, a botanist, and a hotel manager but still he searched. He planned to be an author. If he had published would that have realized some basic ambition? He lived among the Congolese but wanted to communicate to a Western audience.

This may have been the only way he could justify himself to a father who helped often, but who finally, after Patrick’s mother died and his father remarried, became much less generous. Also there were his fellow anthropology students, now become scholars, whom he felt must dismiss him as an eccentric. A book would explain and define.

Kenge, always the dramatist, made clear the frustration that Putnam felt. Kenge would imitate him at any time, at a rest stop on a hunt, around the fire at night. He would sit stiffly upright, hand clenched on his chest as though grasping a beard, face darkening into a barely contained rage. His voice pitched at its very lowest he’d croak hoarsely. “Toka, Toka happa, Toka sasa” (Get out, get out of here now). Kenge would hurl some leaves or whatever was on the ground next to him and collapse in feigned breathlessness, soon turned to laughter.

Once Kenge dramatized what he told us was one of the final times he saw Putnam. He said that Putnam was at the hotel in Mambasa where he eventually died. It was late, very late. Putnam was alone, in his room, with his typewriter. The typewriter was silent. Putnam was breathing raspingly. Kenge fell into a doze by the window but woke suddenly to a loud, hoarse wail. Putnam heaved himself up, and hurled the typewriter against the wall. He struggled for the lamp, turned it down, trembling, way down. And remained in his chair, silent except for loud wheezing gasps.


  1. Brigham
    Posted 2014-08-12 at 3:34 am | Permalink

    Thank you for writing this, Terese. I’ve been reading it for a week and just finished. I enjoyed following along in your journey, and re-visiting some of the people and places I read about in Turbull’s writings. Thank you for putting this on the internet and getting your story out there.

  2. Torben Nilson
    Posted 2016-11-22 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    Nice to read about the life on the edge of the world 🙂

    Torben Denmark

  3. Pamela Blakely
    Posted 2019-03-12 at 1:48 am | Permalink

    This chapter is an amazing distillation of historical sources that come alive through connections with personal experience. I have read it transfixed.

    From my own research I have two small comments: If Fozi = Fazi/Faizi He was Anne Eisner Putnam’s closest guide into the BaMbuti world. He was also famed for killing an elephant.
    Also, sadly, Patrick Putnam was buried in Mambasa (where he threw the typewriter in his last days). The Belgians had a rule that bodies could not be moved. This rule went directly against the Bantu peoples’ valuing burying a body in their patrilineage home. Anne Eisner Putnam was deeply saddened that Patrick’s grave was in this small, dusty town instead of at his home on the Epulu.

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