Monday, 4 June 2012

What Terrifies a Congo Pygmy?

    The Mbuti pygmies of the Ituri Forest in northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo are hunter gatherers who live in a symbiotic relationship with the taller agricultural villagers. They hunt small mammals by beating the jungle and driving them into nets, but also go after larger game, such as okapi, and even elephants, with spears. As hunter gatherers, they would have an intimate knowledge of the local fauna. So what is the jungle denizen, which is heard but never seen, which terrifies even these knowledgeable children of the rainforest?
    Patrick Putnam (1904 - 1953) was a maverick anthropologist who went to the then Belgian Congo in 1928 to study the pygmies, and established in 1933 a wilderness guest house called Camp Putnam near Epulu, which he managed until his death. Although staffed mostly by non-pygmies of the Bira and Lesi tribes, it was largely supplied with meat from the pygmy village a couple of miles away in the jungle. In 1946, he met the American artist, Anne Eisner (1911 - 1967), who followed him to Africa and married him. This is her account of her experiences with the Esamba. I am quoting from the 1956 Panther edition of Eight Years with Congo Pigmies, by Anne Eisner Putnam (originally published in 1954).
    The first experience took place when she was returning home at night from a pygmy funeral. She had not taken a hurricane lamp, assuming she would have a pygmy escort, and now found herself alone in the dark.
     Suddenly above the beat of the tom-toms I heard a clear mooing sound, half like a cow whose udder is too full, waiting to be milked, and half like that of a French horn, but pitched lower. I cowered against a mahogany tree, almost frozen with fear.
     It was the Esamba. I didn't have to be told. All the bits of idle talk, all the wild rumours, all the hushed whisperings of the natives suddenly became pieced together in my mind. Where the Esamba roamed , there went death. Its eerie, lowing voice was the voice of evil.     . . .
    The mooing started up again. This time it was far to the right of the pigmy camp. How had it moved so fast and so far? My tongue was dry. I couldn't swallow.  Again the blood-curdling lowing came out of the darkness. It was farther around again. I thought to myself, "My God, it's circling around to get between me and home.
    Terror-stricken now, I ran towards the camp, tripping over roots, catching myself on low-hanging liana vines. . . . The voice of the Esamba came from one side now. It was no longer behind me. I tried to run faster but I was no athlete.  . . .
    I stumbled, I fell. I gasped and I wept, but I kept on running through the jungle. Each time I heard the mooing it was closer. I knew I couldn't make it to the hotel compound. My only hope rested in the chance I could last until I reached the village of the [non-pygmy] Africans, this side of the clearing.  . . .
   Then I heard the other noise. Off the path there was a rustling sound, as if an animal - or a man- were moving there in the darkness. Every vestige of civilization drained out of me and I fled screaming down the path, into the village and into the house of Abazinga, the animal keeper. [Camp Putnam had a menagerie.]
    He reached for his spear and sprang to the door, but I called him back.
    "No, no, don't go," I cried. "The Esamba is out there."
    He turned to me, fear on his black face and in his eyes.
    "Did Madami look upon the Esamba?" he asked.
    "I heard it but I saw nothing," I answered, still fighting for breath.
    "Luck walks with you, Madami," he said. "Anyone who beholds the Esamba dies within two days."
    I sat by Abazinga's fire until I could walk again and he told me of the evil Esamba. Trees die when it passes, he said, and small bodies of water dry up. When the Esamba is loose, he swore, men hide their faces in their beds, lest they look upon its features and die.
    I heard the voice of the Esamba no more that night. I told Pat of my experience, half expecting him to laugh at me. He did nothing of the sort.
    "You were right to run," he said. "I have been here in Africa many years, but I do not know its secret. But I don't scoff at it. I can't see the virus that causes pneumonia but I know its power for evil. No on understands all things in the Congo and the white man understands them least of all." [pp 60 - 63]
    The second occurrence was when she was in the pygmy village witnessing their love rituals.

    It must have been midnight when I heard from far off in the jungle the sound of a low mooing. Around the campfire all noise ceased. It came again, like a distant horn, melodious yet not at all as if made by a true horn. I threw the book down and rushed to the door just in time to see the last of the women hurrying inside their huts.
    The men were seated around the fires, looking straight into the flames, never once tearing their gaze away to look towards the part of the forest whence the sound came. Faizi, who had killed a bull elephant with a pigmy's spear, made no move to investigate the eerie sound. Mok√©, best of the hunters, sat as if glued before the fire. Herafu, old enough to die, yet young enough not to want to, looked only at the dancing flames.
    . . .
    Across the Leilo, no wider than a country road, the mooing started up again. It came from nowhere and from everywhere. It seemed disembodied. . . .
    At dawn the next day a runner brought word that one of Andokala's relatives had died in the Walesi camp, not far beyond the Leilo.
    I called Faizi over from his breakfast fire.
    "The Esamba walked last night, didn't it?" I asked.
   "Yes, Madami," said the little man. "We all heard it and were afraid." [pp 139 - 140]
    According to Colin Turnbull (The Forest People, 1961), the Mbutis scoff at the agricultural tribes' belief that the jungle is infested with evil spirits, but they obviously make an exception for the Esamba. However, the mooing call is presumably made by something far less sinister. What can it be? The immediate guess would be some ungulate - an antelope. But a community which makes its living hunting ground-living game is unlikely to make such a mistake. Nevertheless, unlike the Amazon Indians, the pygmies do not hunt canopy life, such as monkeys and birds. Is the voice of the Esamba made by some night bird? If so, the rustling heard by Mrs Putnam would have been incidental and independent. There would not be many such bird species. However, birds are notoriously territorial and vocal, so why is it not heard much more often? And why is it not familiar to other forest groups?
    What about something human: say a witchdoctor blowing a horn, equivalent to the Australian Aborigines' use of the bullroarer? I don't think so. The villagers dread the forest, while the pygmies have no special ritualist class, nor was there any obvious ritual significance attributed to it. Furthermore, I have myself gone through that jungle during the daylight with a pygmy hunting party. I cannot imagine anybody, even a pygmy, wandering deep into the rainforest at night without a light. Also, such rituals tend to be an open secret in most societies. It is unlikely to have remained hidden from an anthropologist of twenty years' experience.
    Camp Putnam no longer exists. However, the fact that it was once a guest lodge indicates that it was far from being in the middle of nowhere. Turnbull did his studies on the pygmies over the following years in the same general area. But I have never heard of the phenomenon being reported by anyone else. Is there anyone out there who knows the truth?

4 comments:

  1. Hello Malcolm,

    I also documented this story about Anne Putnam's frightening experience in my book, 'Mokele-mbembe, Mystery Beast of the Congo Basin.'

    I spoke to a missionary in the Congo Republic (Brazzaville) about this in 1985, and he confirmed that the pygmies in the former French colony also feared this alleged evil spirit.

    Bill Gibbons

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    Replies
    1. That is interesting, because they are separated by the width of a continent. Did the missionary describe it in the same way ie making a mooing sound at night?

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    2. Hello Malcolm,

      The various pygmy groups are concentrated (mainly)in the equatorial rainforest area, but a few groups can be found as far away as Malawi and Ethiopia. While cultural practises, languages and religious beliefs tend to be quite diverse among the pygmies, the Aka pygmies of the Likouala (Congo-Brazzaville)and the uturi pygmies of the Uturi Forest (Congo-Kinshasa) interact frequently. In spite of the diversity of the languages there, Lingala is spoken by over 10 million people, and the pygmies seem to have little difficulty with interaction and communication. At first I thought that the stories abou the Esmaba were a cross-cultural myth, but the missionaries working in the Likouala region confirmed that the phenomenon has been experienced on the French side of the Congo River.

      One missionary in particular, the late Gene Thomas, was in the Likouala region from 1955 to 1992 and told me many stories about similar encounters with sorcerers, witches, demonic activity, etc. Prior to proceeding with a hunting expedition, or leading our expedition into the forest to Lac Tele (1986) for example, both the pygmies and the various Bantu tribes would perform a ritual for protection by (presumably) benevolent forest spirits. The Bantu people also acknowledged the sinister Esamba and were obviously fearful of any encounter with it.

      I am hoping to return to Cameroon for an expedition in November, and I will be sure to ask the Baka pygmies there if they have any knowledge or personal experiences with the Esamba.

      Bill

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  2. Hi Malcolm,

    Yes, the missionaries in the Congo Republic described the Esamba in much the same way as the pygmies of the Uturi rainforest across the river. I have just received a copy of "I Saw Congo," written by E.W. Moon, a missionary to the old Belgian Congo from 1908 to 1923. I will be perusing the book to see if there is a mention of the Esamba, as Moon was a keen student of native culture.

    best Wishes,

    Bill

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