In one of the most famous passages of anthropological literature, Colin Turnbull describes how he found his young Mbuti assistant Kenge dancing alone one night in a patch of moonlight. Turnbull asks Kenge why he was dancing alone. The Mbuti youth replies, “But I’m not dancing alone … I am dancing with the forest, dancing with the moon.” (Turnbull provides the Mbuti wording later in a more scholarly 1978 article that refers to the same incident.)
Passages such as that helped make The Forest People into an international best seller. And, to judge by the book itself, Kenge deserved to be the central character. As a youth he befriended Turnbull and quickly became his paid assistant and companion. Turnbull dedicated the book to him. Throughout the narrative, the Mbuti assistant interacts with other members of his band and interprets forest events for the young anthropologist.
Some of the descriptions of Kenge verge on the incredible. Near the end of The Forest People, Turnbull takes Kenge on a trip by car to the east, out of the Ituri rain forest and into the savannah of Central Africa. Kenge is amazed at the open country—he had never been out of a closed-in forest before. He saw a herd of buffalo at a great distance and could only believe they were insects, they appeared to be so small.
He is pictured, following page 72 in The Forest People, playing the musical bow. Turnbull’s more scholarly—and much less popular—ethnography Wayward Servants, pictures Kenge making bark cloth (see plates 23 and 24 following page 228.)
In 1980, years after Turnbull completed his 1957 research visit to the Mbuti, after Anne Eisner, Patrick Putnam’s widow had left Camp Putnam for good, the American biologists Terese and John Hart arrived at Epulu (formerly Camp Putnam) to begin their wildlife research. The next day Kenge arrived and announced himself. “Mimi Kenge,” he told them (I am Kenge). She recognized him immediately from Turnbull’s book.
To judge by Terese Hart’s moving tribute to him in this month’s Wildlife Conservation magazine, he took charge of them as much as he had Turnbull a quarter of a century earlier. Hart expresses nothing but praise for him, much as Turnbull did. “He was a superb hunter, a hilarious storyteller,” she writes (p.56). Her obvious affection for the man comes through in her description of his abilities to navigate his way through the Ituri forest. He eased their life in camp, found a wonderful Mbuti woman to act as a nanny for their two-year old daughter, and made camp life as easy as possible so the Harts could study the incredible wildlife of the forest.
Since the catastrophic wars began in Congo ten years ago, the Harts had to flee out of the country, but they have continued to slip back in repeatedly, avoiding the warring militias successfully each time as they come back to their research station to help keep thing going. She last saw Kenge in September 2005, during what she thought would be her last visit to the Ituri forest. He was old and thin, she observes, but still walking effectively. He still had “those same mischievous eyes,” she writes (p.57). She had a hard time telling him it would be her last visit.
Three weeks later, Kenge died, perhaps of pneumonia. Several months after that, she and her husband returned to Epulu to celebrate a molimo festival with the Mbuti in memory of Kenge, to free his spirit in the forest. Her encomium of praise for Kenge, and her evocative description of the molimo festival that celebrated his life, is a fitting tribute to a man who loved the forest as much as anyone in his society.
A color photo of Kenge as an elderly man, and several pictures of other Mbuti preparing for the molimo festival, complement the article and supplement the much earlier photos by Turnbull. The only negative aspect of an otherwise unique piece is the unfortunate title, perhaps chosen by an editor who had never heard of Kenge before, or perhaps who was unaware of the fame of The Forest People. “Final Song for an Unsung Hero?” Better would have been, “Final Song for a Mythic Hero.”
Hart, Terese. 2006. “Final Song for an Unsung Hero.” Wildlife Conservation 109(4), July/August: 54-57