BOOK REVIEW / Pygmy paradise: 'Song From the Forest' - Louis Sarno: Bantam, 14.99 pounds

Sue Gaisford
Wednesday 17 March 1993 00:02

LOUIS SARNO was always going to be a pretty useless husband. He can't climb trees to fetch down honey or fruit; he can just about net a blue duiker, if it's a particularly dopey one, but he'd never spear one on the run if he tried for 50 years; and as for dancing, forget it. Yet half-way through his book the most beautiful girl in his world agrees to marry him. Her name is Ngbali and she dances in and out of his life in her blue knickers and pink plastic necklace, teasing and tantalising him right up to the very last page.

Ngbali is a Ba-Benjelle pygmy in the Central African Republic. Sarno is an American romantic from New Jersey. Idly listening to the radio one night in Amsterdam, he heard a recording of some pygmy singing and was transfixed. It was one of those rare moments that changes a life permanently.

Without any real idea of what he was doing, he bought a one-way ticket to Bangui, took a bus that was prophetically labelled 'Ainsi donc la vie' and found himself in the village of Bomandjombo. From there it was only a short distance to the pygmy settlement of Amopolo, which was to become his home.

It is an unexpectedly endearing story. Sarno's first reaction to the pygmies was shock and disappointment. For a start, some of them were quite tall; then they had a terrible craving for cigarettes, which they expected him to produce in vast numbers. They rather liked clothes and, worst of all, they seemed to do nothing at all. They fed him regularly on boiled tadpoles, which tasted like mud, and showed no signs of being the last and largest population of hunter-gatherers on Earth.

When he asked if he could record their music, they dutifully put on a show for him, having persuaded him that gallons of moonshine had to be provided first, but the music seemed not a patch on what he had heard on his radio in the Netherlands.

All this changed when his cash ran out and the forest spirits appeared. Little by little the people stopped treating him like Father Christmas and befriended him. At last they took him hunting and improved his diet with stewed antelope offal, roast porcupine and fat white grubs; they began to teach him their language and let him witness their real dancing and singing, which proved to be more wonderful than he had ever imagined. There is a problem with describing this ethereal music: he writes about its 'intricacy, subtlety and profound emotional content'; of the women's singing he says, 'gentle and warbly at first, their voices slowly blossomed into yodels of joy'; he describes the harp-zither, flute and earth-bow they use to create it, but to get any real idea of what it actually sounds like, you would probably have to send off for a cassette. There is a risk in that, of course. Look what happened to him.

He still lives there. Originally, he says, he thought the pygmies' concerns petty and trivial, but he has come to regard them as the most well-adjusted people in the world, whose undaunted preoccupation with enjoying each moment as it comes leaves them utterly free of neuroses. It is exhilarating to read about their forest life, essentially unchanged since it was described by the ancient Egyptians. They are forever setting up camp, hunting, fishing, conjuring up spirits, dancing, laughing, moving on, starting again. Their society is a loose, affectionate anarchy with just enough co-operation to ensure survival.

Louis Sarno's account of his strange journey away from modern civilisation is disarmingly frank and completely lacking in self-importance. Longing to be accepted by these people, but ashamed at his lack of basic skills, he appears to be the ultimate innocent in paradise.

When he attempts to persuade the reluctant Ngbali to move into his beehive hut, his arguments are immediately and sympathetically relayed to everyone else by his listening neighbours, with running commentary: 'Now she's sitting on the bed and he's sitting in the sand. Now he's moved in front of her but she's turned her head away.' It sounds comically comforting. Somehow, we know he will be all right.

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