Monday, February 27, 2012

The Forest People

Colin Turnbull’s book The Forest People takes us on a fascinating voyage into the world of the Mbuti Pygmies, who live in the Ituri rainforest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Turnbull (1924-1994) was an anthropologist who spent several years with the Pygmies, beginning in 1951.  He came from a wealthy English family, but he found life among the Pygmies to be so satisfying that he had to resist strong urges to remain with them.
Instead of using the standard scholarly format for anthropology books, Turnbull described these people in a series of stories.  These stories included descriptions of the important cultural components of the Pygmy way of life, and introduced us to the personalities of various individuals in the band. 
They were hunter-gatherers, and they enjoyed an exceedingly low tech way of life in their tropical rainforest home.  They had little need for clothing, blankets, or warm shelters.  They hunted with nets, spears, and bows and arrows.  They did not garden or herd animals.  Consequently, they had an abundance of leisure time.  They loved singing, dancing, storytelling, and visiting kinfolk.  They would laugh until they were too weak to stand, then sit down and laugh.
In 2500 BC, Egyptian explorers discovered the Pygmies.  Their report to the Pharaoh described “a people of the trees, a tiny people who sing and dance to their god, a dance such as had never been seen before.”  When Turnbull arrived 4,500 years later, he found a similar scenario.  They had a way of life that worked, and it was quite enjoyable.  Yes, daily life included normal personality conflicts, but their society did not suffer from chiefs, priests, thieves, chauvinists, inequality, or individualism.
The hunting way of life required cooperation, so the Pygmies were highly skilled at conflict resolution.  One of their proverbs proclaimed that “a noisy camp is a hungry camp.”  Disputes promptly led to active discussion by the group.  Shunning and ridicule were common tools, and annoying offenders were sometimes beaten.
Everything about the forest was sacred to the Pygmies.  “They were a people who had found in the forest something that made their life more than just worth living, something that made it, with all its hardships and problems and tragedies, a wonderful thing full of joy and happiness and free of care.”  
In another book, Turnbull mentioned Father Longo, a Catholic missionary who refused to preach to the Pygmies, because they had no word for evil.  “In order to convert them, then, he would first have to teach them the concept of evil, and that he was not prepared to do.”
Moke, a wise elder, said: “The forest is a father and mother to us, and like a father or mother it gives us everything we need — food, clothing, shelter, warmth, and affection.  Normally everything goes well, because the forest is good to its children, but when things go wrong, there must be a reason.”
Alas, sometimes the forest fell asleep, and failed to take care of the Pygmies, leading to illness, death, or bad hunting.  Army ants might move in, or a leopard might snatch a child.  When these problems occurred, the Pygmies would sing to the forest, to wake it up and make it happy.  They sometimes performed the molimo ceremony, during which animal noises were made using a long hollow wooden instrument.
And when the forest was happy, they would sing and dance to share their happiness with it.  They lived in a heavenly place, in constant direct contact with everything they held to be sacred.  They had absolute reverence for the forest, their ancient home, and they were some of its many children.
The Pygmies enjoyed at least 4,500 years of relative stability, and this was made possible by their primitive technology.  If they had become farmers or herders, their journey would have been far more destructive and turbulent.  They would have seriously damaged themselves and their sacred forest.
Change has been increasing in Pygmy country, requiring them to adjust the way they live.  Maybe 400 years ago, Bantu people moved into the forest and began slash-and-burn farming.  They had been herders from the grasslands of East Africa, but they were driven off their home by other tribes.  Their cattle died in the jungle, so they traded food with the Pygmies for meat. 
In the 1880’s, the Congo became a colony of Belgium.  Since then efforts have been made to “liberate” the unfortunate Pygmies and convert them into hard-working tax-paying farmers.  This plan has not enjoyed great success.  At one farm, 29 Pygmies died of sunstroke in a single day.  They thrive in the cool shade of their ancient forest, and they harbor an intense hatred of miserable backbreaking field work — what could be more idiotic?
In the twentieth century, the Ituri has been ravaged by road-builders, loggers, miners, ivory poachers, bushmeat hunters, missionaries, and a bloody parade of trigger-happy rebels, terrorists, goon squads, psychopaths, and freedom fighters.  There have been numerous armed conflicts.  The Second Congo War began in 1998, and resulted in 5.4 million deaths, mostly from disease and starvation.  Many displaced people were driven into the Ituri Forest.  Pygmies were hunted down and eaten like game animals. 
Much deforestation has been caused by the continuous expansion of slash-and-burn farming.  Jungle soils are rapidly depleted by agriculture, and the Congo’s birthrate is one of the worlds highest.  Almost half of the population is younger than 15.
When The Forest People was published, it soon became popular.  Turnbull thought that the book had impact “because the near-Utopia described rang true, and showed that certain voids in the lives of many of us could indeed be filled.”
Ah yes, the voids in our lives.  How often do we sing and dance to keep our forest happy?  Turnbull has given us a precious gift — a taste of what a healthy and joyful life could be like, living in harmony with the land, singing and dancing in a balanced ecosystem, century after century after century.  His book offers us a brief enchanting escape from our world of madness, and a beautiful vision of what life could be like for our descendants.

Turnbull, Colin M., The Forest People, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1961.


Kaleo said...

Turnbull also wrote The Mountain People (on the Ik people of Uganda). Wikipedia asserts that he "was in unique position to study and document what happens to a society and culture that is forced into destruction. The Ik were displaced from their ancestral lands and forced into famine. He took pains to compare the society he witnessed to...the recollections of older Ik of the pre-stressed society. He extrapolated his observations to warn that civilization is shallow. I read both his books decades ago; I'd like to re-read them, now.

What Is Sustainable said...

Yes, The Mountain People was a twisted story. One of my posts on this blog is The Human Cycle, which was also memorable. Roy Richard Grinker wrote a biography of Turnbull — In the arms of Africa : the life of Colin M. Turnbull. His original plan was to do a hatchet job on this unconventional and unprofessional anthropologist. But once he got rolling, he discovered that Turnbull was really a decent chap. Turnbull and his Afro-American lover both died from AIDS.

Anonymous said...

Reading and seeing documentaries about pygmie tribes is the only thing that can (temporarily) counter my misanthropy. To put it melodramatically: whatever was left of humanity has died together with the pygmie way of life.

What Is Sustainable said...

I don’t believe that humans are fatally flawed, but I have no doubt that the cultures of civilized societies are pathological in many ways. I have no solutions today. Maybe climate change will reboot global reality, sweep away lots of garbage, and enable new beginnings.

The Forest People was published in 1961. It’s a lovely book. The years since then have not been kind. The San Bushmen of southern Africa have also had a rough time — like any wild culture that has been in contact with civilization.

If you Google “Sentinelese” you will find several essays on wild people off the shore of India who fiercely defend their freedom. India does not allow anyone to make contact with them.