The Forest People (Pimlico) Paperback – 6 Jan 1994
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"Life-enhancing, extraordinarily vivid … It is impossible to praise this book too highly" (Listener)
"A book of quite exceptional charm" (New Statesman)
"The reader feels sheer delight in an entirely new world" (Margaret Mead)
"Amazing ... It inspired me to seek out wild places" (Ray Mears) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
A great classic of anthropology, THE FOREST PEOPLE is a uniquely absorbing study of the Pygmies of the Ituri Forest in the Congo - the heart of Stanley's 'DARK CONTINENT'.See all Product description
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For example, where is the historical background for the pygmies? All we get are two references from ancient Egypt/Greece, which proves that the pygmy race is very old but tells us nothing about its 4000-year existence. Where is the anthropological background? Call me ignorant, but I genuinely don't know why pygmies are physically shorter than the rest of mankind... and I still don't know, having read a study devoted to them. I expected a discussion of their unique genetics, however brief.
Instead, everything in this book focuses on the "here and now" of 1957, which provides a frozen snapshot of an ancient people...but goes no further than that. Page after page reads too much like this:
"Pygmy A walked over to Pygmy B's hut. Pygmy A argued with Pygmy B's wife, who threw a burning log at Pygmy A and cursed his family. Pygmy A took offence and demanded that some plantains be repaid. Pygmy B ignored Pygmy A and went hunting. Pygmy A sulked all day. Pygmy B came back with meat. Everyone was appeased until Pygmy A walked over to Pygmy B's hut again..."
This sort of detail, whilst accurate and no doubt well-observed, is fine if you're publishing your field notes but not if you're writing an anthropological study for mass consumption. Too much of this minutiae creeps into the writing, focusing on everyday trivialities rather than giving a useful précis that we can fit into a bigger picture.
Although the "molimo" festival was absorbing - especially the idea that a giant trumpeting forest spirit likes to invade pygmy camps at night - it was dwelled on for too long. Instead of condensing this festival into one or two chapters, Turnbull uses more than half of his book to document its every move. This gets repetitive; the same amount of attention isn't given to the male/female initiation ceremonies described later on, making it feel like this isn't a rounded view of pygmy life.
The book as a whole only really came alive for me in Chapter 13 (of 15) when Turnbull and his pygmy friend Kenge leave the forest and Kenge is forced to confront the wider world. Suddenly, Kenge and his Forest People became real for me. Up until that point, they were a series of stiff observations in a notebook.
Here's another thing that bothered me: Turnbull repeatedly affirms that he is recording the pygmies in their true behavioural state, away from the distortive influence of the neighbouring villagers. But he never stops to consider that the pygmies might behave very differently in the presence of a white European. Why should his experience be any more accurate as a foreigner? In fact, why did the BaMbuti people even accept him as one of their own in the first place? Just how Turnbull won their trust is never explained; we simply leap straight into the study with this trust unquestioningly established. As Turnbull duly goes on to note, the BaMbuti pretend to respect the local Bantu villagers face-to-face, but routinely mock them behind their backs. Maybe they were doing the same thing to him?
My final point doesn't really need to be made, but I want to raise it anyway. Colin Turnbull, at numerous times in the Ituri forest, is presented with young nubile women for his own sexual gratification. He always turns these women away, taking the high moral ground and citing a reluctance to get involved with tribal politics. While these are admirable notions, they were almost certainly helped along by the fact that Turnbull was gay; a detail that he never divulges... and doesn't need to... but he does make himself out to be a bit of a saint, when that's not entirely the truth.
It helps if you are into nature and anthropology. In any case by the end of the book you will be. Easy to read and heart warming as one discovers what it means to live in harmony with the forest. Something we have all lost but can at least gain an insight in to. An important piece of work that will stand the test of time. Read it and remind yourself about the essence of things.
I feel that the author lacks the ability to articulate real depth both in himself and in his observation of the people he is living with, leaving me with a 2-dimensional sense of most of the people in the book; the cripple, the flirt, the angry woman, etc., just personas. It left me wondering whether or not he saw the Pygmy people as who they are at all. He tells us time and time again that the Pigmy people portray a certain character to the village people whilst behaving totally differently when they are amongst their own - who's to say they didn't portray yet another character to the author? Why would they trust him and share their lives with a stranger - were they really themselves?
I'm can see that it was an important book in 1957, but I fail to see it's importance from an anthropological point of view now other than to look at how much life has changed since then.
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