In his book, The Forest People, Colin Turnbull achieves the taste and feel of life inside a Mbuti community, but in doing so offers a skewed anthropological look at the peoples of the African Congo. When reading the book, I did truly feel a part of the Mbuti world, but I also noticed a lack of anthropological accuracy when it came to portraying effect had on Pygmies by the lives and cultures of surrounding natives. Not only does Turnbull lack respect non-Pygmy culture, but he also doesn’t much account for the possibility of change as he idealizes the Mbuti belief and living system in the state it currently exists.
As illustrated quite early in the book when Cephu’s daughter dies of dysentery, the Mbuti people copy some of the patterns of ritual grief used by their villager Negro neighbors. It is clear from their behavior that the Pygmies hold little stock in the cultural beliefs of the villagers, and play along simply to not upset the good food source they can use the Negroes as. However, the way that Turnbull portrays this relationship is extremely one-sided, often times not even giving the “Negroes” the dignity of a tribal name. His treatment of their beliefs is similar, and gives only the vaguest reasons for their behavior, citing belief in spirits and fear of the forest.
Since Negro customs obviously affect pygmy behavior, it seems curious that Turnbull should come so close to completely ignoring cultural reasons driving it. Forces moving culture are much clearer and completely defined when Turnbull follows the pygmies into the forest and away from the influence of surrounding villages. Here, the ritual of the molimo is seen in its pure state, as are other rituals such as marriage and the elima. From the Mbuti (and therefore Turnbull’s) point of view, it is there in the middle of the forest that everything is right with the world, and no polluting influence of the villagers or of change can approach them.
However, this is a false view, because change is inevitable in any culture, and even though not always accepted, changes will occur. Turnbull sees the using of a length of pipe as the Molimo trumpet, a man-made material replacing the traditional bamboo, and in this at least he understands that is not so much the ritual that is important, but the idea behind the ritual. But even in the understanding of this concept, Turnbull still argues for the non-changing Pygmy way of life, which is really not possible. I will not call the older style of Pygmy culture “isolated”, because no group of people is really cut off completely from surrounding groups.
Because of his immersing style of writing, Turnbull captures the spirit and heart of the Mbuti Pygmies with just the basic knowledge of how changes from the outside world affect the cultural activities of the group. He assumes the Pygmies are impervious; they may try a new activity, like raising plantations, for a while, but in the end they will always return to the forest and the hunter-gatherer way of life, because that is what they have always done and what is right for them. Herein lies the biggest error made by Turnbull in The Forest People: he doesn’t give the Pygmy culture enough credit for what it is. The Mbutis are changing, dynamic piece of humanity being fueled by not only age-old traditions and customs, but also the very real beliefs and values of the tribes that they share the Congo with.