Monday, January 5, 2009

Mbuti, Colin Turnball, and a Point

The Mbuti Pygmies live in the Ituri Forest in what is now called the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa. They’re a peaceful people, a society of hunters and gatherers who have no form of government. They resolve the majority of their conflicts through laughter. Basically, they ridicule each other until they get so outrageous they forget what the original cause of the disturbance was and harmony is restored. Perhaps we could learn something from them.

Unlike their village dwelling neighbors who are afraid of the forest because they think it houses evil spirits, the Mbuti believe the forest is their friend. They sing to keep it happy and to ask for it to provide game for their hunts. Yes, recordings are available.

The primary man to study this group of Pygmies was Colin Turnball of London, England. His first encounter with them however, was before he became an anthropologist. He travelled to what was then Zaire with a friend. One of the odd jobs he had that trip was helping a movie producer build a boat. The producer, Sam Spiegel and the boat, the African Queen.

After returning to Oxford and specializing in the anthropology of Africa, Turnball made five more expeditions to the Ituri region, publishing his study of the Pygmies, The Forest People, and the follow up, The Mountain People, which concentrated more on the village dwelling Ik people in Uganda. Turnball was not your typical anthropologist in that he quite obviously did not maintain his neutrality about his subjects as is encouraged. He adored the Mbuti and despised the Ik.

Eventually Turnball became a naturalized citizen of the United States, working as curator for the Museum of Natural History in New York and then as a professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University. While there, he lived in rural Virginia in an interracial, openly gay relationship. In the 1960’s.

I met Colin Turnball in the early 80’s when he was doing the lecture circuit and, since I was an anthropology major, had the great fortune of spending an afternoon with him. What a fascinating individual!

Now for my point. Both Turnball and his partner of 30 years, Dr. Joseph Towels, died at the age of 69 from complications of AIDS. The disease doesn’t care who you are or what you’ve done in your lifetime. Protect yourself.


Amarinda Jones said...

AIDs does not care at all and sometimes I think we have become too complacent

Anny Cook said...

What a wonderful post. Thank you!

Molly Daniels said...

Very interesting. One never knows what we'll learn from your posts!

Regina Carlysle said...

What jumped out at me was the fact these people laugh-away their troubles. Wish all disputes could be settled this way. Lightening up might be a key to solving some of these awful problems where wars are killing kids.