Essay, Research Paper: Mbuti Community


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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.

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