Sunday, September 13, 2009

203. Deconstructing the Postmodern Condition 3 -- L'Affaire Turnbull

From the introduction to Alex Liazos' book, The 1950s Mbuti:A Critique of Colin Turnbull’s The Forest People:
When I began this project in November 2007, I did not set out to disprove, dispute, discredit, or disagree with The Forest People. I wanted to see the field notes for a book I admired, loved, learned from, and taught in my courses for four decades. I also hoped to learn more about the lives of women and children than what the book reports. Once I read the field notes, however, I came upon much material that casts a different light on the book. I feel an obligation to communicate with other readers and admirers of the book, and tell them that the Mbuti of the field notes led more complex, difficult, and different lives than did the Mbuti of The Forest People. The Mbuti did not live in the idyllic paradise the book presents.
During the course of his presentation, Liazos points to several discrepancies, some of them apparently serious, between Turnbull's book and his field notes, from which he often quotes extensively. A list of the principal problems is summarized as follows in the Introduction:
•There is the persecution of Sau, an old woman who is accused of being a witch. For five and a half months, she is harassed constantly, often beaten, and shunned, until she is finally forced to leave the group.

•There is Turnbull’s implied and stated claim that the Mbuti are a gathering and hunting people. They are not. They rely as much or more on grown food from village plantations as they do on food they hunt and gather.

•A strong impression in The Forest People is that the Mbuti live primarily in forest hunting camps. They do not. Dates in the field notes show that they live as long or longer in the village next to the forest.

•Turnbull says that the molimo celebration of a beloved old woman who died while he was there lasts for three uninterrupted months. It does not. Turnbull’s dates and descriptions of people coming and going show that on many nights there is no molimo celebration. On many other days and nights many, often most, people, including Turnbull, are in the village, not in the forest.

•Turnbull seriously misrepresents where and how he spends his time with the Mbuti. The Forest People takes place mostly in forest camps, giving the impression that the Mbuti live primarily in the forest. But during his major stay, September 1957 to October 1958, he lives in forest camps with the Mbuti a total of at most three months. While in forest camps, he never stays more than two consecutive weeks in any one of them.
In Chapter One, "Rethinking The Forest People," Liazos presents another list, this time of impressions of Mbuti life suggested by his initial, uncritical, readings of the book:
1. Cooperation and sharing are fundamental to their lives.

2. Their relationship to the forest shapes all their experiences.

3. There are no leaders and no social classes.

4. There is no private ownership of the land, no inheritance of it from parents to children.

5. Thus, at birth, all children begin equal. None of them own any land or other major property and all can learn whatever they wish from any adult in the group.

6. Thus, there is equality, but not sameness - each Mbuti is very much a distinct individual.

7. There is communal raising of children.

8. There are no courts, police, and government, and the community as a whole gets involved in settling disputes.

9. The Molimo and the Elima festivals are important.

10. Women and men have equal status, according to Turnbull. Why does he say this? Do you agree? Why are women excluded from the Molimo? What does it mean that women "tie up" the men at the end?

11. For many years since I first read the book in 1961 [actually 1963], I did not pay much attention to the violence described in later chapters (especially against Kenge's sister by Kenge and their mother). A student in 1990 argued that such violence against women indicates a lower status for women. What do you think?
Liazos makes it clear that his intention is not to totally debunk the book, and he devotes his Third Chapter to quoting a great many passages in the field notes that reinforce his original impression, from reading the book, of the Mbuti as leading a generally carefree and pleasant life:
They do sing, dance, tell stories, joke and laugh, love and are close to the forest, hold a molimo celebration with beautiful music and songs, live as a close community. They enjoy life and are a happy people. These are the realities I present in this chapter. The next two chapters show the problems Turnbull leaves out.
Indeed, Chapter Four is entitled "Persecution, Conflict, and Violence in Mbuti life," and Liazos presents some very disturbing examples from the field notes that in his view were either omitted or played down in The Forest People. The first, and most disturbing instance he cites is the story of the "persecution" of an old Mbuti woman named Sau, who has been accused of witchcraft by the tribal people of the farming village with which the Mbuti have formed what appears to be a symbiotic relationship. The story of Sau, marked by many incidents that seem unjustified and unfair, is told by Turnbull in great and disturbing detail, but only in his field notes. In The Forest People, according to Liazos, there are only 7 brief mentions of her, all of which he quotes, and on this basis he accuses Turnbull of minimizing the degree to which she is persecuted, implying that had he given her story the importance it deserves, it would have undermined the romantic, idealized view of Mbuti life he was so eager to paint.

While the story of Sau is indeed especially disturbing, there are other aspects of Pygmy life reported in the notes but seemingly passed over or minimized in the book that Liazos goes to considerable pains to document. What stood out for me were two things in particular: violence toward women, exemplified by the many wife-beatings described in Turnbull's notes; and violence toward children, who also seem to be beaten with some degree of regularity. There are some other serious problems as well, for example a discrepancy regarding the amount of time Turnbull spends in the forest as opposed to the neighboring farming village and the amount of time the Mbuti themselves spend in either place.

In the next installment I'll attempt to address these issues as best I can, defending Turnbull where I feel he's been unfairly accused (though I must admit that some of the accusations cannot be so easily defended), and re-examining the question that's been raised so often with respect to his work generally, and The Forest People in particular: were the Mbuti of the 1950's for real, did they actually lead the sort of life Turnbull has depicted for them, or has he offered a distorted, idealized and biased picture, based on what he wanted to believe rather than what he actually observed? And more important from my own perspective, what does Turnbull's research tell us about the Mbuti as members of a much larger group of African peoples, popularly known as "Pygmies," with traditions that may or may not transcend their immediate situation, as Turnbull found them, at a particular time and place?

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