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Dancing with the Moon


I read The Forest People: A Study of the Pygmies of the Congo for the first time when I was in my teens. Colin Turnbull, its author, had been a friend of my mother’s since before I was born and so there was a copy in the library at home. They had met in the early Fifties while working for an organization called Racial Unity, of which Colin was for a period the general secretary. My mother’s most substantial contribution to the project of racial unity was probably to marry my father—he was an Asante, a colonial subject from the Gold Coast studying law in London, she, an Englishwoman, the child of a prosperous West Country family.1

Colin Turnbull’s considerable contribution began with his account of the Mbuti (the people, as they called themselves, “of the forest”), among whom he lived in the Ituri rain forest of eastern Congo intermittently during the Fifties. The book, which was published in 1962, became an international best seller and is surely one of the most popular ethnographic works of all time. For in The Forest People he showed how these little hunter-gatherers, roaming in search of honey, fruit, and game in the damp darkness of the Ituri rain forest, lived lives of compassion for one another in an environment they adored with a religious passion. He uncovered a world where musical creativity, storytelling, playing with children, flirting, dancing, and feasting were shared in small communities where there was no formal power, and ridicule and (usually short-term) ostracism were the only penalties for adult moral failings.

In one of the many memorable moments in a memorable book, Colin Turnbull described finding Kenge, the young Mbuti man to whom the book is dedicated, his companion and interpreter in the forest, communing with his world:

There, in the tiny clearing, splashed with silver, was the sophisticated Kenge, clad in bark cloth, adorned with leaves, with a flower stuck in his hair. He was all alone, dancing around and singing softly to himself as he gazed up at the treetops.

Now Kenge was the biggest flirt for miles, so, after watching a while, I came into the clearing and asked, jokingly, why he was dancing alone. He stopped, turned slowly around and looked at me as though I was the biggest fool he had ever seen; and he was plainly surprised by my stupidity.

But I’m not dancing alone,” he said. “I am dancing with the forest, dancing with the moon.” Then, with the utmost unconcern, he ignored me and continued his dance of love and life.2

Turnbull introduces this anecdote as a story about how he “learned just how far we civilized human beings have drifted from reality.” And throughout the book, the life and mores of the Mbuti are contrasted, implicitly and explicitly, with those of “civilized human beings,” to the distinct disadvantage of the latter. These are Rousseau’s natural men: close to nature, tolerant and altruistic, at peace with each other and their environment.

The Forest People is a rapturous paean to the Mbuti. Above all, Turnbull, who was himself an accomplished musician, celebrated the strange music of the molimo, a hollow wooden or metal instrument on which Pygmy men perform, singing in response to its sounds, while their women stay in their makeshift houses pretending to believe that it is a forest animal. The molimo is defined by its sound and its function: the first one Turnbull saw was actually a piece of metal drainpipe, and it was used in a festival that went on for many weeks after the death of Balekimito, an old and much-loved Mbuti woman, who had had a good life:

I noticed that Amabosu, the singer, was not there. I knew why when, a few minutes after the singing had begun, I heard the voice of the molimo answering, way off by itself in the forest. It no longer worried me that the trumpet was a metal drainpipe instead of a piece of bamboo or wood, because now that I could not see it I realized that…it was the sound that mattered.

Night after night, as darkness fell after long days of hunting, the Pygmies of the Ituri sang with their molimo. One day, Moke, one of the older men in the group, explained it to Turnbull this way. Normally, he said, all goes well in the world of the Mbuti. But occasionally, when they are asleep at night, things go wrong:

Army ants invade the camp; leopards may come in and steal a hunting dog or even a child. If we were awake these things would not happen. So when something big goes wrong, like illness or bad hunting or death, it must be because the forest is sleeping and not looking after its children. So what do we do? We wake it up. We wake it up by singing to it, and we do this because we want it to awaken happy. Then everything will be well and good again.

This is as close as we get to a statement of the religion of the Mbuti. It is the faith of a people profoundly at one with their world.

Turnbull’s misty-eyed celebration of the Mbuti comes, it must be said, at the expense of the local Bantu farmers, whom he calls “the Negroes,” the taller people who inhabit the villages on the edge of the forest. Each Pygmy family has a relationship with one of these Bantu village families, a relationship in which the villagers say they “own” the Pygmies. The different groups of Pygmies in the Ituri each speak the language of the Bantu with whom they have these relationships, albeit with a distinctive accent of their own that Turnbull thought was a residue of an older Pygmy language.

From time to time—at funerals and weddings, and other rites of passage, for example—the Pygmies emerge from the forest to bring meat and honey they have gathered in the forest to their “owners,” who in return provide them with metal goods and the products of cultivation: “rice, beans, groundnuts and manioc, and a few of the tiny bitter tomatoes which blend so well with manioc leaves and groundnuts in the making of sauce.” Before Turnbull’s work, the leading scholar of Pygmy life was the Austrian Catholic missionary scholar Paul Schebesta, whose account of the relations between the Pygmies and their Bantu neighbors was, Turnbull argued, distinctly from the Bantu point of view. As Turnbull puts it, Dr. Schebesta

gave the impression that the Pygmies were dependent on the Negroes both for food and for metal products and that there was an unbreakable hereditary relationship by which a Pygmy and all his progeny were handed down in a Negro family, from father to son, and bound to it in a form of serfdom, not only hunting but working on plantations, cutting wood and drawing water. None of this was true of the Pygmies that I knew.

Because Turnbull lived not in the village but with the Pygmies, joining them in their forest lives away from Bantu surveillance, he saw the relationship entirely differently. For him, as the anthropologist Roy Richard Grinker puts it in his biography, the Pygmies “only appeared to be oppressed. In fact, he argued, they were play-acting oppression in order to exploit the farmers.” And, indeed, reading Turnbull’s account of the way the Pygmies talked about their supposed “owners” and their ability to escape more or less whenever they wanted from Bantu supervision, one is easily persuaded of his point of view.

In establishing this picture, Turnbull tends to represent the Bantu as dupes of the Pygmies; but the few Bantu observations about the Mbuti he reports, though distinctly condescending, reflect a view that is otherwise rather close to his own. Isiaka, a Bantu chief, remarks: “They are worthless people. They only come to the village when they want to steal.” And villagers generally, according to Turnbull, said, “‘They eat us up until we are ready to die’—meaning that the Pygmies take from them but give little in return.”

It is hard—let me speak for myself, here—not to have some sympathy with the villagers. Turnbull’s Mbuti seem to think stealing from the Bantu is an entertaining sport. And if you are a farmer whose life is one of solid, backbreaking everyday work, keeping down the weeds, straining at the harvest, the Pygmies’ tendency to disappear at apparently random moments, or to take off for a month of feasting and song, is exactly the sort of behavior that would mark one of your own people as “worthless.” It is a classic conflict of values: between grasshoppers and ants, the prodigal son and his dutiful brother, the riotous servants of Dionysus and the steady devotees of Apollo.

One can quibble, then, with Turnbull; but unless the spirit of fun and the spark of romance are quite dead within you, his Pygmies are irresistibly appealing. It is no surprise that The Forest People, published by Simon and Schuster (and whose editor, as it happens, was a young Michael Korda) nearly forty years ago, is still to be found in bookstores. Joining it now is a new biography of Turnbull by Roy Richard Grinker, an anthropologist at George Washington University who himself worked among the Pygmies of the Congo. Grinker tells us that he began his career seeking to dispute Turnbull’s account of the Mbuti; he eventually came to find himself “fighting…for his life and legacy.” In the Arms of Africa shows him to be a patient, compassionate interpreter of a complex and often puzzling life.


Born in Harrow, near London, in November 1924, Colin Macmillan Turnbull had, on paper at least, an extremely conventional upper-middle-class English upbringing. His father was a successful accountant, who had received the Military Cross for Bravery in the First World War; his mother, as was normal, left much of his care to nannies. He went to Westminster School, founded in 1560, and then on to Magdalen College, Oxford, founded in 1473. His university education was interrupted by service in the Royal Navy from 1942 to 1946, where he worked as an officer in a small motor launch, sweeping for mines, keeping an eye out for torpedoes, and collecting name tags from the bodies of Allied soldiers from the beaches during the Normandy invasion. He accumulated his own share of stars and medals.

Yet beneath this conventional surface, everything was just a little askew. His parents, to begin with, were not really English. The Turnbulls were a borderland Scottish family. (Colin told the Mbuti that they acquired the name when one of their ancestors leaped on the back of a bull and twisted its neck to turn it away from the king.) His mother, Dorothy, had been born in Ireland and grew up in Canada. His first nanny was a West Indian, who left when she was discovered to be rather too fond of the bottle. She was followed by two Germans, the first of whom, Irene Fritzel, was apparently dismissed because, though she was a fine nanny, she was also a Nazi. Since Colin’s devotion to her led to her replacement by another German nanny, he was not in fact spared further exposure to National Socialist propaganda; for the second nanny’s brother kept him supplied with swastika armbands and news of the Hitler Youth, and she herself only left—at her brother’s insistence—after the Munich crisis.

  1. 1

    Roy Richard Grinker’s publisher sent me a copy of the manuscript of the book under review here, which (I regret to say) I did not read as I was asked to. As a result, the book contains one error that I should have corrected. Dr. Grinker writes that I believe that “without Colin’s friendship and influence, [my] mother might never have agreed to marry [my] father” (p. 86). But what I said was that if my mother had not known Colin Turnbull, she might not have met my father, since they probably met through her Racial Unity contacts. It was that that led me to say, mostly in jest, that I might have owed my existence to Colin Turnbull. I don’t think my mother ever displayed any anxiety about my father’s race on her own account, though, naturally, she was aware of the hostility of racists.

  2. 2

    Colin M. Turnbull, The Forest People: A Study of the Pygmies of the Congo (Simon and Schuster, 1962), p. 272.

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