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.
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.
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 …