Colin Turnbull
Colin Turnbull; drawing by David Levine


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.

At school, where sports were a central part of the process of making a gentleman, he resisted both the competition and the aggression involved, and instead established himself, according to the Dean of Westminster, as “a keen musician, mainly an organist.” (“Colin cannot stand up in the boxing ring and take his punishment like a man,” wrote another of his teachers.) And while he was at Oxford he spent a quite unusual amount of time with what would then have been called “colored” people: his best friend, Satya Paul Mayor, was a Punjabi who had grown up in England; most of the women he went out with—including Satya’s sister, Kumari, to whom he was once engaged to be married—were Indian; and he got to know West Indian bus conductors.

More than this, at school, during his years in the navy, and back again at Oxford after the war, he had sex with males. At English boys’ public schools, as everyone no doubt knows, this was not exactly unusual. (The navy, too, had a certain reputation. And Magdalen was, after all, Oscar Wilde’s college.) But Colin Turnbull was not just “experimenting.” When he arrived in Ituri for the first time, he was on a motorbike accompanied by a high school music teacher from Ohio named Newton Beal, and they were, Grinker writes, “almost certainly lovers.” And then there was Teleabo Kenge, that dancer with the moon, with whom Turnbull slept most of his nights in the forest, “legs and arms intertwined in the way that Mbuti men like to sleep with each other to stay warm.” Kenge was certainly not homosexual—his exploits with Pygmy and Bantu women are one of the recurrent themes of The Forest People, and you do not have to be a Foucauldian to think that, in a society like the Mbutis’ that had no concept of erotic love between men, whatever went on in those forest nights could not have had the same meaning for Kenge as it had for Turnbull. Grinker believes that Turnbull’s confession much later in life that he had had sex with a Mbuti man may have been a reference to Kenge. But since Turnbull often spoke about making love through affectionate embraces rather than through intercourse, it is perfectly possible that they “made love” without Kenge’s knowing.

It is natural to suppose that Turnbull’s homoerotic inclination was part of what alienated him from England. It is difficult, however, to see why it should have drawn him to the Mbuti. The Mbuti are not exactly gay-friendly: Grinker suggests that if Turnbull and Kenge had been discovered making love, “Kenge might have been expelled from his camp, beaten or burned, as had happened with Mbuti men who had committed the crimes of having sexual intercourse with men, children, or goats.” (The range of Mbuti penalties seems somewhat more expansive than Turnbull had indicated.) And when Turnbull finally settled somewhere it was in the United States, where general attitudes toward homosexuality in the 1950s and 1960s were probably even less tolerant than those in England.

But then his sexual disposition was only one of the things that set him apart. There was his doubly Celtic ancestry (as Oscar Wilde, that other Magdalen man, once said, “I am not English, I am Irish, which is quite another thing”); and there was the fact that he was, like many sensitive young people of his generation, simply temperamentally unsuited to life as a privileged member of a society dominated by class. Just as he had spent time at Oxford consorting inappropriately with an immigrant bus conductor, so in the navy he seems, despite his status as an officer, to have spent unsuitable amounts of time with the other ranks. Certainly, then, he had more than enough reason to take up a profession than enabled him to explore contrasting ways of life. When he set off to spend his longest period with the Mbuti, beginning in September 1957, he was registered for the Ph.D. in anthropology at Oxford. His love for the Mbuti had determined his profession.

But Turnbull’s first escape was not to Africa, but to India, where he went in 1949 after finishing his undergraduate degree, staying, to begin with, near Benares as the guest of the family of Satya Paul Mayor, his college friend. Colin seems once to have considered a career in the Church of England (an option his cousin William Mackenzie, a tutor at Magdalen, described as “a bit odd these days”) but by now he had become interested in Indian religion. As a result, he decided to study for a Ph.D. in religion at the Hindu University at Benares. Once he was there, he found his way to the ashram of Sri Anandamayi Ma, a well-known Hindu religious teacher. Though he also spent brief periods with Swami Sivananda, Sri Aurobindo, and Krishnamurti, it was Anandamayi Ma whose influence stayed with him. Turnbull’s religious ideas were shaped by her teaching for the rest of his life. A framed picture of her stood on the nightstand in his bedroom when he died, next to a photograph of his mother.

Since Turnbull did not know either Hindi or Bengali, which were the languages Anandamayi Ma spoke, he needed an interpreter. This task was delegated to an Austrian woman named Blanka Schlamm (who was known in the ashram as Athmananda). Through her diaries, and a manuscript of Turnbull’s entitled “The Flute of Krishna,” based on his diaries of the period, Grinker has been able to reconstruct a fascinating picture of Colin’s time at the ashram. One striking fact, however, about “The Flute of Krishna” is that it does not mention Athmananda at all.

This silence is part of a pattern. In The Forest People, there is no mention of Newton Beale, who had accompanied him there from India and returned there with him later. And while his other popular work of ethnography, The Mountain People, features a picture of Joseph Towles, an American who visited him when he was doing fieldwork in Uganda, there is no explanation of his presence, and only a laconic remark in the preface: “He does not appear in these pages because he has his own story to tell.”3 What these three people—a woman and two men—seem to have in common is that to discuss them would probably have involved revealing more of himself than the context in which he was writing allowed. For Colin Turnbull seems to have been picked out by Anandamayi Ma as a potential companion for Athmananda, and Newton Beale and Joseph Towles were his lovers.

Indeed, to say that Joseph Towles was Turnbull’s lover is something of an understatement. In the summer of 1959, Dr. Grinker tells us, Turnbull arrived in New York to take up a job at the American Museum of Natural History; though he visited England, he never really lived there again. He met Joe Towles a couple of months later in a gay bar not far from the museum. Turnbull was thirty-four; Towles was twenty-two. For the rest of Towles’s life they were a couple, mostly living together when one or the other of them was not in the field. They regarded their relationship as a marriage—Turnbull’s birthday cards to him usually read “To my wife Josephine”—and though neither of them was exclusively faithful to the other sexually, no one else ever mattered to either of them more.

By the standards of the day, Turnbull was remarkably open about their relationship from the beginning. He insisted that Towles have access to the Museum of Natural History, and, in later years, almost never took an academic post unless there was one for Towles as well. But their relationship was often fraught, and Dr. Grinker chronicles its ups and downs as a central element of the last half of Turnbull’s life.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Turnbull’s fascination with Towles was related to his already established fascination with Africa and Africans. Turnbull wrote of their meeting:

I heard a voice beside me saying “Has anyone seen my beer?” and my life as an adult began. To say my whole life changed would be no exaggeration, and to this day, over thirty years later, I would not have had it otherwise…. He was young, well but modestly dressed, and moderately black…light chocolate in color…with neat, short, crinkly hair…. Then I saw his eyes and those I do remember. They were open and clear and honest. For a moment I thought I was back in Africa.

But however it began, Turnbull’s devotion to Joe Towles utterly shaped the rest of his life, indeed, of both their lives. He helped Towles arrange to do first an undergraduate degree and then a Ph.D. in anthropology at Makerere University—which is where he was when Turnbull was doing his Ugandan fieldwork—and was one of the three examiners who awarded him the degree. He arranged appointments for Joe over the years at universities where he worked himself. And finally, Colin nursed him with an intense devotion as he lay dying of AIDS.

Turnbull’s relationship with Towles made difficulties in his relationships with others. Towles seems to have been somewhat prickly, convinced that he did not have the respect of many of Colin’s friends. He was eventually an alcoholic, and he was arrested off and on for various sorts of disorderly conduct. Towles, who grew up in the rural South, was less well educated than Colin, younger, and black, and many of Colin’s friends were older, well established, and white. Many of Turnbull’s family and friends seem to have thought he was hypersensitive about racial matters. Turnbull, in turn, was defensive about Towles, who was, he insisted, his academic equal, even though he never published much of significance.

At all events, the story of their relationship often makes sad reading, though Dr. Grinker does a good job of handling sensitively a story which, had it been known at the time, might have tempted the tabloids. In “Lover and Beloved,” the unpublished manuscript on which Dr. Grinker draws, Turnbull gives his own account of their love. Despite this record, the relationship never quite makes sense: as, perhaps, other peoples’ loves seldom do.


In the decade after the success of The Forest People, Turnbull published five other books about Africa, and co-wrote one about Tibet with a colleague from the Museum of Natural History, Thubten Norbu (who also happened to be the Dalai Lama’s elder brother). In 1965 and 1966, he did fieldwork in Uganda among a people called the Ik. In November 1972 he published, again with Simon and Schuster, The Mountain People, which was an account of his life among them. If The Forest People brought Colin Turnbull fame and, as Grinker tells us, a good deal of money, The Mountain People brought him notoriety…and, it should be said, even more money. This book is, at least superficially, so different from The Forest People that you might suppose it was the work of a different man. It begins:

In what follows, there will be much to shock, and the reader will be tempted to say “how primitive…how savage…how disgusting” and, above all, “how inhuman.” In living the experience I said all those things over and over again.

The Ik, who dwelled in Northern Uganda, near the borders with Sudan and with Kenya, on the lower slopes of Mount Morungole, were living very close to starvation. In part, Turnbull argued, this was because the Ugandan government had driven them out of the Kidepo valley that had been their major hunting ground, in order to maintain it as a wildlife preserve. They lived now on government handouts, on precarious and rather uncommitted farming, and as unreliable allies of various cattle herders, who themselves engaged in a constant struggle of raids and counterraids. They also foraged for berries and roots and hunted when they could. Turnbull describes groups of Ik sitting listless and silent gazing out over the barren scrubland to which they had been consigned, scanning their world for signs of food: circling vultures that might indicate carrion, or the wisps of fire that might indicate that someone else was cooking. He describes them laughing when their children fall in the fire; taking pleasure in removing food from the mouths of the old and infirm; refusing food to their parents, their children, their husbands and wives. He tells us of Ik concealing the deaths of wives and children because they did not want the expense of a funeral. If the Mbuti lived in Rousseau’s state of nature, the Ik lived in Hobbes’s.

When I first read The Mountain People, more than twenty years ago, I took away from it only two memories. The general awfulness of Ik life was not something I cared to keep with me, but I did retain, first of all, a shocked puzzlement about why the author of The Forest People, the former general secretary of Racial Unity, had done so little to intervene. Why had he not handed over more of his own rations? Taken more children to the clinic in his Land Rover? Gone to the government authorities and told them that they needed to allow the Ik back into their hunting grounds or give them more food? Why, in short, had he allowed himself to become so like the Ik as he described them?

The second memory that has stayed with me all these years is of a brief passage where one might almost say that the Turnbull of The Forest People has returned. It is a description of a village of Ik who had left the region where Turnbull was living and crossed over into the Sudan. To find them, he left Pirre, where he was based, following Nangoli, an elderly widow who had responded in an unusual way to the death of her husband:

When Nangoli returned and found her husband dead, she did an odd thing, she grieved. She even expended energy to demonstrate her grief; she tore down what was left of their home, for it had been more than a mere house. … But if she cried, I did not see it. Then she fled, the skinny old woman, with a few belongings rolled up and slung across her back…. She did not speak to anyone; she just left….

When he came upon the village that Nangoli and her relatives had built in the woods, near a cool, refreshing stream, he was astonished. Unlike Ik villages that he had seen before, this one was open and inviting. And when the inhabitants returned from the hunt, unlike the Ik he knew they welcomed their visitors, sharing the meat and berries that they had collected. Then they chatted sociably around the fire. But Turnbull had been so changed by his experience of the “normal” Ik that it seemed to him “like a nightmare rather than a fantasy, for it made the reality of Pirre seem all the more frightening.”

Reading the book again now, however, I find myself repeatedly struck by internal evidence that Turnbull’s account of the Ik is wildly hyperbolic. Every decent act or kindly person is defined as unrepresentative. And Turnbull is constantly putting the worst interpretation on every act, attributing to people, with a novelist’s intimacy, thoughts that they could not have shared with him. As Dr. Grinker remarks mildly, “Colin went beyond a mere subjective account and crossed the border into fiction.” On one occasion, he discusses a mad girl neglected by her parents, her stomach painfully distended: “Adupa cried, not because of the pain in her body, but because of the pain she felt at that great, vast empty wasteland where love should have been.” When Adupa dies in her parents’ house—where they have locked her in and left her unfed for a week—her parents throw her remains out. “They even pulled some stones over it to stop the vultures and hyenas from scattering bits and pieces of their daughter in Atum’s field; that would have been offensive, for they were good neighbors….” This is surely tendentious speculation. The facts are bad enough: Turnbull’s unfounded psychological glosses only distract from the horror.

In the face of the unfolding tragedy of famine among the Ik, there is also something repellent about the narcissism with which Turnbull focuses on the effect of his time there on his own moral consciousness. We are a long way from the spirit of The Forest People, whose preface observes in the spirit of Anandamayi Ma that “the qualities of truth, goodness and beauty can be found wherever we care to look for them.” The lesson of The Mountain People—recorded in its preface but demonstrated, alas, by its author as well as the Ik—was that the “potential for inhumanity…lies within us all.”

Among ethologists and ethnologists, Grinker tells us, response to The Mountain People was interestingly divided. Some ethologists, like Robert Ardrey, thought that here at last was an anthropologist who had the backbone to face the ghastly truth of human nature. Biological anthropologists tended to regard Turnbull’s biological speculations as amateurish, while many cultural anthropologists were simply horrified. Fredrik Barth, a distinguished Norwegian anthropologist, led off the attack in Current Anthropology, objecting that Turnbull had allowed his feelings to “distort his judgment, erode his integrity, and ultimately [develop] into a paranoid hatred toward a people he lived among so that all genuine anthropological ballast is lost.” (This accusation shares a troublesome problem with the book it is criticizing: it imputes psychological states—in this case paranoid hatred—that the author has no real basis for ascribing.)

Barth further objected that Turnbull had exposed the Ik to the risk of arrest by reporting their illegal actions. (This, too, seems odd, given the fact, reported in the book, that the Ik in question lived near a police station whose officers were well aware of what they were up to.) But the real problem with Barth’s critique is that it shares with Turnbull a view of the relations between an anthropologist and his subjects that continues to puzzle me. If Professor Barth had found that his neighbors in Oslo were starving their children to death, would he have thought it a terrible scandal to reveal their crimes to the government? Surely the real scandal would be not to do so much but to do so little.

The Mountain People remains a powerful model of the dangers of a certain kind of anthropological relativism. For, despite his horror at Ik behavior, Turnbull clearly felt he must not intervene too much in their world. Morality, he writes,

was yet another luxury that we find convenient and agreeable and that has become conventional when we can afford it, but which, in times of stress, can and should be shucked off, like religion and belief and law and family and all sorts of other appendages that become hindrances at such times.

This is an odd view for someone who believes in the universality of “truth, goodness and beauty.” And he could surely only have taken it up because he believed that his status as an anthropologist—a professional observer—required it.

The irritation of the anthropologists did nothing to stand in the way of Turnbull’s book becoming another best seller; and it achieved even wider notoriety once Peter Brook decided to bring Les Iks to the stage in Paris in 1975; the play was staged as The Ik in London at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Round House in early 1976. Even more than most of Peter Brook’s productions, it was agreed—by foes and fans alike—that this was one of the great theatrical events of the age. One critic wrote:

Listening to the applause the other night that burst out in the crowded Bouffes du Nord after the last Ik had vomited up in front of the audience his last sack of relief grain, and then dragged his twisted limbs into a hole at the back of the stage, I couldn’t help thinking that Brook, the miracle worker, had pulled it off again. He’d made the Iks enjoyable.

Unlike the book, Brook’s play brought out, as Turnbull was the first to concede, both the humanity of the Ik and the anthropologist’s own arrogance and naiveté. And, as Dr. Grinker points out, the studies of later anthropologists working among the Ik suggest that Turnbull’s picture of the Ik may have been distorted by more than the famine. In particular, it is not clear that the settlements at Pirre were really Ik villages. Worse, Turnbull’s view that the Ik were displaced hunter-gatherers has been questioned by later observers, and, with it, therefore, his account of what had gone wrong. It is not too surprising that when Bernd Heine, a later student of the Ik, told them what Turnbull had written about them, they responded by asking whether they could sue him. If he came back to their part of the world, Heine reported them as saying, they would make him “eat his own feces.”

Turnbull’s popular writings are not exactly theoretical. But if they have a governing idea, it is one that he would have acquired through his formal education in anthropology, namely the functionalist belief that culture is an adaptation to environment. To that extent his two most famous works share a common theme: the Mbuti, allowed to live out their culture, are supremely adapted to their world; the Ik, deprived of their accustomed world, cannot make their culture work. They are two sides of the same coin.

But the books also share a hostile attitude to the “civilized world.” It is easy to see how a Rousseauian romanticism might lead you to contrast us unfavorably with the Mbuti, but one might have thought that no one could make of the Ik an argument against the West. Yet The Mountain People ends with a polemic against “the sorry state of society in the civilized world today.” We are charged with being relentlessly individualistic, like the Ik:

Family, economy, government and religion, the basic categories of social activity and behavior, despite our tinkering, are no longer structured in a way that makes them compatible with each other or with us, for they are no longer structured in such a way as to create any sense of social unity involving a shared and mutual responsibility between all members of our society. At the best they are structured so as to enable the individual to survive as an individual….

There follows a litany of the complaints that the Sixties made familiar: old age homes and summer camps divide the generations; divorce is on the rise; the welfare state is being abandoned. Violent competitive sports reflect a fanatical individualism; “cutthroat economics” confines “the world’s riches in the pockets of the few”; religion is dying. Finally, there is the

mad, senseless, unthinking commitment to technological change that we call progress, despite the grim trail of disaster it is wreaking all around us, including overpopulation and pollution, either of which may be sufficient to exterminate the human race in a very short time even without the assistance of other technological benefits such as nuclear warfare.

In short, the Ik are the future that faces us if we destroy our world with our false “progress” and they are the terminus ad quem of modern individualism.


In the period after his fieldwork with the Ik, Colin Turnbull left the Museum of Natural History (apparently because they refused to hire Joe) and took a job at Hofstra teaching anthropology, having arranged for Joe to teach there as an adjunct. Then, in 1970, he got a large grant from the National Science Foundation to return to his beloved Mbuti. He took a leave of absence from Hofstra and he and Joe set off again for Africa. Towles enrolled as a graduate student at Makerere University in Uganda. These two years seem to have been a difficult time in their relationship. Turnbull, after all, spent much of his time in Congo with Kenge, and Towles seems to have had a series of affairs in Uganda. But at some point Joe joined him and began to study the circumcision rites called nkumbi that the Mbuti share with their Bantu neighbors. This fieldwork was the basis for Joe’s eventual Ph.D.

On his return, Colin took a job in the fall of 1973 at Virginia Commonwealth University as professor of anthropology, having once again arranged for Joe to teach as an adjunct in his department. They were back near Joe’s family, and able to live at the house they had built themselves in the late Sixties. In 1977, he moved to George Washington University (again with Joe in his academic entourage) though, in a characteristic gesture, refused tenure in 1983, despite his status as one of the world’s best-known anthropologists. But even as his relationship with Joe grew increasingly troubled by infidelity, alcoholism, and mutual mistrust, he began a period of extraordinary work as an advocate for death-row inmates that lasted through the 1980s. And he traveled and lectured widely on many topics—including the Ik—often insisting that Joe should be invited along to provide, as a counterpoint, his own, less hostile view of the mountain people.

In 1985, while visiting Europe, Towles became disoriented and was taken eventually to a hospital in Paris: there he was told that he almost certainly was infected with HIV and that he was probably suffering from AIDS-related dementia. It is not at all clear when Turnbull admitted that this diagnosis was correct. Certainly he only had an HIV test himself in the spring of 1988. The test came back negative, and Turnbull was despondent. “He wanted, more than anything, to be infected, to be positive, to be able to die with Joe,” Grinker writes. Five days later he received a phone call from his doctor telling him that the Roche laboratory had made an error. He was in fact HIV-positive. Now, he was delighted that he and Joe were going to go together: he even wrote to one of his friends on death row to tell him that he, too, was now living under sentence of death.

If there had ever been any doubt of Turnbull’s devotion to Towles, the last years of his lover’s life erased them all. He nursed him through his final sickness with infinite patience and care in the home they had built together in Virginia. (Joe’s doctor described his “24 hours a day” of care-giving as “remarkable.”) When Joe was laid to rest in their garden, Colin buried an empty coffin beside him and put both their names on the headstone, marking his lover’s death as the moment of his own. On four wooden posts he placed objects that signified something from their life together: straw hats Joe had worn, a medicine bag used by an Mbo ritual priest, a piece of bark cloth. “On a fourth pole,” Grinker writes, “hung a black and white photograph of… Kwame Anthony Appiah as a child of seven or eight whose image was, for Colin, a symbol of racial harmony in the marriage of black and white.” This came as news to me, but clearly, for Turnbull, he and my mother had both lived out the creed of Racial Unity that had first brought them together.

Turnbull transferred the bulk of his property to the United Negro College Fund to create a Joseph A. Towles scholarship. And he then set about putting their papers in order to provide an archive not of his achievements but of Joe’s. After Joe’s death, Colin wrote to Kenge asking him to perform a molimo ceremony for him.

Turnbull had been a young Englishman, a seeker after Hindu truth, an honorary Mbuti. Then, for twenty-nine years, he was Joseph Towles’s lover. After Towles’s death he became something else again. And, as the virus that had killed Joe took over his own system, he decided, finally, to become a Buddhist monk. Turnbull being Turnbull, this meant going to the Nechung Monastery, in Dharamsala, the seat, in exile, of Tibet’s state oracle. There, in April 1992, he was ordained a novice monk; on July 14 of the same year he received full ordination, somewhat to his surprise, at the hands of the Dalai Lama. But when he reached his final illness, in January 1994, he insisted on being evacuated back to the United States so he could be buried next to Joe.

What Roy Grinker’s book dramatizes is the degree to which there were many Turnbulls, even more than the two who appear through the pages of his most famous books. The temptation of biography is to enforce narrative unity on the aleatory movements of a human life; though this is a temptation to which Grinker occasionally succumbs, the overall effect of In the Arms of Africa is to reveal a man who confirms the argument made by the juxtaposition of his two best-known books—that each of us is as much the product of context as of an underlying self. Since Colin Turnbull lived in a range of contexts more diverse than most of us do, it would be a mistake to seek for a single authentic Colin. This is a message that might seem to conform, suitably enough, to Buddhist teachings about the unreality of the self.

Anandamayi Ma, in her ashram in India, had called him Premananda, Lover of Youth. To the Mbuti he was Ebamunyama, His Father Killed an Animal, a reference to the story he had told them of how the Turnbulls got their name. To the Ik, ironically, he was Iciebam, Friend of the Ik. At the end, he was Lobsong Rigdol, a Buddhist Monk, born in London, of Scots and Irish-Canadian parents, dying of AIDS in rural Virginia. When Kenge, now fifty-eight, heard of Ebamunyama’s death, he gathered scores of Pygmies together, and for several days they held a molimo ceremony on the edge of Turnbull’s beloved forest.

This Issue

November 16, 2000