20061009

 

Dancing with the Moon: The Life of Colin M. Turnbull

Provides an interesting insight into cultural lenses and personal bias and values that inevitably influence expert interpretations that in turn influence public perceptions and attitudes. Excerpt from New York Review of Books: "...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..."

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