Friday, December 30, 2005

The Survival Machine of Colin M Turnbull (III)

(Part I, Part II)
A lot of the difficulties in producing a synopsis of The Mountain People come from its novelistic construction so it might be helpful, at this point, to treat it as a novel. Viewing it this way, we see the book as the simple story of Colin Turnbull, anthropologist, who journeys to a remote part of Africa to study a fairly typical tribe of hunter gatherers. During the time he spends with them, he discovers that they are nothing like the obligate noble savages he imagines them to be; instead the Icien way of life turns out to be a grotesque caricature of the advanced western society he has left behind. The story is told in the first person, with three narrative threads running through Turnbull the author's straightforward plot; Turnbull the narrator's slow awakening to the realities of Icien life, the reflections this prompts on human nature and human societies and finally, the simple facts of Icien life as he has observed them. That may sound like a very post-modern take on a work of anthropological research and reporting but it has its uses. Such as, in this installment, finally moving our focus away from the concerns and character of Turnbull the narrator, to what he sees in his stays with the Ik.

First let's note a fact that Turnbull reveals quite slowly; at the time of his study, there was a great deal of starvation among the Ik. The Kidepo valley, their major hunting ground, was no longer available to them - it was a national park. The Ugandan government had encouraged them to take up farming but the mountainous country they had settled in was not good farmland. And there had been a prolonged drought. Turnbull cops a bit of stick around the traps for not noticing that the Ik were a society in crisis but it seems unlikely that this completely escaped his attention during the three years in which he did his field studies or that the realisation completely escaped him during the writing of The Mountain People. Where Turnbull does leave himself open to the charge of insensitivity is in his depiction of the way he learnt of living conditions among the Ik, for example this telling episode from the end of Chapter 3, "the Disenchanted Tree":

... Kauar was exceptional, and he used to volunteer to make the long two day climb back to get mail for me, or buy a few things for others. He was always pleased with himself when he came back, and asked if he had made the trip more quickly than the last time ... Then he used to sit and watch while I read the mail, studying the expression on my face to see if all was well. When we drank tea together he always took exactly the same number of teaspoons of sugar that I took, and helped himself to exactly the same number of biscuits, never more, never less. The biscuits he often kept for the children, who used to snatch them from him and run away laughing at him for the fool he was.

Then one day Kauar went to Kaabong and did not come back. He was found the day after he should have returned, high up on the last peak of the trail before it descends to Pirre, cold and dead. Then you could see how thin he was, or so I was told, for those who found him just took the things he had been carrying, pushed his body into the bush and left it. "Why bother carrying him back? He was dead!" they said as they distributed the goods ... I still think of him probably running up that viciously steep mountainside so that he could break his time record, and falling dead in his pathetic prime because he was starving.

The significance of this episode is difficult to miss; it reveals a great deal about the state of Ik society, the fact of starvation among them and some unpleasant and less than flattering things about Turnbull himself. Earlier in the chapter, there's another episode, whose significance is much less obvious, at least on a first reading:

On this occasion an antelope had been killed by Lomeja, a happy man in his late middle age, which is to say he was in his early twenties. He had set off early in the morning alone, and had picked up his bow and arrows where hehad concealed them during the night so that no-one would see that he was going hunting ... [p82]

Unfortunately for Lomeja, he was observed and followed; after he had killed an antelope another Ik, Lotibok appeared, claiming that it was by chance. While Lomeja and Lotibok were cooking the antelope, taking precautions against being seen, two more Ik saw the smoke of their cooking fire. They immediately set out in the direction of the fire, with Turnbull in hot pursuit. In the end, the antelope that Lomeja had planned to keep to himself had to be shared between five people:

It is a curious hangover from what must once have been a moral code that Ik will offer food if surprised in the act of eating, though they go to enormous pains not to be so surprised. [p81-82]

This is a far cry from the co-operative hunts that Turnbull imagines in Chapter One of the book. But here, once again, I'm going to give myself a break - this time so that I can put in some library time and get into some of the secondary references on Turnbull. That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.

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