Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Survival Machine of Colin M Turnbull (II)

(Part I)
His lack of enthusiasm for field work among the Ik declared, Turnbull uses the rest of Chapter One to tell us what he knew of the Ik before he set out for Northern Uganda. Just before World War II they had been encouraged to settle in the mountains in the northeast corner of the country, where it borders on Kenya and Sudan. Before then they had roamed as nomadic hunter-gatherers through all three countries. Their major hunting territory was the Kidepo Valley, now a national park:

Kidepo was undoubtedly where they spent the best part of the year, but, like most hunters and gatherers, these depended as much on vegetable resources as they did on game, and vegetable resources can be exhausted even more quickly and permanently than game if a band stays in one place too long. Mobility is essential to the hunting-and-gathering way of life and nomadism is by no means the random, aimless meandering it is sometimes thought to be. At the same time, hunting and gathering, even in a marginal environment, are neither as hard nor as precarious as they seem ... [The hunter] knows the world he lives in as few others do, and he lives in sympathy with it rather than trying to dominate it. He is the best of conservationists, knowing exactly how much he can take from where at any given time. His nomadic pattern is geared to this knowledge... [p 21]

From here through to page 31, Turnbull describes (admittedly in retrospect) the society he expected to find when he was in Kampala, preparing for his trip North. Of the people he expected to meet he says:

The smaller the society, the less emphasis there is on the formal system, and the more there is on inter-personal and inter-group relations, to which the system is subordinated. Security is seen in terms of these relationships, and so is survival. The result, which appears so deceptively simple, is that hunters frequently display those characteristics that we find so admirable in man: kindness, generosity, consideration, affection, honesty, hospitality, compassion, charity and others. This sounds like a formidable list of virtues and so it would be if they were virtues, but for the hunter they are not. For the hunter in his tiny, close-knit society, these are necessities for survival; without them society would collapse...

It was not foremost in my mind, I suppose, but, as with the physical conditions , I took it for granted that the Ik would possess these same qualities. it was a shock to find myself wrong on almost all counts...
[p31 - original emphasis]

In Chapter 2, "Careless Rapture," Turnbull describes his journey from Kampala to North-Eastern Uganda. For all that he has said about his coolness toward his project in Chapter One, he depicts himself here as becoming more enthusiastic for it as he travels North:

The Administrator ... discussed freely many of his problems and said he would welcome any ideas that might come out of my researches. Thisis the kind of interest and co-operation that is all too often lacking and it added to my growing enthusiasm. [p38-39]

Turnbull's growing enthusiasm takes a severe hammering when he encounters his first Ik and is introduced to the Ik sense of humour. On the way to the first Ik village he visits, his guides take him along a perilous mountain trail and get a good laugh when he stumbles after traversing a ledge that is too narrow for two feet to be placed side by side. He is also introduced to the brusque, cursory nature of Ik manners; his polite traditional greetings are met with demands for tobacco. One of his guides greets the mother he hasn't seen for two years with the demand "Give me food" to which she replies "There's no food" (p49-50). From chapter 3 onwards the book becomes inceasingly depressing reading. It also defies synopsis, as Turnbull's account of Ik society freely switches between anecdote, reflection and analysis. So here I'll leave you with a choice of options; you can wait for the next instalment of this series, where I'll take on the task of providing a plausible synopsis with selected lowlights or you can bugger off to a library and track down a copy of The Mountain People to read for yourselves.

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