Saturday, December 31, 2005

C'mon Huey, Shift Your Bloody Arse

We've just turned on the air-conditioner for the first time in two years. There's enough airflow through the ceiling vent in the lounge to stir the cobwebs; after I finish here I'm going to go lie on the couch to see if under-powered air-conditioners produce a placebo effect. I went out into the back yard for a ciggie a few minutes ago, barefoot on sun baked concrete. Fire walkers are wimps. There were a few promising little clouds on the western horizon; if they actually get overhead before evening, I might shoulder the laundry bag and head up to the laundromat. Based on past experience it ought to start pissing down when I'm about halfway there.

Still, I'm not going to cite this hot spell as evidence of global-warming; that's a false induction, an example of confirmation bias and all the rest of it. All the same, I'm willing to bet that there are quite a few bloggers out there who're shaking their heads over the blizzards and record low temperatures that Europe is experiencing and asking, as usual, if global warming is real, how come this is happening? Don't expect an answer from me - all I want to do right now is get away from all the waste heat being pumped out by the PC's cooling fan.

Oh, and best wishes to all and sundry for the New Year. Hope your 2006 is, in every way, an improvement on your 2005. Actually there are few sundries for whom I'm inclined to wish the opposite but it's probably better not to mention that. Oops, too late.

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.

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.