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Kinship in Turnbull's The Forest People

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An Examination of My Kinship and Family

Relationships in Comparison to the

Pygmies in Colin M. Turnbull’s

The Forest People 


In developing a genealogy and examining the ties of kinship in my own family, I find similarities with those relationships among the Pygmy tribal families in Colin M. Turnbull’s The Forest People.  Yet the differences are equally remarkable.  I shall attempt to detail my own kinship ties and make a few comparisons and contrasts to the subjects researched in Turnbull’s work.  For the purposes of a broader comparison, I have chosen to include my spouse’s family in the analysis as well.


To begin, the relationship with my parents may be described as polar opposition at its best.  There is a very deep sense of personal attachment which even outsiders can readily see, evinced throughout my childhood and adult years by a bounty of kisses, hugs and touches and a profuse amount of time spent together.  I cannot recall a day where there wasn’t kissing and the exchanging of kind words and deeds.  Yet such closeness was not without equally intense feelings of guilt and debt, resentment and anger.  Expressions of independent thinking or perception are viewed as betrayal in my family, a betrayal that is met with hostile words and actions.  To hold contrary views to my parents’ – even as trivial as favorite colors – is to wage personal, intense social war.  Just as I can’t count the times I was kissed and uplifted as a child, I also have lost count of the times I was accused of ingratitude, disloyalty, and mean-spiritedness.  This same polar opposition may be found between my parents and my siblings and between my parents and their siblings.  Because of this intensity, my family maintains virtually no contact with anyone in our family other than immediate family.  While encouraging and cheering for my siblings and me during each accomplishment and milestone of our lives, they would at the same time deride the accomplishments of other family members, who dared to flaunt any success, however minor, in a phone call or Christmas letter.  When my parents discover clues that I have sent holiday or birthday  cards to our relatives or invited them to special occasions, I am typically told “it’s us or them – you decide!”


By comparison, my spouse’s family, though nearly devoid of all outward signs of physical passion or shows of affection, have their own sense of closeness.  Although Pam, upon reflecting, says she never once saw her parents kiss, her family engages in lively interaction through family gatherings for nearly any occasion.  A typical holiday includes parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, grandparents, aunts, uncles, great aunts, great uncles, cousins and more.  The differences between her family and mine is striking in that as my family is obscenely passionate whether showing laughter, love or anger, Pam’s family is even-tempered to the point of dullness.  Conversation at my in-laws gatherings typically include superficial questions and answers about work, weather, and what one or another relative or neighbor has done which earns the scorn of the community.  On my side of the family, gatherings are tiny and conversation turns to deep discussion of feelings, fears and aspirations, usually punctuated by extended readings from Reader’s Digest-like stories of loss, heartache and misery.  These readings are performed for the purpose of teaching us kids (now adults) that “No matter how bad you got it, somebody always has it worse.”  More often than not, I come away from these gatherings feeling worse than when I arrived. 


Even titles of closeness and affection have significance in my kinship structure.  The first time I ever kissed my wife (on the cheek, mind you) at the dinner table of her parent’s home, I was promptly told by her mother, “We don’t believe in public displays of affection.”  And upon calling my mother-in-law “mom” one day shortly after my wife and I married, I was calmly yet firmly rebuked.  “You already have a mother.”  On the other hand, my parents have encouraged my spouse to address them as mom and dad, to my wife’s chagrin.  I have yet to hear her use those words.


Still, the kinship of my in-laws has a certain appeal, and I am diligently raising the next generation – my son – to foster and value intergenerational family relationships.  While I rarely see my parents and siblings, and practically never see any of the other relatives, I have weekly - sometimes daily – interaction with my wife’s relatives.  This allows me to make some comparisons with the Pygmy families in Turnbull’s book.


First, if a Pygmy has “a grudge against a neighbor,” Pygmies simply move the entrance of their huts away from them to show ostracism.[1]  Unlike my family, chastisement is not permanent, for even Cephu, by novel’s end, fully reunites with the tribal family to “be one camp again.”[2]  In addition, the manner in which the tribe coordinates hunts, working together to accomplish a shared goal, reminds me of the way my in-laws all pitch in to assist one another whether repairing a motor, constructing a building or moving cattle.  Of course, a major difference lies at the heart of the structure of the nuclear family, for disagreements and conversations remain generally private since we all reside in our own abodes, while for Pygmies, “disputes often arise from confined and close conditions of living.”[3]  It is often through the comparison of disparate cultures that many analogies and insights can be made, one of many significant contributions of anthropology.

[1] Colin M. Turnbull The Forest People (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1968) p 68

[2] Turnbull, p 276

[3] Turnbull, p 121

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