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Child-Rearing in Turnbull's The Forest People

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A Contrast and Comparison of

Child Rearing Between the Pygmies

Of Colin M. Turnbull’s The Forest People

And My Own Child Rearing 


A contrast and comparison of child rearing and the accompanying attitude towards children between Colin M. Turnbull’s The Forest People and my own child rearing practices reveals some similarities and differences.  Additionally, I shall endeavor, briefly, to compare the Pygmy child rearing practices with those few instances Turnbull has revealed of the African villagers, differences that are noticeable.


To begin, in the nkumbi circumcision festival held by the African villagers for initiating boys into manhood, the villagers utilize a variety of strenuous activities from sleep deprivation to the memorization of “nonsensical songs.”[i]  Turnbull writes how “boys are subjected to one form of mild torture after another…sometimes mental rather than physical,” all in an effort to prepare the soon-to-be young men for the rigors of village life.[ii]  Pygmy fathers, however, have a different expectation of the nkumbi ritual and “frequently reject its severity.”[iii]  Turnbull provides us with instances where Pygmies risk the open ridicule of the African villagers, as when Masalito, seeing his son Kaoyo being “very roughly handled…put his arms around him, hugging him tight to give him strength.”[iv]  Such gestures - not hidden behind the walls of a hut but preformed openly and without hesitation - are indicative of a culture who values empathy for the young.  And, when the young Pygmies return to their forest home, they are still children; initiation into manhood is not through arduous, sometimes “brutal rituals,” but rather when the young man hunts his first game and participates in the elima.[v] [vi]


In fact, Pygmy children are allowed to be children and live a child’s harmonious life.  This gentleness, rather than the harshness of the villagers, is exhibited at all levels of Pygmy culture, even in the way in which the older children react to the younger.  “Older girls” bestow the younger kids “with a kiss full of the warm affection of children.”[vii]  Turnbull makes a very simple, yet elegant statement that illuminates the importance Pygmies place on letting their kids be kids: “The children were running about in the semi-darkness, laughing and playing, without a care in the world.”[viii]


Given the freedom to interact with one another as children, young Pygmies are able to imitate older children and adults in games and play, an education in its own right.  Pygmy parents find it unnecessary to enact special rituals that toughen-up their young, as Pygmy life itself seems to do this just fine:

                        “…the very nature of his own nomadic hunting and gather-

                        ing existence provides all the toughening up and education

                        that are needed. Children begin climbing trees sometimes

                        before they can walk.  Their muscles develop, and they over-

                        come fear in a number of daring tree games.  Adult activities

                        are learned from an early age by observation and imitation…”[ix]


As for the girls, initiation in to womanhood is preceded by the girls first menstruation.  It is a time for the elima, a very lively way by which young women indicate their interest in young men and discover if those feelings are reciprocated.  Pygmies view this change of life to be “a time of gladness and happiness” in a camp that is “blessed by the moon.”[x]  In contrast, African villagers consider the onset of menstruation an “evil” bestowed upon the whole tribe because of some “illicit intercourse” she has engaged in.  These differences in attitude could not be more marked.


Of course, when children are disobedient or particularly annoying, adults will swear at them; discipline is given as freely as love.[xi]  Yet the punishments do not appear to be too severe, for Turnbull doesn’t make much of it and actually seems to approve: “For children, life is one long frolic interspersed with a healthy sprinkle of spankings and slappings.”[xii]  Even during the molimo ritual, which seems bound by rules of age and gender, men can be seen bending those rules out of what appears to be nothing more than sheer love for their young, as when Makubasi held his son on his lap and sang to him.[xiii]


As for me, my childhood was very strict but full of love.  Although most decisions were made for me and risks were strongly discouraged, there was never a time when I didn’t know that I was loved.  This differs from the Pygmies in that the latter appear to give their children great latitude in learning about their world and exploring their environment.  They do not appear overly protective.  Yet the love and the feelings of appreciation for the their children are much the same. 


I will say that with my own son, who is now three, I give him as much latitude to make decision and explore his world as is possible.  In a society that values work above all else (as evinced in a comparison of average work weeks among industrialized nations), I try to spend as little time as possible performing “work” and instead spend quality time with my son.  Unlike the Pygmy father in the “legend of the Bird with the Most Beautiful Song,” I encourage my child to “feed” and nurture his own “bird” within his soul each day.

[i] Colin M. Turnbull The Forest People (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1968) p 21 

[ii] Turnbull, p 225 

[iii] Turnbull, p 226 

[iv] Turnbull, p 222 

[v] Turnbull, p 224 

[vi] Turnbull, p 227 

[vii] Turnbull, p 53 

[viii] Turnbull, p 52-53

[ix] Turnbull, p 225-226 

[x] Turnbull, p 187 

[xi] Turnbull, p 113 

[xii] Turnbull, p 129 

[xiii] Turnbull, p 83

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