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Cultural Identity in Turnbull's The Forest People and Thomas' The Harmless People

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Resisting Change: An Examination

Of How Pygmies in Colin M. Turnbull’s

The Forest People and Bushmen in

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’

The Harmless People Maintain

Their Cultural Identity


In the face of total cultural assimilation as the African continent advances steadily towards Western, industrialized cultural and economic standards, members of both the BaMbuti pygmies in Colin M. Turnbull’s The Forest People and the Kung and Gikwe bushmen of Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ The Harmless People have struggled to find some way to resist change.  Although the BaMbuti pygmies as a whole seem to have resisted assimilation much better than either the Kung or Gikwe bushmen, I shall examine several ways in which both cultures fight to maintain their way of life.


With the pygmies, modern culture appears to be at their doorstep.  The surrounding African tribes on the outskirts of the Ituri forest have introduced agriculture as evinced in plantations which they cultivate.  Local government has encouraged pygmies “to make their own plantation in the forest,” and parts of the Ituri had been cleared by the Africans to expand their plantations.[i]  Roads, too, have begun to cut through the landscape of the forest realm, bringing African settlers, logging and agriculture deep in to the forest.  These acts serve, ultimately, to bring indigenous peoples like the pygmies under control by both reducing the land available for hunting animals and foraging and by making it easier for outside forces to tame and manage the wilderness.  “Once the Pygmies have plantations,” Turnbull writes, “their hunting-and-gathering existence is made impossible.  They become tied to one place and do not have time to follow the game.”[ii]


Yet the pygmies, aware of these efforts, have for the most part thwarted assimilation.  Other than seeing a few individuals “selling their services to tourists,” Turnbull is reassured by Moke that they “would all be back in the forest” soon: “’We cannot refuse the forest.’”[iii]  Kenge, Turnbull’s pygmy assistant, who worked on and off for whites such as Pat Putnam and became a “jack-of-all-trades also answered the call of the forest, taking off with the group when they left the African village and returned to the forest.[iv]  Although the Bantu villagers spoke of the pygmies as though they were their wardens and overseers, the BaMbuti let them have their opinion, for the latter came and went as they pleased, trading and stealing from the villagers before returning instinctively to the Ituri.


In the case of the bushmen, a similar process of assimilation was underway as many bushmen - enslaved, tricked or otherwise coerced into working the farms and ranches of the Bantu African and European immigrants - struggled to escape and return to their people, often upon penalty of imprisonment.  Bushmen families continually “yielded their land to the stronger newcomers…[moving] where the Bantu people and their livestock could not live.”[v]  For this very reason, bushmen as a rule avoided the sounds and signs of vehicles, fearful they would harbor Europeans eager to find new serfs. 


Although Turnbull’s work did not include an update on the status of the pygmy plight to retain their cultural identity, we may be able to extrapolate their fate by observing the status of the bushmen upon Thomas’ return thirty years later in 1989.  Their land - and particularly their water rights - encroached upon by European descendants who brought “commercial ranching and apartheid,” no longer contained the resources to sustain their  hunter-gatherer life style.  Forced to live and work on farms and in cities, subject to disease, poverty and prejudice, the notion that “Bushmen still live in a precontact, pristine manner” is fallacy.[vi]  “No Bushmen lack contact with the West,” Thomas writes, “and none is undamaged by it.”[vii]  Government intervention focused on “education and a knowledge of subsistence farming,” convincing bands like Toma’s that it was best to change.[viii]  Yet “some…went back to hunting and gathering” while others persisted.[ix]  Finally, the division of the bushmen lands into three distinct parts and the influx of immigrants into the northern and southern parts forced the scattered bushmen families into one “central population…so great as to finish hunting and gathering” completely.[x] 


The Ju/wa Development Foundation, begun by the author’s brother, attempted to help bushmen return to their land by supplying them with cattle and wells drawn by windmills.  Though their lifestyle is all but gone, some bushmen continue to hunt and gather wild foods because of the Foundation’s assistance, yet the government seems determined to assimilate them fully by succumbing to the rancher‘s and farmer‘s will to take the land.


What is lost when we lose indigenous, hunter-gatherer cultures like the pygmies and bushmen?  We lose a piece of ourselves, our humanity and our ability to appreciate the sense of “otherness.”  We also lose our connections with the past, for each language, each heritage, each individual that dies takes with it a clue to our own past, our origins as a human species.  Homo sapien means “wise man,” yet there is nothing “wise” in destroy-ing every vestige of our cultural, linguistic and Paleolithic heritage.  As the pygmy Moke so prophetically uttered on the eve of Turnbull‘s departure:

                        “’You will understand why we are called the People of the

                        Forest…When the Forest dies, we shall die.”[xi]

Yet when one culture - one way of life - dies, we all in a sense “die.”

[i] Colin M. Turnbull The Forest People (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1962) p 32 

[ii] Turnbull, p 32 

[iii] Turnbull, p 38 

[iv] Turnbull, p 30 

[v] Elizabeth Marshall Thomas The Harmless People (Random House, New York, 1989) p 13 

[vi] Thomas, p 268 

[vii] Thomas, p 269 

[viii] Thomas, p 270 

[ix] Thomas, p 272 

[x] Thomas, p 273 

[xi] Turnbull, p 278

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