“The Mountain People” by Colin Turnbull (1973, Pan, London; 253 pp)

In Uganda’s far northeast, bordering Southern Sudan and Kenya, the Kidepo National Park offers visitors a rare experience of African wildlife undisturbed by people. Road access is still difficult, but upmarket tourists can charter a light aircraft to fly in to a luxury tented camp where the abundance of game is matched by the abundance of culinary comforts. People who have made the trip say it is unforgettable. Now largely forgotten, however, is the human cost of creating this safari wonderland.

In the mid 1960s Colin Turnbull spent two years living among Ik people, the remnants of a hunter-gatherer tribe who were forced out of their ancestral hunting grounds in the Kidepo valley in the process of creating the reserve. His account in The Mountain People, which was a bestseller in its day, is gripping, gruesome and infuriating in equal measure—leaving this reader, at least, angry not only at the appalling degradation of the Ik but at the author himself for continuing his voyeuristic charade without rebelling against his own academic discipline.

Turnbull’s tale is gripping partly because of its adventure-story style. Whilst covering all the bases of formal ethnography, his is a first-person narrative that makes no claim to scientific detachment but is aware of its own subjectivity. The result is the kind of gritty, personalised and apparently honest—yet still carefully constructed—reportage that was, in the 1980s, to become the staple of such runaway literary successes as Granta magazine.

The tale is also luridly gripping because of its sheer awfulness. When the post-independence government of Milton Obote gazetted the Kidepo valley for ‘conservation,’ the Ik, who had no modern schooling and were still ‘primitive’ enough to go naked, were expected to turn to farming on the rocky mountains overlooking the valley. This is Uganda’s most arid zone and scratching a living from its soils would have been tough even for experienced cultivators and even in the best of years. Turnbull’s ‘fieldwork’ in fact spanned two successive years of drought, giving him a close-up view of his study objects dying of starvation. He proceeds to describe them as a “depraved” and “degenerate” people, who have forsaken all bonds of reciprocity, all ties of kinship and affection, all religion, all morality, all authentic sociability in a vicious struggle for individual survival.

If this seems like a case of blaming the victims, it is not the simple raving of a missionary type or a crude modernist deploring native backwardness. In an earlier book, The Forest People, Turnbull offered a sympathetic portrait of “the Congo Pygmies,” among whom he spent several much happier years, finding much to admire in their social organisation. Here too, he reminds us in an introductory chapter that:

It is a mistake to think of small-scale societies as ‘primitive’ or ‘simple’ . . . Hunters and gatherers, most of all, appear deceptively simple and straightforward in terms of their social organization, yet that appearance is far from being true. What is true, perhaps, is that the result of a typical hunting-and-gathering social organization is a simple and effective system of human relationships, and this is what so strongly appeals to many of those who have worked with them. . . . 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 werevirtues, 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. (pp. 26-27)

He goes on to portray Ik society as one that has indeed “collapsed.” The men continue to hunt (including within the national park) and the women to forage, but they do so individually and whatever game or edible plants an individual finds are consumed immediately and as privately as possible. On a lucky day, people will gorge themselves rather than sharing, even with their immediate family. But there are few lucky days, and many more when children eat soil and small pebbles to assuage the hunger pains.

Children are ejected from the parental hut as young as three years of age, thereafter living in age-cohort gangs—the younger from 3 to around 8; the older, from 8 to around 12, when they in effect become adult. These cohorts band together for foraging, as this is their only hope of survival, but they fight over whatever they find. Individuals graduate from the junior to the senior cohort and then to adulthood at the point when they become too strong for their peers, who turn on them and force them out.

Old people, who are too weak to go out foraging, are left at home to starve. Worse, children mock and bully them, pushing them over as they attempt to crawl about, stealing food out of their mouths—quite literally: the kids’ best joke, according to Turnbull, is to wait until some starveling oldie has raised a morsel to his lips and then to snatch it away. Even the community soothsayer, who was once highly respected for his powers of divination, is eventually treated this way. Laughter at the suffering of others, spiteful enjoyment of their misfortune, is, on Turnbull’s account, about the Ik’s only remaining amusement.

Such food as nearly makes it into the old folks’ mouths generally comes from Turnbull himself who occasionally doles out scraps from his private supply, which he generally consumes guiltily, alone—just like the Ik!—behind the closed doors of his Land Rover. In time, the government begins to provide famine relief at a village several days walk away. Those strong enough to make the journey go to pick up hand-outs for themselves and their family, and then gorge the lot, even to the point of making themselves puke from overeating, a few kilometres into the journey home, with no apparent thought either for their dying kin or for the days to come.

When the young, the halt and the old die of starvation, their surviving kin, far from mourning, seem overwhelmingly preoccupied with avoiding the funeral obligations that used to exist in Ik culture. People at death’s door are pushed out of the family and village compound—a highly defended arrangement of impenetrable thorns and booby traps—in the hope that they will die elsewhere. In one case, a child was locked up until she died so that she could not pester others with her appeals for help; in other cases, parents hastily buried their children’s corpses inside the compound and then claimed ignorance of their whereabouts.

Turnbull sees a ruthless biological logic to all of this: the tribe is likeliest to survive extreme scarcity if resources are monopolised by the strongest, not wasted on the weak. But he cannot see anything human in Ik behaviour. The text often compares them unfavourably to animals, as in this comment when, returning to ‘the field’ a year later, he finds that rain has brought improvement to food supply but none to Ik manners:

If they had been mean and greedy and selfish before, with nothing to be mean and greedy and selfish over, now they really excelled themselves in what would be an insult to animals to call bestiality.

The Ik faced a conscious choice between being humans and being parasites, and of course had chosen the latter. (p. 231)

It was perhaps this kind of misanthropic flourish that led some later scholars to challenge Turnbull’s work, describing it as exaggerated, as misrepresenting the Ik. Such criticism is in all likelihood fair, but is beside the larger point. I doubt that Turnbull was so dishonest as to invent the gruesome anecdotes he relates, and I have no difficulty accepting them as evidence of social “collapse.” More troubling, however, are firstly the bigger conclusions he wants to draw—and which apparently, yet speciously, justify this exercise in voyeurism—and, secondly, his failure to draw and act upon far more valid and pressing conclusions.

A load of old Turnbull

After listing the apparent virtues of Pygmy society in the introductory section quoted above (“kindness, generosity, consideration” etc), Turnbull adds that “It is a far cry from our [‘Western’, one can only suppose] society, in which anyone possessing even half of these qualities would find it hard indeed to survive, yet we are given to thinking that somehow these are virtues inherent in man.” (p.27) It is easy to assent, at least in part, to the thought that “we” are hypocrites who do not practice the virtues we claim to admire. But the claim that “we are given to thinking that somehow these are virtues inherent in man” is distinctly odd.

Confucius, arguably, believed in the inherent decency of human nature (while also believing that decency needs careful and continuous cultivation). But, in the religious, ethical and intellectual traditions of Europe, belief in intrinsic human goodness is only one of various, competing strands. It is openly challenged by the doctrine of Original Sin and, centuries later, by Hobbes’ notion of human life in “the state of nature” as being “nasty, brutish and short.” The whole point for Hobbes, and for many later ‘Enlightenment’ thinkers, was that human beings need society precisely in order to rise above bestiality. They saw society, civilisation, as triumphs over nature, not intrinsic to it. Many, it has to be said, also believed that Africans were not capable of, or had not made, this transcendental leap from the “state of nature” to civilisation.

Turnbull claims to have shown that:

Those values which we cherish so highly and which some use to point to our infinite superiority over other forms of animal life may indeed be basic to human society, but not to humanity, and that means that [sic] the Ik clearly show society itself is not indispensable for man’s survival, that man is not the social animal he has always thought himself to be, and that he is perfectly capable of associating for the purposes of survival without being social. (p. 239)

But by no means has he shown that “society itself is not indispensable for man’s survival” except in the very short run—for the Ik as he portrays them seem well on the way to extinction. And, as Hobbes’ 16th century “state of nature” notion attests, the distinction between humanity qua species and human society is neither new nor difficult to grasp, and hardly stood in need of ‘empirical’ demonstration (without even embarking on the thorny issue of what could count, in such matters, as empirical proof .)

Another feature of Turnbull’s account is his frequent comparison of the Ik’s “extreme individualism” with the individualist trend of “our” modern culture. He warns us, direly, that “the symptoms of change in our own society indicate that we are heading in precisely the same direction.” (p. 238) This is specious. The kind of complex narcissism arising in post-scarcity societies, and which is even more marked in the present day than in Turnbull’s, is certainly a legitimate object of social and cultural critique. But it is surely facile to conflate this kind of post-scarcity “individualism” with an individualism that arises precisely in response to the exigencies of dire (and externally imposed) scarcity. The word “individualism” is flexible enough to cover all bases but that very plasticity empties it of useful content.

This lazy conflation owes at least in part, one feels, to Turnbull’s earnest desire to assert the universality of humanity (as distinct from the universality of society) and to show “us” that we are “fundamentally” just like the Ik. But did this really still need arguing in the 1960s? Did the Western “we” of that time still need persuading that humans comprise a single species and that—as Hume and other Enlightenment thinkers had concluded long before Marx—the cultural and societal differences between them arise from the differing material and historical conditions they have to contend with?

Well, yes, maybe it did still need arguing at a time when ‘scientific’ racism still cast long shadows over Western brains. But wasn’t that at least in part because of the head- and jaw-measuring antics of earlier generations in the anthropological tribe, when ‘other’ people were studied not as people like “us” but as tropical bugs to be stuck upon a pin and examined for their supposedly intrinsic properties? Turnbull, to be sure, can in some lights be seen as struggling to depart from that tradition. But, far from being a great leap forward, spending years filling notebooks with observations on a people starving to death in fact seems like the apotheosis of an observer/object relationship that implicitly denies shared humanity. It smacks, moreover, of a peculiarly modern, post-scarcity, and Western kind of ‘individualism.’ For we can see well enough that the author has had a great and stirring physical, intellectual, moral and spiritual Boy’s Own adventure, funded by a research grant and then rewarded with best-seller royalties. But what about the Ik?

Underneath all the philosophical flim-flammery of Turnbull’s book, the single most plain, accessible and important truth it reveals is that it is a very bad idea indeed to put people in material conditions that make society impossible for them. We know from page one that this is what happened to the Ik. Similar tragedies were befalling other people at much the same time. In Uganda alone, the Batwa (‘Pygmy’) people were being pushed off their ancestral lands in the west, bordering Congo, to make way for a gorilla reserve and the Ruwenzori Mountains National Park. This, and abundant examples elsewhere, were nothing to do with ‘culture’ or with ‘human nature’ and everything to do with the political economy of post-colonial development paradigms which still today actively stigmatise and materially destroy people who do not fit in with current visions of modernity.

So why didn’t Turnbull throw away his pith helmet and make the dispossession of the Ik not just the background context for but the main object of his study? Why didn’t he intercede on their behalf with the government of Uganda and complain to the international conservation lobby, including the recently-established (1961) World Wildlife Fund for Nature, which at that time was supporting this conservation approach? Why didn’t he expose its human cost in international media? Well, to be fair, international media had negligible interest in such stories in the 1960s. But he could at least have run shouting to the also recently-established (1964) Minority Rights Group.

He did, he tells us, make reports to the government of Uganda—reports that were necessary to keep obtaining his study permits. He recommended to the authorities, he further informs us, that the remaining Ik should be forcibly dispersed and resettled in other parts of Uganda, in groups small enough to be safely absorbed into, without morally infecting, host communities. He laments the fact that this advice went unheeded, saying that “had they [the remaining Ik children] been rounded up and carted off like cattle they might have grown up as human beings.” (p. 235) Instead, he ends up “hoping that their isolation will remain as complete as in the past, until they die out completely.” (p. 235).

This is not merely misanthropic, it is egregious. If the point of Turnbull’s fieldwork was to see, in the name of scientific enquiry, the depths to which humanity can be reduced, it did, in a sense, succeed: for I can think of little lower than building a career on documenting the sufferings of others and ending by wishing for their extinction.

September 9, 2011