book reviews / Born in a Treacherous Time / characters / culture

Book Thoughts: The Forest People

451px-Pygmy_from_AruwimiI’ve been reading Colin Turnbull’s The Forest People. He lived ‘a while’ with pygmies to understand their life, their ‘culture’, their beliefs. Turnbull doesn’t lecture, or present the material as an ethnography. It’s more like a biography of a tribe. As such, I get to wander through their lives, see what they do, how they do it, what’s important to them, without any judgments or conclusions other than my own. What a treat for a writer! A chance to explore a culture, understand their decisions, life style, what makes a society other than mine/ours work.

It didn’t take me long to realize Pygmies have no leaders. How can that be, you might ask? Doesn’t somehow just assume that mantle? Well, until I read this book, I would have agreed whole-heartedly, but that doesn’t seem to happen. A tribe member might demand everyone go hunting with him (it takes a large group to capture/kill the forest animals) and people may go, or they may not. Whatever they feel like. When they move to a new camp, houses and furniture must be built. People may start full of energy and ambition, promising to help neighbors and build big houses with multiple rooms. And then dwindle away as something else grabs their attention. Maybe finish, maybe not. Maybe use some of their neighbor’s roof leaves, or even his house since theirs isn’t built.

Most surprisingly, I have yet to discover a belief in a god. They don’t pray for help, for food or safety, for anything. If life doesn’t seem quite right, the closest they get to wishing it was better is to return to the forest where life is always good. So they do, to a camp surrounded by the depths of the jungle, where outsiders are afraid to go. But the forest isn’t their god, it’s merely where life is always good.

Hmmm. I have to ponder this…

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing TeachersCisco guest blog, Technology in Education featured blogger, IMS tech expert, and a bi-monthly contributor to Today’s Author. In her free time, she is the editor of a K-8 technology curriculumK-8 keyboard curriculumK-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum, and creator of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a thriller that should be out to publishers next summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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10 thoughts on “Book Thoughts: The Forest People

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Letter from the Field–Part I « Jacqui Murray

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    • Me, too. Reading the vignettes of their lives, I can see how it unfolds. No one takes responsibility, not one organizes activities–that’s how houses are left unfinished and hunts don’t always go as planned. But, they’re happy and they feel in-sync with their world.

      So what is life’s goal?


  4. Have you finished reading the book? If not, please let us know more. Anything I’ve ever learned about Pygmies has always left me in wonder. They seem so far outside of other African tribes, with customs that have no ground in ownership, as far as I understand. What you’ve written here confirms that. They seem very secretive and I’ve heard their language is nearly impossible to learn. I wonder if their flagging ambition might be related to insufficient nutrition or if it’s that they see little point in building anything that resembles permanence. I didn’t know they had no god system. You’ve done research on other aboriginal groups. Have you encountered this before?


    • They are fascinating–a culture that works, but I don’t know will survive the onslaught of civilization. They are a happy people from what I can tell. As close as they get to ‘god’ is their reverence for the forest. I researched them as I was building Lucy’s world. Yes, she is definitely pre-god (being Homo habilis), but I wanted to see when/why god came into being. Pygmies seem to be at that cusp.

      Most tribes I’m familiar with (and I by no means have researched all of them) do believe in a god. The !Kung, Maasai, Bunyoro. A few more. God serves the purpose we would expect s/he to serve.

      Fascinating, isn’t it?


      • Absolutely. And the reason I love the Lucy story. Where do we begin to be human and where do specifically human values begin to inform our lives and how are we otherwise separate from that which is not human? Certainly Pygmies are human but their value system is not based on ownership or acquisition and their ethos is not driven by a god idea. I love the way Lucy encounters all these problems and tries to make sense of them.


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