The Forest People Summary and Study Guide

Colin M. Turnbull

The Forest People

  • 44-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 15 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis.
  • Written by a literary scholar with a Master's degree in English Literature
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The Forest People Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 44-page guide for “The Forest People” by Colin Turnbull includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 15 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Children of the Forest and Village Life versus Forest Life.

Plot Summary

The Forest People is a riveting account by British anthropologist Colin Turnbull of a tribe of pygmies in the Ituri Forest in northwestern Belgian Congo. Turnbull took five extensive trips to Africa, and the material he collected during these trips is the source material for this book. In the book, Turnbull recounts his time spent living for a total of three years among the African Mbuti Pygmies. The account of his time with the pygmies of Zaïre (later the Democratic Republic of Congo) is imbued with the many lessons and experiences that Turnbull took away from this rich period, including various customs and cultural events that he witnessed firsthand.

Turnbull’s account is both riveting and honest. His depiction of the Mbuti Pygmies does not glorify them or hint at prejudice, but show the intimate workings of a people with the same virtues and vices as other groups of people living from day to day. At the heart of the narrative is the Mbuti tribe’s love of the forest and one another. Though Turnbull is an anthropologist, the work does not come off as didactic or dull. It is filled with a human element showcasing the very real personalities of the pygmies. This look at the Mbuti tribe as an observer instead of a researcher allows for The Forest People to remain a riveting read, even though the book was first published in 1961.

Cultural insights shared by Turnbull include the strange relationship between the Mbuti Pygmies and the African villagers. For their part, the villagers view the pygmies as a type of property. They receive food from the forest, including meat and honey, and also receive labor from the pygmies. The villagers also compel the pygmies to observe their sacred rites, such as initiation, marriage and funeral rites. The Mbuti view the villagers as savages because the villagers do not understand the forest. Though they do receive some food from the villagers, they often steal from them and then disappear deep into the forest for months on end.

Examples of customs that Turnbull witnesses include marriage rites, the rituals of the Molimo and the celebration of the Elima, where young pygmy girls are “blessed” by menstrual blood, and many others. Another is the men’s kumamolimo, where an instrument is used that is normally made from a hollowed out tree. The instrument is blown into to mimic the sound of the voice of the forest.

Some of the “characters” the reader encounters include the author’s best friend, Kenge. There is also Moke, an older, respected member of the tribe, as well as Cephu, who is known as the “bad hunter.” Others include a beautiful woman named Kidaya, and Kondabate, a woman who filed her teeth to look like a shark’s, as well as Akidinimba, Aberi, and others, including Amina, who is the daughter of a sub-chief from a neighboring village.

Turnbull’s account shows the human aspect of the Mbuti Pygmy tribe in all of its vicissitudes. There is petty bickering and infighting, prejudices and discrimination, and genuine laughter and camaraderie. Examples like the attempt to show some pygmy clans how to settle and farm cleared land so as to stop the high death rate from sun exposure, as well as a mother’s joy and tears when Turnbull shows her daughter, who is crippled by hip dysplasia, how to walk with crutches, help to add to the human element that Turnbull’s account relates. Ultimately, Turnbull’s account shows how those people we oftentimes view as different from us experience the same joys and pains that make all of us human.

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