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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

In the Arms of Africa

Air Date: Week of

Colin Turnbull is one of anthropology's most prominent and interesting figures. Through his work, Turnbull gave readers an inside look at parts of Africa they could only imagine. Host Steve Curwood speaks with author Richard Grinker about his new book which brings us inside the public and private life of the renowned anthropologist.


CURWOOD: Colin Turnbull studied anthropology at Oxford, where he was taught to see aboriginal societies as windows into our evolutionary past. But when Colin Turnbull traveled to Africa to study pygmies, he found their present-day life as spiritual beings to be as important and informative to us as their past. As a best-selling writer, Turnbull brought millions of people inside the lives of the people of Africa. Now, author Richard Grinker brings us inside the life of Colin Turnbull in a new book, In the Arms of Africa.

GRINKER: Colin Turnbull was destined to become a traditional anthropologist, but he did nothing of the sort. He became one of the most unusual anthropologists of this century. He was deeply influenced by Eastern spirituality, in particular Buddhism and Hinduism. And so, the kind of work he did for Oxford was terribly unsatisfying to them. When he went to Africa, he didn't see a kinship system or a political system to be described. He saw a society that lived in total harmony with their environment. A society whose religion was based on the rainforest and its bounty. He did not see a society that offered much in the way of science, but it certainly offered something in the way of truth. But it was a different sort of truth, a human core, an essence of humanity.

CURWOOD: What does conventional anthropology think about emotional and spiritual questions?

GRINKER: It's a very good question. They are conflicted about it. And often anthropologists are quite dismissive of work such as Turnbull's. Colin Turnbull is probably, next to Margaret Mead, the best-selling anthropologist of all time. And yet, anthropologists have questioned the value of his work as science. Now, on the other hand, everybody knows that our work is subjective, that our work is deeply felt, and that we often write for our own audiences. And Colin Turnbull's audience was not anthropologists. Colin Turnbull was writing for the masses. He wanted to sell millions of copies of books, not to make money so much as to show the world that anthropology was a pilgrimage. It was a spiritual path. One of the hallmarks of anthropology is a concept called cultural relativism. What cultural relativism means is that we don't judge other cultures according to our own standards and values. We try to see things through the eyes of those to whom that culture actually belongs. And a lot of anthropologists, including me, have not practiced cultural relativism with respect to Colin Turnbull. We've not looked at what his perspective was, what his motivations were, his reasons for being an anthropologist.

CURWOOD: And those reasons were?

GRINKER: And those reasons were in order to establish anthropology as a spiritual pathway, rather than as a pathway to science. Now, it's not that he didn't believe in truth. He believed in truth, just not one truth. And sure, you could believe that you were better suited to spout one version of the truth as opposed to another, and you could try to convince other people that your version of the truth was better. But you shouldn't be dogmatic about it, because who knows whether the next day your truth is overthrown?

CURWOOD: Why do you suppose so many of us bought or at least were asked to read The Mountain People and The Forest People, his two very bestselling books? I guess The Mountain People is the bestseller of the group.

GRINKER: Well, people loved reading The Mountain People and The Forest People because they were not written for an academic audience. But they also loved them because the books were fundamentally about what happens to a human being when they're separated from their society. In the first instance with the pygmies, as depicted in The Forest People, Colin Turnbull found the best of humanity in himself and in others. In the second example, about the Eke [phonetic spelling] of Uganda, called The Mountain People, Colin Turnbull found the worst of humanity. He thought that the Eke [phonetic spelling] were evil and he saw himself becoming an evil person. In fact, I was just talking to a friend, I'm sure many listeners are, about the television show Survivor. And I was saying, you know, Turnbull would have loved Survivor. Anthropologists hate the kind of primitivism that was depicted on that show with phony idols being produced and the invention of a tribe and so on. Turnbull would have loved it. He would have loved any opportunity to separate yourself from your own society so that you could get to the core of who you were, and to the core of humanity. He would have loved that aspect of it. Because a lot of the show was about people doing some self-exploration and trying to figure out, is the world defined as some sort of a Hobbsean war against all, or some good social contract?

CURWOOD: Richard Grinker, what was it that first drew you to writing about Colin Turnbull?

GRINKER: I was studying the pygmies, myself, in the mid-80s. And I lived with the pygmies and the farmers who live in the Uturi [phonetic spelling] rainforest. And I hated Turnbull's works, frankly. I pretty much set out to disprove Turnbull, to show that he was wrong. To show that his depiction of the world there was romantic and idealized and exaggerated and unscientific.

CURWOOD: You hated his work.

GRINKER: Oh, I absolutely did. I thought he was a hack. And in fact, Turnbull wrote me two letters while I was in the field. I answered neither of them. I was not only of the opinion that he was a bad scientists, I was also pretty self-centered and kind of egotistical at that point, and I just didn't even answer these letters when he told me that I should do this or that in my field site. And so, I came back to the United States and I wrote a book, which was highly critical of him. And when I wrote my second book, which was about Africa and is a textbook, a friend of mine said, "You know, you should dedicate it to Colin Turnbull, because he was really the one responsible for influencing so many people to respect African cultures, and to bring knowledge about Africa to the west. And I thought about it a lot, and my friend really influenced me, and in 1996 I dedicated a book to him.

CURWOOD: What was the turning point?

GRINKER: The turning point was really that one conversation I had with my friend, in which I started to develop that cultural relativism that I had just spoken of, where now I was able to see Turnbull through his own eyes, to empathize with him, to see what he was trying to do. And he wasn't trying to do what all of the other anthropologists were doing. He was trying to find something else, trying to learn, trying to teach. In a way, a very committed and dedicated, almost religious way, that we rarely see these days.

CURWOOD: We're just about out of time here, but you're a teacher. You teach anthropology at George Washington University, in the spot that was once held by Colin Turnbull himself. What's the big lesson that you ask students, you ask us to take away from your study of the life of Colin Turnbull?

GRINKER: I ask my students to look at Colin Turnbull, to discover the diversity of pathways we can take to knowledge. That we don't have to think only in terms of the scientific method. That social science, let alone anthropology, is not just an adherence to a particular method. It can be an art, a creative art, a way of exploring different aspects of our humanity. So I hope that when students look at Turnbull, they think, wow, here's a guy who did things his own way. And when students look at his life, his personal life as opposed to his professional life, I hope they see the same sort of thing. He wasn't an activist, he wasn't out there raising money being a community organizer. Colin Turnbull was an activist only to the extent that he lived his life exactly the way he wanted to. And he wasn't going to let anybody tell him what to do. I think he's a courageous figure in that regard.

CURWOOD: Richard Grinker is associate professor of anthropology at George Washington University. He is author of the new book In the Arms of Africa: The Life of Colin Turnbull. Thank you, sir.

GRINKER: Thank you.



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