Colin Turnbull was one strange guy. Born in England in 1924, he eventually found his way to Africa where he developed an interest in the Mbuti Pygmies of the Congo, becoming fascinated with their relationship to non-Pygmy African tribal villagers – one group the hunters, one the agriculturists, trading with and living off each other in a symbiotic relationship. Where the Pygmies are generally thought of as akin to slaves of the villagers, Turnbull switched the roles – he thought that it was the Pygmies who cleverly used the villagers, convincing them that they were the superior group. He wrote all of this up in “The Forest People”, a best seller in the early 1960s.
But Turnbull was not a typical scholarly anthropologist. His book did not have footnotes and references; it was a synthesis of his experiences living with the subjects. And he was apparently quite easy to live with, getting along with everyone, learning native languages and so forth.
Eleven years later, in 1972, Turnbull published “The Mountain People”, this time outlining his experiences living with the Ik, a tribe native to Uganda. He studied the Ik because political conditions made it impossible to return to the Congo. As much as he appreciated the Pygmies, that’s how much he hated the Ik. They were a diminishing tribe, whose homeland was under ecological and other threats, and had, so he said, disintegrated into a dog-eat-dog, murderous society, which he felt was beyond repair. Demolish their remaining homes, he suggested, and scatter them to the four winds – not in groups large enough to reconstitute Ik society. Maybe individuals would have a chance.
You can imagine the reaction.
Turnbull spent the rest of his years working at the American Museum of Natural History, lecturing and teaching at places such as State University of New York at Buffalo and Vassar. In addition to keeping up on his African studies and writings, he got very interested in the death penalty.
But there was more than this is Turnbull’s life. There was Joe Towles. Turnbull, you see, was gay. At a time when being gay was not something that people liked to telegraph. And Turnbull had a lengthy relationship (the book calls it a marriage) with an African American man from Virginia, Joe Towles. Towles was younger, and not educated, and Turnbull, at least at first, was probably as much a father figure as we was a lover. And, mentored by Turnbull, Towles not only got an undergraduate degree but a PhD, and along with Turnbull, taught at some of the universities and sat on some of the same panels. Although Towles’ abilities were often brought into question, they were undoubtedly a team, living together in a house they built on the Rappahanock River in Virginia. Their relationship was not always a calm one, it was not always an exclusive one, they were sometimes separated for lengthy periods of time, they both were a little bit nuts (putting it mildly), but the relationship persevered.
And everything was working well, until Joe got sick. He was diagnosed with AIDS well before there was anything approaching treatment for the disease, and – to the surprise of their friends – Turnbull stopped almost all of his activities to take care of Towles, until Towles died.
After Towles died, Turnbull turned to Buddhism, traveling to India and elsewhere, and retiring eventually to a small house in rural Virginia, where he dressed in Buddhist robes. While he kpet it a secret from most, he too had developed AIDS, and he too passedd away.
A unique life (or with Joe Towles, two unique lives), worth writing about and worth thinking about. I recommend the book.