Exposure to New Realities

Colin Turnbull Forest People Mbuti Congo ZaireI just finished reading Colin M. Turnbull’s The Forest People which documents his three years living among the Mbuti pygmies of the Belgian Congo (modern day Zaire) in the late 1950s.

There is a poignant scene near the end of the story when Turnbull and Kenge, his Mbuti friend, leave the confines of the dense tropical rainforest and arrive by jeep to the edges of an expansive grassland and wildlife reserve below the Ruwenzori Mountains near the Uganda border. There they are met by an African park ranger named Henri. It is Kenge’s very first journey outside of the cloistered jungle.

Turnbull’s fascinating description of Kenge’s reaction to the expansive views of the high, snow-topped peaks of the Ruwenzori Mountains and the plains below them is illustrative of how all of us are shaped by our environment. It also shows how obdurate we can be in the face of new information, or new realities, which we had no idea existed before they are pointed out to us:

“Kenge could not believe that they were the same mountains that we had seen from the forest; there they had seemed just like large hills to him. I tried to explain what the snow was – he thought it was some kind of white rock. Henri said that it was water that turned colour when it was high up, but Kenge wanted to know why it didn’t run down the mountainside like any other water. When Henri told him it also turned solid at that height, Kenge gave him a long steady look and said, “Bongo yako!” (“You liar!”)

“When Kenge topped the rise, he stopped dead. Every smallest sign of mirth suddenly left his face. He opened his mouth but could say nothing. He moved his head and eyes slowly and unbelievingly. Down below us, on the far side of the hill, stretched mile after mile of rolling grasslands, a lush, fresh green, with an occasional shrub or tree standing out like a sentinel into a sky that had suddenly become brilliantly clear. It was like nothing Kenge had ever seen before. On the plains, animals were grazing everywhere—a small herd of elephant to the left, about twenty antelopes staring curiously at us from straight ahead, and down to the right a gigantic herd of about a hundred and fifty buffalo. But Kenge did not seem to see them.”

“Then he saw the buffalo, still grazing lazily several miles away, far down below. He turned to me and said, “What insects are those?” At first I hardly understood; then I realized that in the forest the range of vision is so limited that there is no great need to make an automatic allowance for distance when judging size. Out here in the plains, however, Kenge was looking for the first time over apparently unending miles of unfamiliar grasslands, with not a tree worth the name to give him any basis for comparison. The same thing happened later on when I pointed out a boat in the middle of the lake. It was a large fishing boat with a number of people in it but Kenge at first refused to believe this. He thought it was a floating piece of wood.

“When I told Kenge that the insects were buffalo, he roared with laughter and told me not to tell such stupid lies. When Henri, who was thoroughly puzzled, told him the same thing and explained that visitors to the park had to have a guide with them at all times because there were so many dangerous animals, Kenge still did not believe, but he strained his eyes to see more clearly and asked what kind of buffalo were so small. I told him they were sometimes nearly twice the size of a forest buffalo, and he shrugged his shoulders and said we would not be standing out there in the open if they were. I tried telling him they were possibly as far away as from Epulu to the village of Kopu, beyond Eboyo. He began scraping the mud off his arms and legs, no longer interested in such fantasies.” (pp. 251-253)