Review: In the Arms of Africa: The Life of Colin Turnbull

In the Arms of Africa: The Life ofColin Turnbull

By Roy Richard Grinker

University of California Press 2001

ISBN 0-226-30904-5

Reviewed by Ian S. McIntosh

The life and loves of superstar anthropologist Colin Turnbull is the subject of In the Arms of Africa by Roy Richard Grinker. This scrupulously researched and beautifully written biography draws much from Turnbull’s own copious field notes and personal memoirs, now held at the Avery Research Center at the College of Charleston. In-depth interviews with family, friends, and academic colleagues enable Grinker to trace Turnbull’s life from his Scottish/Irish roots and privileged education at an English public school, to his search for truth, purpose, and meaning from Indian guru Sri Anandamayi Ma, the Mbuti pygmies and the Ik of Uganda, and finally from his partner of over 30 years, African American anthropologist Joseph Towles.

A social scientist would be impressed by the fascinating inside accounts about Turnbull’s period of residence with, and idealizing of, the Mbuti of the Ituri Forest, and his “learning not to hate” the Ik of the Ugandan Mountains. The lesser-known critiques that Grinker brings to light—especially those of Towles—are highlights and make interesting reading. The anthropological debates that arose from the publication of Turnbull’s The Forest People and The Mountain People and the ensuing controversy over the nature of Turnbull’s contribution to the advancement of knowledge ensure that these timeless classics will remain core study material for years to come.

From the outset, the author outlines his own personal concerns about the scholarly output of his subject, believing that Turnbull’s characterizations of Pygmy life, for example, were romantic and somewhat fictionalized. To Grinker’s credit, he does not let his professional objections come into play. But nowhere in the book do we get a sense of Turnbull’s own theoretical agenda—what he was trying to achieve in his research and writing—apart from the penultimate chapter, in which we see Turnbull uncovering, in his gritty studies of death row, the violence and inhumanity of the system he detested. Such an omission is unfortunate.

It would undoubtedly have been Turnbull’s wish that the centerpiece of this unauthorized account be the scholar’s long-term, puzzling, and often-troubled relationship with the enigmatic Towles. Turnbull’s love of Towles was the cornerstone of his worldly and spiritual existence, and Grinker does an excellent job contextualizing the relationship that some of Turnbull’s colleagues found unwholesome—and certainly detrimental to his career prospects. This relationship was demanding for both parties and Grinker takes the reader on the roller coaster of their life together, through the painful twists and turns, right up to the tragic scene of Towles’ death from AIDS in 1988. Even though Turnbull’s own death, also from complications related to AIDS, would come several years later, Turnbull’s coffin was lowered into the ground alongside Towles’ at the funeral. Turnbull cut off ties with friends and family and requested that all records of prior communications be destroyed. He was dead to the world.

Grinker analyzes this relationship with grace and style. Yet even with his impressive command of detail, he struggles to fully come to terms with or explain it. A case in point is his somewhat flippant comment that Turnbull tried to recreate, in his “encounter” with Towles, the “African villager-pygmy” synergistic arrangement described in The Forest People. The complexity of the protagonists’ personalities and worldviews, revealed in the book’s 300-odd pages, warrants a more thorough investigation and conclusion. Unnecessary also are the occasional graphic details he reveals of Turnbull and Towles’ sexual trysts, which are somewhat invasive and gratuitous.

While In the Arms of Africa provides an in-depth look at Turnbull’s adventures, obsessive longings, and demons that haunted him, the man himself, strangely, still remains elusive. On the one hand, Turnbull was a devout Buddhist who sought purity, truth, and wisdom in the cultures of the world. On the other, he was the anthropologist-as-hero on an uncertain and hopelessly romantic mission. Grinker provides an invaluable service by producing this sensitive interpretation of Turnbull’s exceptional life.

Ian S. McIntosh is senior editor for Cultural Survival.

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