a) In Colin Turnbull's The Forest People, what is the molimo ceremony? What is the elima? What is the nkumbi? What do these three ritual events in Pygmy life teach us about how Pygmies see the world? b) The use of the term “animal” or “savage” occurs throughout The Forest People.  Who uses these terms and to whom are they applied?  What lesson about ethnocentrism might one learn from the application of such language?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Forest People is a nonfiction book originally published in 1961 by Colin Turnbull about the Mbuti pygmies of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. It describes in close detail the lives of the pygmies and several important religious rituals.

Molimo: The molimo is a large trumpet-like instrument carved from wood. It gives its name to an important ritual among the Mbuti people. They believe that when bad things happen it is because the forest is asleep and they need to perform a ceremony to wake it up. This molimo ceremony begins with gathering at a campsite and building fires, cooking, and eating. The men of the tribe on the next day fetch the molimo from where it is stored and take it to visit important spots, including a river. When they return with the molimo to the camp, they sing and dance until harmony is restored.

Nkumbi: this is a puberty and initiation rite for young boys that includes circumcision and various tests of physical strength and courage.

Elima: This is the puberty and initiation ceremony for girls and leads to marriage.

The terms "animal" and "savage" are applied by the villagers to the Mbuti. It is particularly interesting in the way it illustrates the cultural divide between settled peoples and hunter-gatherers.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

a) In the Mbuti Pygmy world, the molimo is both a ritual and a musical instrument. The molimo is performed when there has been a catastrophe, sickness, death, or crisis within the Pygmy community. As a practice, the Mbutis revere the forest that nourishes and protects them; thus, when trouble occurs, the "sleeping" forest has to be awakened to its duty of caring for the people. The molimo trumpets are played for this purpose and must be "given food to eat, water to drink, and fire to keep it warm." As a rule, no woman can participate in the molimo ceremony, so the ritual is strictly a male affair.

An elima is a celebration that occurs when a Mbuti girl reaches puberty. The ceremony involves the girl living with her friends in a special hut for a month. As a newly menstruating female, the Mbuti girl is viewed as a danger, for "blood of any kind is a terrible and powerful thing, associated with injury and sickness and death." Thus, the girl is sequestered in the elima hut until she can be betrothed or married off to an eligible bachelor; a husband will remove from her the taint of "danger."

Similar to the elima, an nkumbi is an initiation rite for boys. During nkumbi, young boys are circumcised and made to endure mental and physical tortures in order to be accepted into the world of Mbuti masculinity. To earn the status that adult men have, the boys must suffer regular whippings and prove themselves as valiant hunters.

These three rituals teach us that the Pygmy people value the role of the forest in nourishing, teaching, and protecting them. Additionally, all three rituals demonstrate an inherent Pygmy reverence for masculine energy. The molimo trumpets themselves are phallic symbols representing masculine sexual potency and social responsibility. The nkumbi toughens up the boys so that they can become men who will hunt and provide for their families. The boys prove themselves so that they will also be worthy of a girl who has experienced the elima.

b) In the book, the villagers refer to the Mbuti forest people as "animals who didn't know how to behave." They also refer to the Pygmies as "forest savages who had no culture of their own." Similarly, the Pygmies refer to the villagers as "animal-humans who live in permanent villages out in the open, away from the shelter and affection of the trees."

So, you can see that the application of such derogatory language demonstrates the dangers of ethnocentrism. As a practice, ethnocentrism leads us to make false or wrong assumptions about others, and this often results in cultural misunderstandings. Social harmony is adversely threatened as a result.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team