The Mountain People – Colin Turnbull

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…..our much-vaunted human values are not inherent in humanity at all, but a luxury of ordered society.

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Five words from the blurb: tribe, starvation, cruelty, individual, society 

In 1964 anthropologist Colin Turnbull spent two years living with the Ik, a tribe living in the mountainous borders of Uganda and Kenya. Crops had failed for two years in a row and people were dying from starvation. This book details the shocking events he witnessed as the people struggled to survive.

Turnbull saw that the basic structure of society seemed to have been lost as everyone cared only about themselves.

Children are useless appendages, like old parents. Anyone who cannot take care of himself is a burden and a hazard to the survival of others.

The old and young were left to die – food sometimes even being stolen from their mouths. The people failed to display any of the characteristics we think of as being common to all humans, failing to show the slightest degree of compassion for those who were suffering.

…she was totally blind and had tripped and rolled to the bottom of the oror a pirre’i, and there she lay on her back, her legs and arms thrashing feebly, while a little crowd standing on the edge above looked down at her and laughed at the spectacle.

The tribe were also unusual in that the structure of the family unit had completely broken down. Children were thrown out of the home at the age of three, elderly relatives were ignored, and even the husband-wife relationship was minimal.

This entire book had me gripped and questioning how strong our own society is. In many ways this book was similar to Blindness, but the scary thing is that Mountain People is true. Human beings actually did these things to one another and there is little to stop it from happening again somewhere else.

This book isn’t perfect – there are some points when the writing is a bit dry or when too many geographical or anthropological details are added to a section, but these are very minor issues.

This book is a fascinating insight into what could happen to a society when there simply isn’t enough food for all to survive. It is my favourite read of the year so far.

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So how did I discover this fantastic book?
After my disapproval of Anne Robinson as a host on the recent My Life in Books TV series (because she doesn’t like fiction) I am almost embarrassed to admit that I first heard about this book in an article she wrote for the Radio Times. All I can say is that Anne Robinson has a fantastic taste in non-fiction books and I will be keeping an eye out for more of her recommendations in future.


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26 Comments

  1. Jessica says:

    Thanks for the rec – it sounds just like my kind of thing (which worring) but I’m fasinated my books like Blindness and I always wonder what would happen if it were true.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jessica, It is exactly my type of book too, so don’t worry -unless we’re both weird?! I hope that you decide to read this one as I’m sure you’ll love it.

      PS. I borrowed it from Surrey libraries so it will be available for you to borrow as soon as I return it :-)

  2. This sounds like a brilliant read, Jackie! I love non-fiction when it’s about different cultures and the fact that you compare this to Blindness……well! It sounds fscinating from a sociological and anthrological point of view and like something I would really enjoy. Thanks for the review!

    1. Jackie says:

      The Book Whisperer, I haven’t read any other non-fiction like this, but I have clearly been missing out – I will be ensuring I seek more out in future.

  3. I haven’t heard of this book before. Is it quite new? Maybe not, if he went there in 1964?

    While reading your review I was thinking this sounded a bit familiar. Maybe it’s Blindness, maybe it’s something else – maybe another book or article about this tribe. It sounds terrible, but if you have so very little to survive on, maybe that’s what all of us would resort to (I hope not, though!).

    1. Jackie says:

      Judith, No – it isn’t new (published in 1973)

      I can’t imagine being in this situation, but I think I’d at least ensure that I shared my food with my children. I really hope I would, but I hope I’ll never be faced with anything like that situation.

  4. Sandy says:

    I love a true story. But OMG. Just your description of this group of people is so offensive and disturbing. Aren’t normal people born with at least a shred of empathy for others, with a little bit of humanity? Or at our core, are we all sociopaths? How could a human being just sit and watch a child die? I can see why this was intriguing to you.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, This book argues that we are all capable of becoming sociopaths if our environment becomes difficult. It almost impossible to imagine how anyone can actually take food out of a child’s mouth, but it was fascinating to read about people who lived in that way. I think you’d enjoy it.

      1. ifi says:

        Sandy says…”Aren’t normal people born with at least a shred of empathy for others, with a little bit of humanity?” Jesus, after starving for TWO YEARS how can you still expect anyone to be “normal” and “humane”. Sorry, but what a wacky comment.

        1. Jackie says:

          Ifi, I’d like to think that I wouldn’t leave my own children to die, no matter how bad the circumstances. I know things wouldn’t be normal, but I would hope I still had some degree of humanity.

  5. This doesn’t sound like a book I’d pick by myself, but you certainly have my attention now Jackie…thanks for the thorough review.

    1. Jackie says:

      Diane, I’m pleased I was able to bring this book to your attention.

  6. EllenB says:

    This book was first published in the late 60’s or early 70’s and in the US it is a standard in Anthropology classes. Be sure to read Turnbull’s The Forest People for his observations on an African tribal culture that is intact, rather then experiencing the loss of basic human civility which you describe. Turnbull is quite a writer and I was riveted by both works.

    1. Jackie says:

      Ellen, Thank you for letting me know that The Forset People is a great read too. I’ve added it to my wishlist and hope to read it later in the year.

  7. Oh, Jackie, this one sounds fantastic! I haven’t heard of it before. I don’t read much non-fiction either, but I’ve requested this one from the library. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

    1. Jackie says:

      Carrie, Great news! I really hope that you enjoy it as much as I did.

  8. parrish says:

    This does sound a fascinating book on the bonds that tie us together collapsing & the Robinson woman has taste who’d have thunk it

    1. Jackie says:

      parrish, If you had asked me six months ago whether or not I’d have thought Anne Robinson would have recommended my favourite read of the year I would have bet against it!

  9. Ann says:

    Thanks for the review. I’m sad to say that in the US we seem to have little patience for the young and the old. They are not valued as they are in Europe. We’re a throwaway society.
    Ann

    1. Jackie says:

      Ann, I’m sad to say that things aren’t that much better in the UK. I think that some of the other European countries have much better generational relationships, but things are beginning to break down over here too.

  10. JoV says:

    Thank you Jackie. I always take notice when you rate a book 5 stars. I’ll put this in my TBR. Thanks!

    1. Jackie says:

      Jo, I hope that you enjoy it as much as I did.

  11. This does sound fantastic, and I’m going to add it to my wishlist. I like non-fiction books based on survival, and the one I’d recommend is Alive (by Piers Paul Read) – it’s scary and on finishing it, I marvelled at the circumstances in which humans reduce themselves to…. well, animals?

    Alive is about the Andes air crash in the early 70s, and how, to survive people were forced to resort to cannibalism. We like to think that we’re above that, but at the end of the day, isn’t it all about survival of the fittest?

    1. Jackie says:

      anothercookiecrumble, I have heard about Alive before (well the cannibalism part anyway!) I had forgotten what the book was called, so thank you for reminding me – it does sound like the type of thing I find intriguing.

  12. stujallen says:

    I missed lot these programms due to work ,this does sound interesting Jackie ,sure someone else mentioned it a few years ago ,I hope they bring robinson show back

  13. stujallen says:

    I missed lot these programms due to work ,this does sound interesting Jackie ,sure someone else mentioned it a few years ago ,I hope they bring robinson show back I did enjoy the parts I saw ,all the best stu

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