Child of the Jungle by Sabine Kuegler

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Child of the Jungle by Sabine Kuegler

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: A simply-written and wide-eyed memoir that has been criticised for romanticisation and lack of criticial judgement. Bookbag doesn't see these as problems - Kuegler gives the reader an honest and personal perspective and the reader is free to make whatever judgements s/he chooses. This reader found it fascinating.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: December 2007
Publisher: Virago Press Ltd
ISBN: 978-1844082629

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Sabine Kuegler spent her childhood in Irian Jaya - the western half of Papua New Guinea. Born in Nepal, her father Klaus Peter was, is, a linguist and Christian missionary, employed by the Wycliffe Bible Translators, an organisation dedicated to making a translation of the Bible into every living language in the world. Sabine's father makes contact with the Stone Age Fayu tribe and they go to live with them, evangelise and study the language, together with mother Doris, sister Judith and brother Christian. Sabine plays with bows and arrows, eats white grubs, has narrow escapes from crocodiles, and swings through the trees on vines pretending to be Tarzan. She also witnesses clan wars, suffers frequent bouts of malaria, and watches her own Fayu foster brother die of TB, an imported disease.

I just found it fascinating. The book made the German best-seller list for months and months when it was first published in 2005, and it became quite controversial. Kuegler came in for a fair amount of criticism for presenting an idealised view of this self-sufficient, long-lost tribe. I didn't think it sounded idealised at all - due to an absolute lack of medical knowledge, the Fayu suffer distended bellies from malnutrition and dreadful fungal growths across their bodies. They fight viciously, reducing their population to such tiny levels, their society's future is at risk. They don't bury their dead; they keep them in their huts, making village atmosphere somewhat unpleasant. The Fayu aren't presented as romantic noble savages; they are presented as human beings with virtues and faults, personal and cultural, just like any other human society.

Politically and ethically speaking, I have my doubts about Christian evangelism, about any evangelism. However, such doubts are easy to hold when you're not faced with a people whose culture of retribution has resulted in a decimated population. Would it be better to watch the Fayu revenge themselves upon one another until their tribe is extinct? Or is it better, as Kuegler's family did, to provide a living example of faith-based forgiveness, and watch the fatal conflicts diminish? I don't know. Read the book and see if you do.

Kuegler writes simply; it's a child's eye view that she presents. To the little girl growing up in the jungle everything was simple. It only became more complicated when, grieving over the death of her Fayu foster brother, Sabine leaves the jungle for a school in Switzerland. She's an uncivilised adolescent and the transition is difficult. Everything is terrifying. Life suddenly becomes busy, stressful and full of so many shades of grey, this black-and-white jungle child suffers terribly, and yet, she can't quite bring herself to return to her parents and the Fayu. The jungle is full of physical danger but the western world attacks the mind with equal vigour. And this dichotomy is as striking for the reader as it was for Kuegler when she experienced it.

This is more travel-memoir than it is anthropology. Don't read it expecting an intellectual discussion of the ethics. Read it for a simultaneously visceral and touching account of the effect that one woman's childhood has had upon the rest of her life - and what this has to say to you about the universal human condition.

My thanks to the nice people at Virago for sending the book.

Those interested in stories from people who spent their childhoods in other cultures might also be interested in Peter Godwin's Mukiwa, about growing up in Zimbabwe while it was still called Rhodesia, or This Is Paradise by Hyok Kang, which tells of a childhood in secretive North Korea.

Buy Child of the Jungle by Sabine Kuegler at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Child of the Jungle by Sabine Kuegler at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Child of the Jungle by Sabine Kuegler at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Child of the Jungle by Sabine Kuegler at Amazon.com.

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