Book Review: The Innocent Anthropologist by Nigel Barley

Locally-based author and journalist Tom Sykes first became interested in African culture, literature and politics while growing up on Hayling Island and in Portsmouth. Twenty years on, he is about to realise a dream by spending three months in Ivory Coast researching and writing a Bradt travel guidebook and reporting on the political situation in the country for New Statesman, The Scotsman and New African. Before setting off, he thought it wise to read Nigel Barley’s classic 1983 travelogue of West Africa, recently re-published by Eland Books.

You only have to read the first few pages of The Innocent Anthropologist to realise that the title of this book is deeply ironic. What is on one level a serio-comic account of Nigel Barley’s field trip to Cameroon in the late 1970s to study the Dowayo tribe is, on another level, a perceptive and satirical comment on the difficulties Westerners have in trying to understand Africa and Africans.

The story begins with Barley’s disillusionment with teaching in ‘a department of anthropology of no particular academic distinction’. The young, theoretically-inclined generation of researchers to which he belongs is constantly under attack by older colleagues for whom getting out into the field is what real anthropology is all about: ‘They had been there, they had seen. There was nothing more to say’. Barley grows suspicious of the old guard’s superiority complex when he makes an application for funding and realises that the awarding body is not at all interested in supporting research that will be in any way ‘new/interesting/important’. He re-writes his proposal to make his project appear less ‘new/interesting/important’, gets his money and flies to West Africa.

One of his first destinations is the Catholic mission in N’gaoundere, about which he has some trepidation. His anthropological training has taught him all about the crimes Western Christians have committed against the Third World – from land theft to enslavement – so he is pleasantly surprised to find the missionaries at N’gaoundere peaceable and respectful of their flock. However, when he travels on to a nearby Protestant mission he is frightened by the irate and crimson-faced Pastor Brown, whose fundamentalist fervour prevents him from properly leading and managing the locals who depend on him.

Hopelessly lost on a dirt track somewhere outside the town of Gouna, Barley encounters a band of tribespeople. He asks if they are Dowayos and they respond irritably. ‘They, it seemed, were Dupa. It was implied that no one but an idiot could confuse the two.’ But even when Barley finally locates the Dowayos and starts to live amongst them, his quest for knowledge doesn’t get any easier. The Western mode of scientific enquiry he has been schooled in falters as soon as it is applied to a culture with a radically different belief system. When he questions the villagers about the coming harvest, he doesn’t receive the specific and evidence-based answers he was hoping for because this is a culture based on intuition, speculation and certainty only about things that can be personally witnessed. Dowayo notions of time and space are areas ‘where a degree of flexibility permitted by the culture is grossly at variance with our own’. Later Barley fears that he is sabotaging the objectivity of his own research into the Dowayo language by ‘directing the answers’ of his reticent test subjects. After comparing notes with the American priest Jon Berg, whose job is to promote his faith to Cameroonians, Barley concludes that ‘we both helped each other to an understanding of the limitations of our mutual endeavours.’

Such limitations can lead to mortifying moments of situational comedy. When trying to speak Dowayo, Barley makes a very slight tonal error which nonetheless changes a polite greeting into an obscene insult. He makes an even worse faux pas in an old French colonial hotel when he gives an obese Fulani woman a glass of water. Custom dictates that she now offer herself sexually to him. As she is ripping off her clothes, a porter strolls into the room, prompting Barley to observe, ‘I was trapped in a farce.’

Barley comes to take a more relativistic view of his subject matter when he meets the rainchief, a wizened and shamanic figure who claims to be able to use pots, skulls and rocks to manipulate the weather. The rainchief paints a number of stones and, soon afterwards, a tempest strikes the mountain above them. Although Barley strongly doubts that the two events are in any way connected, he admits that his rationalist outlook is a product of his cultural conditioning and, at any rate, has little to do with the true purpose of his research: ‘The anthropologist in the field is seldom troubled by the ‘false’ beliefs of those about him; he simply … sees how they all fit together and learns to live with them on a day-to-day basis.’

In learning to live with the Dowayos, Barley comes to admire many things about them. Under a form of eco-socialism, each individual is free to live and cultivate crops on whatever part of the commonly-owned land they choose. A Dowayo employer is duty-bound to look after his worker in every way, such as giving him first refusal on unwanted possessions and paying his family members’ medical bills. When news arrives of a German health care company’s interest in a traditional Dowayo remedy for hepatitis, it seems that Western medicine can learn a lot from its African counterpart. Barley also starts to understand – though not necessarily agree with – why such practices as male circumcision are necessary: ‘the operation converts the imperfect being of natural birth, via a process of death and rebirth into a wholly male person.’

Such positive insights are reassuring given Barley’s suspicion that, historically, Westerners have misunderstood and misrepresented Africa. Rather than open their minds and learn something new, foreigners with ‘various axes to grind’ have projected their own pre-conceived notions onto the continent. Whether attacking stereotypes about all Africans ‘living in harmony with nature’ or upbraiding his own family for suggesting he might end up ‘in the cooking pot’, Barley constantly undermines his own culture’s prejudices about the culture he is visiting.

The literary critic Sherry Vint has written about a discourse of European colonial writing about Africa that, in an attempt to assert Western supremacy, has frequently likened African people to animals. Barley mischievously subverts this trope by describing how, after his visit to a dentist goes horribly wrong, the locals view him as a savage beast because he has blood all over his chest and appears to have the fangs of a werewolf.

In the interests of balance, The Innocent Anthropologist reveals a number of equally ludicrous myths that Africans hold about the West. Dowayos regard white skin as a sign of physical weakness and ‘susceptibility to illness’. As Barley is about to leave the village for good, the chief warns him about Europe’s cannibalism, cold weather and dangerous dogs.

It may be true that a non-Dowayo can never fully understand the Dowayo people. But in the act of trying to understand them, Nigel Barley had an extraordinary adventure and learned some truths about both his own culture and another.

Photography by Sarah Cheverton.