The Innocent Anthropologist

The Innocent Anthropologist by Nigel Barley

Nigel Barley was a rather unhappy “desk anthropologist” at a British university.

His fieldwork-hardened older colleagues never stopped reminding him of this, because back in their day, it wasn’t enough to camp out in a library cordoned off by stacks of journals. You had to get out and live with the natives.

I can relate to Barley, in a sense. Not just because I read Anthropology at uni, but because I had one of those fathers who walked ten miles to school through waist-deep snow, carrying his sister on his back, with a lump of coal for the stove in his pocket. AND he came home for lunch.

After briefly considering research in South America (“notoriously difficult politically”), Oceania (a soft option, but too much of the same), Aboriginal Australia (“fiendishly complex marriage systems”), and India (add 5 years to learn the languages), he settled on “a strangely neglected group of mountain pagans in North Cameroon.”

And so it began.

During his year long period of fieldwork, Barley is ripped off, stolen from, given the bureaucratic runaround, and menaced by a wide range of creatures, including bats, mice, cicadas, and an old billy-goat “who loved nothing more than to creep into my compound at two o’clock in the morning and jump up and down on my cooking pots.”

He loses two front teeth in a car crash, suffers from malaria, and is laid low by repeated bouts of viral hepatitis, contracted from the dirty needle of the dentist who treated his teeth. Run ins with African bureaucracy are even more painful.

In short, everything that makes Third World travel both misery and high comedy, usually at the same time. Barley captures it all in an understated style, seeing the absurdity in his own misfortunes and getting on with his task.

The Innocent Anthropologist is laugh out loud funny. It also smuggles in a surprising amount of ethnography. I was surprised how much I knew about Dowayo customs, kinship systems and rain chief magic by the end of it.

The author’s descriptions of fieldwork-hardened professors in the anthropology department also brought back memories of my own teachers, and how every story seemed to begin with, “Well….when I was in Iglooooo-lik….” It was even more unfortunate that my professor, JP, had a distinctive lisp which rendered normally challenging Inuit words almost completely unpronounceable.

But reading Barley’s account and thinking of my old professor made me realize how life-shaping JP’s journey had been. I think he’d only been to that one place, entirely by chance, because he had chosen it for his fieldwork. But it had shaped him in fundamental ways, and he would forever be tied to those people and that landscape.

Travel’s like that, isn’t it? An arbitrary choice of destination opens us up to new opportunities, and connects us forever with people we’d never heard of before we set out. Like it or not, that place imprints itself permanently on one’s life.

Like Barley, you might spend your time dreaming of escape, planning elaborate meals and thinking about how nice it’ll be to sleep in a comfortable bed rather than on an earth floor in a leaking hut. And those first few weeks back home pass like a dream.

And then, like Barley, you’ll catch yourself at work, unconsciously planning your next trip back  to the place you’d been so anxious to escape, because there are still questions to answer, and because your own Cameroon has gotten under your skin.

Pick up your copy of The Innocent Anthropologist from Eland Books today. You will thoroughly enjoy it.

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About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

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