Book Review: The Innocent Anthropologist – Notes from a Mud Hut by Nigel Barley

The Innocent Anthropologist - Notes from a Mud Hut by Nigel Barley

The Innocent Anthropologist – Notes from a Mud Hut by Nigel Barley

This book was sent to me as a review copy.

The Innocent Anthropologist is a cultural dive into the deep end.

Written in the early 1980s by anthropologist Nigel Barley, it describes the author’s first attempt at fieldwork in Africa. The result, built around us and others, is shocking and funny, and bashed about with the perils of first hand observation.

At the time of this adventure the willowy, thoroughly educated Nigel Barley, is nearing middle-age. His veins are rippled with learning from Cambridge, Oxford and the British Museum…he is ready for anything.

The subject he chooses for his fieldwork are the Dowayo of Northern Cameroon. What could possibly go wrong?

I, born and raised in Africa, settle down happily to find out.

The two worlds tangle long before they even meet. The Embassy of Cameroon in London is the first sceptical, depleting gateway.

I felt strangely tired with a lingering sense of humiliation and disbelief. It was a feeling I was to grow to know well.”

Chapter Two, “Be Prepared”, bumps us through arrival, squashed up against Africa’s windscreen like bugs on a breeze.

But, we do get there, with our hero in one piece and ready for anything.

“I fondly pictured myself heading out into the bush the next morning, the air clean and fresh, to begin from scratch a ruthlessly profound analysis of the culture of my very own primitive people.”

Nothing gets easier. Rather “…’bleeding chunks’ of raw reality…” fill the pages as the anthropologist rushes onwards, aware by now that his approach might be out of step with his ‘people’.

“I had defied the local gods with my intemperate urge to do something. I would soon be cut down to size.”

There is also his eye-watering quest to acquaint himself and academia with the finer points of Dowayo circumcision, which he tells us curtly: “…is very severe, the entire penis being peeled for its whole length.”

Thankfully, the book’s focus is on the hunt for this ceremony rather than the cutting itself. Chapter by chapter we search the mountains alongside the anthropologist and his assistant, working our way through a cast of vivid locals and unexpected hazards.

“It is a bad Western habit to assume that because a road goes into a corner, it will continue around the other side.”

Other challenges include the predictable, domestic dangers of malaria, millet, and “intense boredom, loneliness, and mental and physical disintegration”.

In short there’s a chance of a complete ‘seize up’ at every stage, but somehow Nigel Barley manages to reach the end alive.

The final chapters rattle him home to London, eighteen months older and exhausted. There is no rosy glow to shake off, only a bad case of vomiting and diarrhoea, and a stretch of readjustment to do – even the luggage has changed: “Its shape had been completely transformed.”

Unsurprising really. This is quite a journey through an intense way of looking…not many books give life such a meaningful, entertaining windscreen polish.

I loved this book – an easy, startling read that left me smiling and in wonder…whilst its poor author: “lost forty pounds and was scorched a dark brown and acquired vivid yellow eyeballs.”

If you love Africa or anthropology, or even English academics, I hope this book will find its way on to your bookshelf.

My thanks to Eland for sending this to me as a review copy.

The Innocent Anthropologist – Notes from a Mud Hut by Nigel Barley
Published by Eland Publishing Limited
61 Exmouth Market, London, EC1R 4QL
ISBN 978-1-906011-50-5
UK price £12.99

Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2019

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