Review: A Plague of Caterpillars – A Return to the African Bush by Nigel Barley

A Plague of Caterpillars - A Return to the African Bush by Nigel Barley

A Plague of Caterpillars – A Return to the African Bush by Nigel Barley

This book was sent to me as a review copy.

He is back!

This is the second part of The Innocent Anthropologist’s adventures in the land of the Dowayo in Cameroon.

Nigel Barley is not-so-innocent now but he is still surrounded by confusions and misplaced assumptions. Some are his own but many belong to others, and he exposes them all with such swift, happy ease that it’s pure pleasure to bounce from one to the next.

It’s a cheery style for an insightful portrayal of difference.

One discussion about the supply of fresh water to the Dowayos involves a doctor, some missionaries, the Peace Corps, and the anthropologist. It takes place after dinner in a living room with a rare light bulb, a hungry cat, and a trigger-happy host with an air rifle to deter swooping bats.

Each compressed point of view surfaces through shattered plasterboard to leave the reader wiser, and the anthropologist uneasy:

“Everyone in the house, except myself and the bats, seemed to have had a good time and left in the rosy glow of direct altruism in action.”

But, our hero is not down for long. There is plenty of other activity to keep him busy, including his pursuit of the elusive Dowayo circumcision ceremony.

Time and again he takes us out into the little known to explore the cultural differences between the Dowayo and others. The result is chapters of hopeful, and usually comical, adventure, with some brain-squeezing closeups in between – sharp speed bumps to remind us that this is anthropology…and that Nigel Barley does not look away.

Catching a tardy scorpion they ringed it with blazing straw until it popped and burst to their screams of joy.”

So, one to read or not? If you are an anthropologist or interested in understanding the mesh of life in Africa, the answer is a definite ‘yes’.

If you are a curious but innocent reader, the answer is ‘yes, but hold tight’ for Nigel Barley knows the power of words:

“The ethnography of communication is a matter of some interest to anthropologists, for every culture has rules about what may and may not be said and a way of matching styles to content and context.”

He has written a book that is funny, but also serious and tautly-judged, with parts that may just – to steal an idea from a love letter he quotes – boil your brain and cause you unsteady.

***

A Plague of Caterpillars – A Return to the African Bush by Nigel Barley
Published by Eland Publishing Limited
61 Exmouth Market, London, EC1R 4QL
ISBN 978-1-78060-151-9
UK price £12.99

Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2019

 

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