Nigel Barley, who was born in 1947, worked for many years at the British Museum in London (in the Department of Ethnography). He took his doctorate in social anthropology. So this man should know something about the subject of anthropology. So why does he consider himself an innocent anthropologist? After all he published his ‘Symbolic structures. An exploration of the culture of the Dowayos’  in 1983. So, in a way he is not so innocent.

Nigel Barley
Nigel Barley

In the same year he published his ‘The innocent anthropologist’. You could call it a companion volume to his major book. In this book he writes about all these things that you do not find in anthropological studies about weird subjects, like kinship relationships, funeral rites etc.


What can you expect behind the stages a serious anthropological work? How do you get money for your project? The intricasies of getting a permission to do your studies. How do you cope with a completely new language? How do you cope with a culture that is so alien to your own culture?


Nigel sets off to Cameroon, takes a train heading to the north and he arrives at a protestant missionstation. In his book he notes his encounters with protestant and roman catholic missionaries. And he is generally positive about them! And he wonders how he could have coped with his research and his stay in Cameroon, in that isolated area, without them!


One of the issues he has to deal with is a good relationship with the local government powers. Eventhough he has all the right papers, there are always people who like to add more stamps and signatures.


Another mountain to climb is the right choice of an assistant who can show him to the right people, who speaks the local language (and the one of Nigel), who is able to cope with a stranger doing strange things (just like Nigel has to cope with him). The assistent is young (17 years) and cannot partake in all discussions due to his age.


A complication he discovers is that people consider whites to be returned spirits of magicians. He studies on a daily basis the local tonal language. Nigel writes about his illnesses, his friendships with other non-locals. How he gets involved in the local traditional judiciary system concerning the building of his house and his vegetableplot.


During his time with the Dowayo he tries to find the interconnectedness of the many rituals and activities he observes, rainfall, circumcision, fertility of the crops.


I thoroughly enjoyed this book.


Nigel Barley – The innocent anthropologist: notes from a mud hut – London 1983  

the innocent anthropologist

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I enjoy reading about Africa. New books. Old books. By African writers. By non-African writers. Novel. History. Travel. Biographies. Autobiographies. Politics. Colonialism. Poetry.

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