Fieldwork has long been seen as the sine qua non of anthropological research. Within academic circles it is often regarded as the rite of passage necessary to make the transition from student to tutor. It is perhaps understandable then, as one of the new generation of anthropologists who had been less keen to dirty their hands and instead based their doctoral dissertations on library research, that Nigel Barley felt a certain curiosity for this time-honoured practice. Resolving to experience the trials and tribulations of fieldwork for himself, he eventually obtained funding to do fieldwork with the Dowayos, a mountain community in North Cameroon.
Anyone who has lived or travelled in Africa will immediately sympathise with Barley's relation of the frustrations and disappointments associated with bringing European notions of efficiency and organisation to the dark continent. One cannot help but smile at the lamentations of this innocent anthropologist as he tackles with a postal system where mail is routinely delayed or never turns up, a bank that will not let him access his money for five months, and numerous bureaucrats who either ignore him completely or do everything in their power to make life awkward for him. Particularly insightful are his own reflections on how he notices himself becoming more and more 'African' in terms of temperament and obstinacy (a necessary adaption in order to get anything achieved) - which hilariously backfires when he forgets to 're-adapt' shortly after his return to England, chasing a milkman who left unordered milk down the road while shouting and gesticulating at him.
Barley's narration of life with the Dowayos is successful because he makes no attempt to romanticise it - a trait he had noticed in many of his colleagues who had done fieldwork. He presents all of his various vexations with a sort of black humour expressed between gritted teeth, so that we find ourselves laughing at the faux pas he inevitably makes as he struggles with a new language, or at the recurring incidences of Dowayos being sick all over him whenever he gives them a lift in his jeep (since they are highly prone to motion sickness). He is also careful not to make the narrative too self-centred; thus, in the spirit of true anthropological objectivity, most of his attention is focussed on unravelling the meaning behind the cultural practices of the Dowayo, which at first seem inexplicable.
This version of the anthropological monograph - a combination of humorous travel writing with some theoretical approaches - was for me a refreshing alternative to the rather dry outpourings of many academics. It is accessible and at times hilarious, and even manages to develop some anthropological perspectives on cultural patterns and how the anthropologist has to attempt to 'unscramble' them - a fascinating process. Plus it will make you feel relieved to live in a developed country where 'everything works': but perhaps also a little desirous of making similar investigations into unfamiliar and alien worlds, as I was.