4 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

There comes a point in every anthropologist’s career when they have to stop looking at the academic papers or staring out the window and actually head out into the wide world. For Nigel Barley, a colleague posed the question, Why not go on fieldwork? He wasn’t sure if it was one of the perks of the job or a necessary evil like national service. Speaking to others in the department he would hear tales filtered through rose-tinted spectacles where the full horror of events in the field are tempered by time and probably alcohol…

But where to go? Africa was mentioned, and the island of Fernando Po seemed appealing, but the political situation there was deteriorating to say the least and getting shot at wasn’t on his list of things to do, so someone else suggested North Cameroon. A tribe there called the Dowayo, ticked lots of the boxes, strange coming of age rituals, pagan rituals, skull festivals and mummies. He began the task of doing more research and securing research funding. Barley needed to be stabbed by various medical professionals and two years after he started, he was on a plane to Africa.

On arrival in Cameroon, he had underestimated just how difficult it would be to get from the airport to the village. Forms were needed, lots of forms as well as being ‘aided’ by the officials who were more interested in reading the paper while the recent arrival slowly lost a large proportion of his wallet. Finally allowed entry to the country, he set about getting the provisions, an assistant and other items that he needed and headed off to the village. What he hoped would be a subtle entrance though, wasn’t when the whole village turned out to greet him.

There were lots of things that struck him immediately. Having been used to a more leisurely time of starting work in the UK, finding that the village was up and moving around 5.30 in the morning was a bit of a shock. And there was the language; he could not speak a word to begin with and as it was a tonal language he was going to struggle to do so too. But every so slowly he manages to master some of the words and amazed them by writing them down. The village slowly accepted him, almost to the point where he became an honorary resident. He started to understand more about the people and their way of doing things. Their rituals were quite unusual and one particular ceremony that made me wince quite a lot just reading it.

It is a really enjoyable book about a people that took Barley to heart as much as he did with them. He writes with a sharp wit and genuine warmth. One of the things that he speculates about is how the very act of observing the people you are there to study have an impact on the way they behave and hoehowe anthropologist can never be a passive observer. There are funny moments throughout the book, in particular, the accounts with the officials that he is dealing with and the exasperation at the speed of events in the constant battles against bureaucracy. Can highly recommend this.

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