After the Ancestors: An Anthropologist’s Story, by Andrew Beatty

The tales of a society on the margins and a researcher’s struggle to integrate into that society make for a readable account about real people, says Joy Hendry

April 30, 2015

“Orahua”, Andrew Beatty writes, “was still its own place, however much outsiders might see it as marginal to somewhere else. And proof of this was that it had a proper chief, not just a government-appointed head – a man who had ruled for thirty years and who descended from a line of chiefs.”

 

Of course, anywhere that forms the focus of a story must perforce be the centre of a world, whether outsiders see it as marginal or otherwise. Beatty’s book interweaves two compelling stories about this world. One is about the people of Orahua, a settlement inaccessible by motorised transport in the interior of an island of Indonesia, where even some of the inhabitants describe themselves as marginal to the new Christian world that aims to displace the ancestral legacy that preceded it. The chief of the community is not a person whose character takes up a lot of this story, but his position does, as do the details of his impending death and the dispute over his succession, as an early reference to Shakespeare portends. The second story is about the work of an anthropologist and his wife, always marginal, however hard they try to integrate into the lives of the people with whom they live and work. Nevertheless, Beatty has done an excellent job of leading readers into the heart of both of these stories.

To take the second story first: choosing the location and making arrangements for accommodation and for the provision of food are always vital preliminaries to the fieldwork later to be recounted, and often essential to its understanding. Here, none of it is skipped; nor is Beatty’s tale of the hard and often embarrassing acquisition of the local language, spoken and unspoken (and in this case, a lot is unspoken, actually needs to be unspoken). He learns to listen and to appear to take little interest, rather than ask too many questions. He has written elsewhere of the currency of pigs – “live…loaned at interest for breeding…banked in reclaimable contributions to others’ feasts”, “stabbed” and divided up for consumption – but here we share his slow and sometimes very painful learning of the rules. The place of Mercedes, his wife, takes up less space than I, as a female reader, would have liked, but this is a very personal story.

As for the people of Orahua, the book’s cast of characters are listed by name, age and relationships at the outset, and the drama of their engagements unfolds relentlessly alongside the account of Beatty’s gradual insinuation into (and sometimes out of) their lives. We visit their homes, hear how they eat, share and interminably chew betel nut, and learn of their daily lives. We are told of their distinct histories, characters and intellectual prowess, their relationships to each other and their attitudes to the church brought into their community by outsiders who make much less effort to fit in than Beatty does. We also learn how the ancestral presence still influences their ways, especially when the book draws (eventually) towards the dramatic climax intimated on the cover, but that seems to take for ever to occur. This is a good story about real people, well told if perhaps a little too long – but then, so is good anthropological fieldwork, I suppose.

Joy Hendry is professor emerita of anthropology, Oxford Brookes University. She is preparing a third edition of her book, Sharing Our Worlds: An Introduction to Social Anthropology.

After the Ancestors: An Anthropologist’s Story

By Andrew Beatty
Cambridge University Press, 372pp, £50.00 and £18.99
ISBN 9781107094789, 7477407 and 9781316237380 (e-book)
Published 16 April 2015

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