Take me to your leader

June 16, 1995

Aisling Irwin and Olga Wojtas journey to the heart of anthropology. Not unusually, the phone rings in anthropologist Nigel Barley's comfortable office, at the Museum of Mankind in affluent central London.

Most unusually, the caller is ringing from deepest Cameroon: it is a member of the Dowayo people, whom Barley last saw in a remote mud hut village on his first-ever anthropology field trip. The Dowayo man is phoning to complain to Barley about a passage he wrote in his book when he returned from his trip. "I told you that in confidence," he says.

The lesson: never assume the people you write about will not see your articles. But this experience is nearer the end of the anthropological learning curve. For the novice, there are more dramatic lessons- they come from the mistakes made as they choose the people on whom they are going to bestow themselves and head off to the other side of the world, leaving their fellow postgraduates, from philosophers to physicists, wondering how a green anthropologist talks him or herself into a year's free board in some unknown village . . . and what he or she does all day when they get there?

The first step for the new anthropologist is to decide where to go: the first myth to explode is that this choice is always a result of honed academic expertise, says Barley, whose first trip also yielded a book entitled The Innocent Anthropologist in which he put all the tales that were not appropriate for his formal monograph. "For me it was a largely random process," he says. War and invasions had sliced preferred destinations from the top of his list and so he opted for the Dowayos.

For Edward Schieffelin it was a question of avoiding the rabble. As a social anthropology postgraduate at the University of Chicago, he decided to investigate the original religious and ceremonial structures of Papua New Guinea. He was told that the coast had been Europeanised, while the highlands contained as many anthropologists as New Guineans, so he headed for the middle, with its lonely marking on the map: "topography unknown".

Myth number two is that once the destination is chosen, the young anthropologist slings a few possessions into a rucksack and is soon waving goodbye to mum from the next flight out of Heathrow. For a start, the anthropologist requires a field permit from the chosen country. This is not easy to obtain. "The reputation of anthropologists among third-world countries stinks," says Barley. "The African governments find it suspicious that you should be going off with those of their people whom they see as the most primitive. Maybe there are oil reserves on their territory? They suspect anthropologists to be trouble-makers, stirring up the natives."

Barley got his permit, and numerous other essential papers, mainly by trotting between offices in Cameroon for days on end.

Once the nets of officialdom have been wriggled through, the anthropologist has no more excuses for prevarication: it is time to travel out of town to that lucky village and ask its inhabitants for a bed for the year.

There are several ways of making these sensitive introductions. Dr Schieffelin, now reader in social anthropology at University College London, headed for the patrol officer at an Australian colonial government station, the last outpost before middle Papua New Guinea. The patrol officer said a group of New Guineans would lead him into the forest. "They're cannibals, but I don't think they're eating people any more. We've seen no evidence for the past six years."

Schieffelin insists that he was reassured by this, reasoning that the officer would not want the responsibility of having sent him into a dangerous situation. And he says he was not apprehensive about introducing himself to an unknown community: "I knew if I gave plenty of gifts I would be all right."

Neil Thin, now a social anthropology lecturer at Edinburgh University, versed himself in Tamil and travelled to an isolated group of forest dwellers in southern India for his first field trip. He says he could not imagine what they would say when he ventured that he wanted to stay with them for a year. "But it was almost as if they had been waiting all their lives for an anthropologist. They shrugged their shoulders and said: "Here's your hut," and children were press ganged into making a table for me," he said. "I'm sure they were very very puzzled, but out of politeness, nobody registered any surprise or queried my existence for the first month or so."

When Barley arrived he made use of the old truth that wherever an anthropologist goes a missionary is sure to have gone before him. He stayed with the missionaries at first and then introduced himself to the villagers with the words he had been fantasising about using for months: "Take me to your leader."

Reactions to his arrival were mixed. A local chief disliked him because his efforts to ban Barley's visit had been overruled by the local governor. In contrast, a woman "threw herself at my feet and cried: 'God has heard our voice'". Many villagers assumed he was a Christian because he stayed with the missionaries; but the missionaries disliked him because it was obvious to them that "I was a desolate sinner"; later on, the Pagans would realise this and seek him as a protagonist for their own religion.

For Alan Barnard, lecturer in anthropology at Edinburgh University, who spent his first trip with the Nharo of the Kalahari, introductions were smoother. He turned up in the district capital, met the medical team, travelled with the medics to a farmer who had bushmen living on his land and started work with the bushmen.

It is also a myth that the young anthropologist is equipped for what comes next by having been hand-picked for qualities such as resilience and then highly trained in anthropological skills. In fact, having inserted themselves into a village, first-timers often wonder what on earth to do next. Two things happen: the adrenalin seeps away and any training is immediately forgotten. Barley says that training is normally out of date. Instead, there are three tips worth remembering, he says: "Remember you're an outsider; smile a lot; pat children on the head." For Barley, the adrenalin was supplanted by terrible loneliness. "I arrived at the beginning of the rainy season. I was wet; I was cold; I was ill quite a lot." For weeks, alone in his hut, the only anthropology possible was a study of himself.

Eventually the rains stopped and he emerged, wondering as much as the locals were what he was meant to be doing. At length he decided: "As long as I was talking to people, living with them, making mistakes - then that's anthropology."

Thin's first day was less lonely. Determined to be self-sufficient, he bought a cooking pot. But the forest dwellers were concerned that he should also have a clean hut, and one helpfully ran off with the new pot, returning it full of fresh, steaming cow dung to smear on the floor.

The turning point comes for many when they find a go-between, a friend, a fixer: often, says Barley, an enthusiastic, semi-literate boy with a few words of English or French. "The entirety of anthropological literature is filtered through the eyes of semi-literate young boys," says Barley. They choose what you see and what is explained. It is through them that the anthropology starts to happen.

Schieffelin found his community a little too communal. All 60 villagers lived in a large house, and although he had his own small house built, this did not guarantee privacy. "It's okay to wander into your friend's house at any time of the day or night. They would come in when I was brushing my teeth and look at me with their mouths hanging open as I foamed. But I didn't want to throw people out because they wouldn't understand. You find there are many little annoyances which are really a matter of cultural difference rather than ill will."

So what drives these people, who return, half-dead, from a first trip, to instantly start planning the second? Barley says the crucial talent is a knack of changing mental gear - into a setting which seems to dangle somewhere between neutral and reverse. It is a state of mind which you would never reveal to your friends back home, he says.

"There's a thing called fieldwork gear. It's a state of suspended animation, in which you are prepared to sit for days doing nothing. You never get impatient, you're terribly sweet-natured. They can call you a fool, a crook . . . in the end they class you as a totally harmless idiot." You are tolerated . . . and then you can get on with your anthropology.

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