The Innocent Anthropologist

photo4As Catherine and I were walking back to her place after the morning prayer the day of the Fête de Mouton, we ran into two Canadian VSO volunteers. I hadn’t met them before, but Catherine knew them, since they all work in Garoua and even live on the same street.

Introductions were made all around, and as soon as I mentioned where I lived and worked, Odette, the French Canadian volunteer, mentioned a book she had once read called The Innocent Anthropologist. It takes place, in large part, at my post. Who knew?

The next night the other volunteer I had just met, Miriam, was over at the Peace Corps office for a shared dinner of stir-fried vegetables in peanut sauce. As we all sat down to eat in the computer room, she commented on how many books we had. Those are just the technical manuals, we replied. You should go look in the library.

All of the Peace Corps transit houses and offices have libraries made up principally of books left behind by former volunteers. In Ngaoundéré it is just a few measly shelves, and the Yaoundé case library is much bigger, but pretty picked over, considering that all of the Volunteers in Cameroon pass through there at one time or another. I have heard that the Maroua library used to be the best, but no one seems to know what happened to all those books when that case closed with the rest of the Far North region. The Garoua library takes up most of the office’s foyer with several shelving units, often stacked two books deep and with even more volumess resting on top. It’s not terribly organized, but it is a boon to the Peace Corps Volunteer who often finds herself with rather more free time than she is used to in America and in a country with no culture of reading.

So Catherine led Miriam off to see the library, and when they returned Miriam had found five books to borrow, and Catherine handed me one slim volume: The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes from a Mud Hut by Nigel Barley. I flipped it open and found a map of my post and its immediate surroundings as they were at least 30 years ago. I brought it back to post with me.

The book describes an Englishman’s first experience with anthropological field work in, as it happens, the mountains surrounding my post. It’s witty and tries not to leave out the less glamorous aspects of the work. The book was first published in 1983, so, while it makes no reference to the dates of the actual fieldwork, it certainly predates the modern conveniences of cell phones and semi-reliable electricity in my town, but as I read I still found myself relating to a lot of the author’s feelings and experiences, especially when it came to things like Cameroonian bureaucracy, customer service, and reasonable expectations of things working (or not) as promised.

As I read through the short book, I thought that my enjoyment might be mostly due to the confirmation of my own experiences (which I’ll admit is satisfying), but after I finished I also turned to the internet to learn more (namely when the fieldwork actually happened – alas, I could not find a date). The Amazon page for the book, however, also boasts several glowing reviews, including one from a user who speculates that “He may have embellished his story in places, but he probably didn’t need to.” After having lived here for a year, however, everything that happens in the book seems entirely plausible.

I was certainly grateful for the recommendation, so I thought I’d mention that if anyone out there wants to know more about the area I live in, anthropology, or the experience of being a foreigner in Cameroon it’s worth picking up. It’s only 190 pages, which is nothing compared to the George R.R. Martin books I’ve been reading lately, and entertaining the whole way through.

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