Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Innocent Anthropologist by Nigel Barley

The Innocent Anthropologist is an entertaining and amusing tale about Nigel Barley’s first experience of fieldwork when he goes out to West Africa to live with the Dowayo – a little-understood pagan tribe in the mountains of Northern Cameroon. The Dowayo offered various advantages to the enthusiastic young anthropologist – they were remote, had an exciting wealth of skull ceremonies to be chronicled and studied and all his other choices were either ravaged by war or so bound up in time-consuming bureucracy to arrange that it looked like his field trip would never happen.

This is an entertaining, absorbing but easy to read book about an interesting subject-matter. My battered old copy boasts a similarity to Gerald Durrell – and this is true. It is a low-key episodic read, but with a great wry eye for human nature and behaviour at its heart. The opening introduction to the Dowayos reminded me a lot of Durrell. Barley, hoping to make a more subtle entrance to the village, finds he immediately struggles with the age-old problem of the anthropologist – how to study a people without having rather a large impact yourself. He finds that the whole of the village has turned out to see him, that the Chief has kicked his brother-in-law out of his hut so that it can be turned over for the anthropologist’s use and an old woman flings herself to the floor declaring how wonderful it is that he has arrived.

Not exactly the low-key entrance he hoped for.

Barley sets about the first few months trying to learn the language. The Dowayos speak in a tonal language – presenting a huge challenge to an English speaker. Not only this, but as soon as he masters the tones of one speaker – there is the immediate challenge of facing each new speaker with a higher or lower voice. The Dowayos are stunned at his attempts to write down their utterances in phonetic form – not because of his interpretation, but because of the writing itself which they seem to consider to be some sort of magic. Barley describes how the tribe is so remote that if shown a photograph they simply cannot understand it. He reminds us that reading a photograph is something we learn as children, just like any other skill. Photos hold no interest for them, but writing – now that is something exciting.

As his language skills improve, the Dowayos start to consider him to be a useful addition to village life. A source of beer (sometimes) and tobacco (very popular) and “roots” (medicines) along with the occasional ride into the nearest town in his vehicle, Nigel Barley carves out a place for himself and is honoured when he finds he is referred to by the villagers as “our white man”. His whiteness itself is a source of interest, speculation and – for some – considerable distress. He describes a small child bursting into horrified tears at the sight of him and who has to be comforted by adults. He finds out that there is an idea going about that white men are sorcerers who are really black and who the locals believe take off their white skin at night and hang it up like a dressing gown in their hut. This, the Dowayos claim, is the reason for the white man’s peculiar obsession with privacy. Perhaps this is why when Barley arrives at a local bathing place in refuge from the punishing heat one day, he finds a small army of Dowayo men gathered in anticipation.

The Dowayos are unfailingly humorous and engaging. But, just in case we forget that this is a very different way of life, there are those famous skull ceremonies to wrestle with. I cannot begin to describe the complexity and chaoticness of these ceremonies – you really must read the book to get the full flavour. The skulls are of dead ancestors and relations and the ceremonies entail various animals sacrifices and very anarchic-sounding clowning from those specifically ascribed that role. Barley charts a relationship between the fertility of the land, the millet cycle (on which the Dowayos are very dependent) and the ceremony of circumcision that lies right at the heart of their life. The Dowayos – at least at the time of the book’s writing – perform an extreme form of male circumcision where the penis is essentially “peeled” along its length. Thankfully for the squeamish – of which I am definitely one – the book does not go into this process in much more detail than I just described. But it becomes increasingly obvious that all the rituals and ceremonies return again and again to this central ritual. Men who were circumcised together as boys remain in strong, almost filial and constantly joshing relationships with their circumcision group. Those who are uncircumcised are considered almost feminine and not men by the rest of the Dowayos – including Barley himself until he buys himself honorary circumcised status with a large gift of beer to the circumsizer.

Barley is good at capturing the Them looking at Us, as much as the Us looking at Them. Describing how, before he set off from the UK, certain acquaintances were worried about his encountering stereotypical misconceptions – dangers, illness, rogue wildlife and cannibalism, he neatly echoes this with the day he leaves the tribe and is told by the Chief to watch out for the fierce wildlife and cannibalism he has heard goes on in the UK.

Barley writes about his subject with real affection and humour. But this is as much a tongue-in-cheek examination of the anthropologist and the traditional thinking that goes with that territory. Unlike some rather more romantic anthropologists – he does not try to depict a romantic image of primitive tribes full of natural wisdom and living at one and in harmony with nature. He captures the pragmatism of survival – hilariously describing the Dowayos’ lack of interest in nature and inability to distinguish most of the wildlife species around them. He describes how the introduction of pesticides nearby has promoted a completely new fishing practice. It’s brilliant, he is told as the Dowayos chuck handfuls of pesticides into the local river – it kills everything for miles downstream, they say,  we just have to wait for the fish to float about on the surface.

Where Barley excels is in charting a moment in time, a lovely witty “fish out of water” tale if you like and an affectionate tongue-in-cheek portrait of the foolhardiness of anthropologists and the lengths they go to to collect their precious data. Worms in the foot that need gouging out with a knife (in the absence of of the safety-pin wielding specialists of more sophisticated areas), loosing most of his front teeth (some of which extracted cheerfully as a “cure” when perfectly healthy), numerous bouts of flooring Malaria and an infected jaw were just some of the ailments to befall him and all part of the day job for your average anthropologist.

I feel a certain empathy with the Dowayo tribe – famous for their recalcitrance and for being difficult interviewees – being asked endless questions about the symbolism and reasoning behind their skull ceremonies, for example. Their catch-all reply “The ancestors told us to” might frustrate the curious Barley, but I wonder what I would say faced with some enthusiastic stranger plus notebook quizzing me about the finer details of Trooping the Colour. “It’s traditional” I might say or “because they did it in the past”. Not so different to “because the ancestors told us to” really.

I am no expert and do not know how the Dowayo have changed in the intervening years or how accurate a picture The Innocent Anthropologist gives us of the Dowayo as they might be today. It is certainly hard to imagine there would be no changes to that remote village society in the intervening 20 years or so. But this book is not a text book. Rather it is an interesting and entertaining Fish Out of Water tale, which invites us to think about how cultures encounter and communicate with each other – and the things that bind us together and others where we just stare at each other completely non-plussed.

In that regard, and as an entertaining and thought-provoking read, I can thoroughly recommend it!


I am having difficulty finding the date of the first edition of this book. has a reprint edition listed from 1986 but another site says 1985. The currrent edition in print and a kindle edition is on the link on the picture at the top of the post  but that is from the early 2000s. Anyone who can point me in the right direction will earn my gratitude and I will duly update this post.


12 comments on “The Innocent Anthropologist by Nigel Barley

  1. Kate
    September 25, 2012

    British Library catalogue says: Originally published: London : British Museum Publications, 1983.

    But Ow! Ohh! Ouch! I’m cringing and my toes are curling just thinking about the circumcision, and I’m a girl … But it sounds amazing, and so much less glutinous-threatening (is that a word?) than the sunset-drenched colours of other white-man-lives-with-primitive-tribe accounts i can think of. Will add to list. But not for husband’s birthday.

  2. Jonathan Pinnock
    September 25, 2012

    Have you read the sequel, “A Plague of Caterpillars”? The story about him taking a pet monkey to the cinema is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read.

  3. Kate
    September 25, 2012

    Is it as good as Gerald Durrell losing control of a box of turtles on the top of a London bus?

  4. Jonathan Pinnock
    September 25, 2012

    Ooh, that sounds fun. Haven’t read that! Which of his books is that from?

  5. sshaver
    September 25, 2012

    It’s true. Writing–they’re right–is magic.

  6. Joe Taylor
    September 25, 2012

    Compelling and accessible review of The Innocent Anthropogist. If you haven’t read Keep the River on Your Right, you might give it a shot. Not all fun, though, as a warning.

  7. Kate
    September 26, 2012

    @ JP: Fillets of Plaice.

  8. jonathanpinnock
    September 26, 2012


  9. rosyb
    September 26, 2012

    Thanks so much everyone! I want to read more. Not all fun I can cope with (I think!). One thing that struck me forcibly that he says in this book is that he never felt sorry for the Dowayos in their lifestyles day to day with what they had, their freedom etc…except for the terrible suffering they endured through illness and the way that so many suffered appalling deaths. Then he felt that they really had a very raw deal in how they suffered – so often unnecessarily. That brought home with a jolt that it’s not all fun at all. Not at all.

  10. Jackie
    September 26, 2012

    This sounds interesting, especially since it doesn’t seem to have the patronizing tone that so many anthropologist take when describing their travels & studies. I have a feeling I’d need to skip some of the graphic stuff, but the adventure & humor sounds intriguing.

  11. Lisa
    September 27, 2012

    Great review, Rosy. Never heard of this before so thanks for flagging it up. If this was published in 1983, it would be really interesting to hear if the author’s opinions or impressions have changed at all in the following years. We all re-evaluate our lives to some extent when we look back, and I wonder if he now feels any differently about that period with the Dowayos. Would be interesting to check out new introductions of later editions (if they exist) is what I think I’m saying. Attitudes towards “otherness” have changed a lot in almost thirty years and likewise for developments in anthropological study and linguistics. #wafflewaffle

  12. HāroonSīdāt
    August 18, 2015

    Reblogged this on hāroonsidāt and commented:
    What I am currently reading…

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This entry was posted on September 25, 2012 by in Uncategorized.



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