2wheels: The Return
Edward Genochio's bicycle expedition from China to England
September 2005 - November 2006
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Interview with an anthropologist
Before attempting to digest this script, readers are advised to (re-)familiarise themselves with Sir Edmund Evans-Pritchard's seminal work on the Nuer, wittily entitled The Nuer, and also with the basic tenets of the theory and practice of anthropology, as outlined in Part I of Cambridge University's catchily-named archaeological and anthropological tripos, and in particular with the concepts of the anthropological method (‘participant observation'), fieldwork and kinship. They should also have some notion of who or what the Dinka are.
Note on the recording: This priceless piece of film - believed to be the only television interview that reclusive and publicity-shy Evans-Pritchard ever gave - was rediscovered in the BBC film archive last year. The interview took place at the BBC's Pebble Mill studios in 1964, only months after Evans-Pritchard's death. It is transcribed here for the first time. The interviewer's name is not known.
Interviewer: I'm talking tonight to [peering at his cue card] Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man, errr, [more quizzical peering] the first man to climb a mountain without ever resting. Is that not right, Sir Edmund?
Evans-Pritchard: Well, yes and no –
Interviewer: Yes and no?
E-P: Yes, he was, indeed, the first man to climb Mount Everest . But no, I am not he.
Interviewer: Not he?
E-P: No, I'm Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard, anthropologist don't you know. Been out in Africa , studying the natives.
Interviewer: Oh, I see. Well. It would appear that I am not at all talking tonight to Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to have climbed a mountain without ever resting, but rather, I am in fact talking tonight to Sir Edmund Evans-Pritchard, a man of whom I have never heard, and about whom I know absolutely nothing. However! Let us not be disheartened! What better opportunity to find out about this mysterious man?
E-P: What better opportunity indeed?
Interviewer: Indeed, what better opportunity?
E-P: Seize it!
Interviewer: I certainly shall. So tell me, Sir Edmund – may I call you Sir Edmund?
E-P: I'd rather you didn't. My mother always used to call me Sir Edmund. Which was odd, because I hadn't been knighted at the time. And, in any case, my name is Edward, not Edmund. But if you must.
Interviewer: Good. So tell me, Sir Edmund, what is it in fact that you do? That is, if you actually do anything.
E-P: Well, I'm well into my retirement now of course, but in my day I was one of the world's foremost anthropologists.
Interviewer: Foremost, eh? Who were the other three?
E-P: No, no, you misunderstand me. I mean foremost as in leading. I was an anthropologist, don't you know, and, as an anthropologist, it was my duty to practise what we anthropologists call the anthropological method.
Interviewer: The anthropological method, eh, oh yes I quite agree. I'm quite against all these modern forms of birth control.
E-P: No, by the anthropological method, I mean the method by which one practises anthropology. You see, while a lot of my colleagues were very interested in anthropological theory, I myself was always very keen on fieldwork. I felt that fieldwork was terrifically important.
Interviewer: Ah yes, I quite agree with you there, far too many stuffy old professors sitting up there in their ivory towers, never doing an honest day's hard work. Send them out into the fields, that's what I say, yes, a year or two digging potatoes, hoeing, that sort of thing, should soon sort them out. I'm right up there alongside Chairman Mao and Pol Pot on this one. Oh yes, a spot of field work is just what these people need.
E-P: No no, I don't think you quite understand me – by fieldwork I mean in the sense of the application of the anthropological method.
Interviewer: I see. And what method, exactly, is that?
E-P: The method by which one practises anthropology is known by anthropologists as ‘participant observation'.
Interviewer: I am not sure if that is a statement of the obvious or an intellectual advance.
E-P: Frankly, old bean, many academics graze in lush pastures for life by making it jolly difficult to tell the difference. But to return to our onions, the anthropological method is based very much on ‘participant observation'.
Interviewer: Do go on.
E-P: I will. This participant observation involves, in essence, two things.
Interviewer: And what might they be?
E-P: Firstly: participation. And secondly – oh, damn, I always forget the second element of participant observation, now what is it? I should know it by heart, I've been doing it for over 70 years. It will come to me. Hang on. Oh yes. Observation. That is the second element – indeed, one of the most crucial elements – of participant observation. The first, of course, was participation. Participation, and observation. One participates, and one observes. Terribly simple, really, once you get the hang of it.
Interviewer: And where is it that you, as anthropologists, do this participating and observing?
E-P: Oh well, one can in fact do this participating and observing almost anywhere, but I decided that a frightfully good place to go and participate –
Interviewer: And to observe?
E-P: Yes, indeed, and to observe – a frightfully good place to go would be Africa .
Interviewer: And why Africa in particular?
E-P: Africa is a particularly good place in which to participate – and to observe – on account of the large number of natives who live there. Here at home, you see, natives are rather thin on the ground. One really is far better off participating and observing with natives. You try going up and participating and observing with some chappie at his club in London , and chances are he won't take kindly to it. But natives, natives are much more amenable to this sort of thing.
E-P: Well, of course, there are exceptions, several of my colleagues have on occasion been killed and indeed eaten by their own natives – an occupational hazard I'm afraid for us anthropologists – but by and large it is with natives that one participates andd observes.
Interviewer: Now tell me, Sir Edmund, how do you, as an anthropologist, recognise a native?
E-P: Now that's actually very easy, once you get the hang of it. One of the first things they taught us at anthropology school in fact. A native is easily recognised because, essentially, he lives in a hut. If he lives in a hut then, chances are, the man's a native.
Interviewer: I see. So, off you went to Africa , looked for some natives and you participated – err – and you observed. Is that right?
E-P: Spot on .
Interviewer: And, if one may ask, with whom precisely did you participate? Whom did you observe?
E-P: Ah! I observed – and indeed participated with – the Nuer.
Interviewer: Ah, the Nuer!
E-P: Ah, you knew of them?
Interviewer: No, never heard of them. So, you turned up in Africa , knocked on the door of the nearest hut, and said “Hello you must be a native - a Nuer at a guess, I'm Evans-Pritchard, I'm here to participate and to observe, let's get down to business, what ho!”?
E-P: Well, essentially, yes, that was the general scheme. At first though, things did not go entirely to plan. I knocked on the door of the nearest hut and said to the chappie, as per script, “Hello you must be Nuer”.
Interviewer: And what did the chappie say?
E-P: “You must be joking”.
Interviewer: No, not at all. I would really like to know. What did he say?
E-P: Yes. No. That's what he said. He said, "You must be joking. We're not Nuer we're Dinka". I have to say that rather caught me off guard. There I was, you see, wandering along the banks of the Nile and I'm dashed if I couldn't find a single Nuer.
Interviewer: Not a single Nuer?
E-P: No, not a single Nuer. The Nuer were, in fact, nu-er to be seen.
Interviewer: What a ghastly thing!
E-P: Yes, a ghastly thing indeed. Terribly disconcerting, expecting Nuer and getting Dinka. An anthropologist's worst nightmare.
Interviewer: Yes I suppose it would be rather, expecting a Nuer and getting a Dinka. What a mistake-a to make-a. As I believe our Italian friends are wont to say.
E-P: Rather worse than that, as it turned out. You see, at the time the Nuer were the sworn eternal enemy of the Dinka. And vice-versa.
Interviewer: And verse-visa?
E-P: Absolutely. Calling a Dinka a Nuer, or for that matter a Nuer a Dinka, was at the time just about the worst social faux-pas it was possible to make in all of East Africa. Didn't go down well at all. Mistakes like that can land an anthropologist in hot water.
Interviewer: Very nasty business. And so how were you received by these Dinka in whose midst you found yourself?
E-P: I think the reception that I received from these Dinka in whose midst I found myself can best be described as frosty. It was a very frosty reception. Turned out that I'd landed on the wrong side of the Nile . The river Nile, you know. In Africa . “Dinka to the left, Nuer to the right.” That's the first law of tribe-spotting that any Old Africa Hand will happily tell you. Trouble was, I didn't realise that it applies only if you're coming up the river backwards, as one would when sculling. I made the mistake of coming upriver by motor-launch, facing forwards, and therein lay the origin of my misfortune.
Interviewer: Well, your presence here today happily suggests that you were able to extricate yourself from this rather tight spot. How did it happen?
E-P: Well, as luck would have it, a few days later the chief Dinka chappie announced that what they call a tribal re-alignment had taken place. Which basically meant that the Nuer and the Dinka, as they do every so often, agreed to forget that they had until that very afternoon been sworn eternal enemies. And thereafter agree to be sworn eternal best of friends.
Interviewer: Until the next tribal re-alignment?
Interviewer: Hmmm, clever of dem to dinka dat.
E-P: Yes, it was rather. So the Dinka happily led me off to meet the Nuer. And there it all began.
Interviewer: Er, what all began?
E-P: The participation.
Interviewer: Oh, I see. The participation. And the observation?
E-P: Yes, of course. The observation. The participation and the observation.
Interviewer: Tell me, Sir Edmund, what was the first thing you actually participated in? Anthropologically-speaking?
E-P: Ah well, that's rather interesting. Ironically enough, the first thing I actually participated in, anthropologically speaking, was a spot of observation.
Interviewer: You participated in observation? Sounds very complicated. Is that within the rules of the method, the, errr, anthropological method?
E-P: No, not all. Very much counter to the spirit of the game, at any rate. Not cricket at all. Rather like having to bowl and keep wicket at the same time. You see, it was like this. After I had been delivered by the Dinka to the Nuer, they all sat around observing me. About 2000 Nuer, all observing me. And I, sat there, in the middle, observing them back. This went on for some time. Rather outnumbered, I was, but I like to think that I gave as good as I got, in the observation department.
Interviewer: I dare say. But it does rather sound, and I hope you won't mind me saying this, Sir Edmund, but it does rather sound as though you had reached something of an impasse.
E-P: Well yes indeed, it was a bit awkward. After two or three days of them sitting there observing me, I said, “Look here chaps, I think you've got rather the wrong end of the stick here, I'm an anthropologist, I'm here to observe, and to participate. But you, as the natives, as the subjects of my observation and participation, you must carry on as normal, take no notice of me, just carry on being Nuer in the ordinary way”. But the Nuer, they said to me, “Look here, Sir Edmund, that's all very well, but as Nuer the first thing that we do when a stranger shows up is that we sit down and observe him for a good while, you know, check the fellow out a bit”. Well of course I said that that was all very well in general, but you must make an exception in the case of an anthropologist. But the Nuer wouldn't hear of any exceptions, so I asked them how long this observing might go on for, and they said anything up to a few months, depending on how interesting the chap looked. They kept mentioning some fellow Heisenberg too. Very odd business.
Interviewer: Very odd. And how long did all this observing actually go on for, in your case?
E-P: About a year and a half.
Interviewer: As long as that?
E-P: Well, closer to eighteen months, actually.
Interviewer: I see. And then?
E-P: And then I was able to get down to the serious business.
Interviewer: Of participating?
E-P: Of course.
Interviewer: And observing?
E-P: Naturally. Do you know, one of the most interesting things about the Nuer is their kinship structures?
Interviewer: Is it really?
E-P: Yes, it is. But before I explain why, I must first digress. Would you mind?
Interviewer: Not at all.
E-P: Jolly good. A Nuer fellow fell into the river one day, friends tried to haul him out but he wouldn't be hauled, very stubborn chap, kept insisting that he was comfortably in bed at home. Of course that was nonsense, it was plain for all to see that he was in imminent danger of being devoured by crocodiles, flapping about in the middle of the longest river in north-east Africa . Psychologist said afterwards he was in de-nile. But I digress….
Interviewer: That's quite alright. You were about to tell us why one of the most interesting things about the Nuer is their kinship structures.
E-P: Oh yes. Now, one of the most interesting things about the Nuer is, unquestionably, their kinship structures. Of course, the Nuer, like everybody else, make up their kinship structures as they go along, as seems most convenient at the time.
Interviewer: Like the Royal Family?
E-P: Very much like the Royal Family. But that is no good for an anthropologist, of course, an anthropologist needs to see a proper kinship structure. And so, after many years of hard work I have been able to devise for the Nuer, for their benefit, a schematic diagram of their kinship structures. I've brought along a copy, here it is.
[E-P brings out complicated spider-web family tree covered with lines inter-connecting with circles, triangles, and stylised quadrupeds.]
Interviewer: I see, that's terribly interesting, and what in fact does that mean?
E-P: Well, essentially, it means that everybody is related to everyone else.
Interviewer: And vice versa?
E-P: Very likely also vice versa. That will be the subject of future research. But at this point my schematic kinship diagram allows us to state that, whether by blood, by marriage, or by shared ownership of a cow, everyone is related to everyone else. And if they are not, they pretend that they are. It also shows beyond all doubt that the Nuer and the Dinka are in fact one and the same people. However, according to Nuer culture Nuer should not fight against other Nuer, so to get around that one, when one group of Nuer want to fight another group of Nuer, they first have to call them Dinka.
Interviewer: I see. But wouldn't that also cause problems, if the two groups of Nuer both decide to call each other Dinka? Wouldn't that then lead to Dinka fighting Dinka?
E-P: Well yes, it would, but they avoid that calamity by holding a joint council of war, at which they agree which group will, for the purposes of the forthcoming fight, be Dinka, and which will be Nuer.
Interviewer: And once that's decided, they can get on with fighting each other?
E-P: Exactly. Once they've decided who should be Dinka, they can get on with the serious business of fighting each other. And when they've finished fighting, they can all be Nuer again.
Interviewer: Astonishing. What other bomb-shells can you drop to shatter our naïve illusions about tribal life on the upper Nile ?
E-P: Do you know that by my calculations, as many as half of all Nuer are not Nuer at all?
Interviewer: Not Nuer at all?
E-P: No, not Nuer at all. They're Nuer-esses. Lady Nuer.
Interviewer: Good heavens.
Interviewer: And did you observe, or indeed participate with, these Nueresses as well?
E-P: Well no, not really, I had been sent out there, you see, to observe and to participate with the Nuer, so I felt that any observation of and participation with the Nueresses would be rather beyond the scope of my remit.
Interviewer: Weren't you tempted to try?
E-P: Well, yes, there was one occasion. I saw one Nueress with whom I would have liked to do a little participating, but I checked first with a fellow who was standing nearby and asked whether he knew-er. When he replied that he knew-er very well and that the Nueress in question was in fact his good lady wife, I deemed it prudent to confine myself to occasional observation only.
Interviewer: Just as well that prudence was your guide.
E-P: No, no. The woman's name was Ikiwarabamba. My guide was a gloomy little fellow called Reginald. Maudlin would be the word for him.
Interviewer: I suppose so. Now, returning to the Nuer themselves, I imagine that, what with living along the banks of the Nile and so forth, I suppose the Nuer must eat rather a lot of fish, with perhaps just a smidgen of millet and barley grown on the side?
E-P: Ah! Schoolboy error! The Nuer in fact grow far more millet and barley than is commonly supposed.
Interviewer: Good lord! Do they really? One would never have imagined that! I mean, it's the very last thing that one would expect, that the Nuer grow more millet and barley than is commonly supposed.
E-P: I have to admit, it did come as rather a shock when I first made this rather startling discovery, that the Nuer grow far more millet and barley than is commonly supposed.
Interviewer: I can well imagine.
E-P: Even more shocking would be to learn that they eat yams.
Interviewer: Good God. Yams. Do they really?
E-P: No, the Nuer do not eat yams. Not at all. It is strictly forbidden for the Nuer to eat yams. Completely taboo. You see, the Nuer believe that if they eat a yam, they will come back as a Dinka. That is why it would be so shocking to learn that the Nuer eat yams.
Interviewer: But they don't?
E-P: No, they never do. Never touch the beastly things.
Interviewer: Well that is very much as one would expect, I'm bound to say. Well, Sir Edmund, thank you so very much indeed for sharing with us so many delightful insights into the anthropological antics of the Nuer.
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