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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Rough Guide to TV Social Anthropology

I suppose I am a well seasoned traveller, having worked in over 20 countries in Europe, North America, Russia and Central Asia. Now, here I am in West Africa. This is Ghana, which most UK institutions seem to think is an annex of Nigeria and, therefore, a credit card pariah of the world of personal finance. Despite having British bank accounts, if I try to use the cards on the internet that these banks doll out like confetti, I get blocks put on them, immediately. I am suddenly a high risk, scam merchant. The nastiness of it allows me to mouth off my displeasure at these intuitions as I pay for expensive phone calls to them so I can buy and trade in a less virtual way for books on Amazon or whatever.

Working in countries that are foreign to your place of birth brings home certain truths that cannot be gleaned from holidaying, no matter how rucksacked, sandalled and low spending you might be. Travellers, in general, follow the grooves in the vinyl that they have bought into. If young, they tell each other where to go and rarely strike out into environments that The Rough Guide and The Lonely Planet regard as too lonely, dangerous or unpropitious to give them a kick (or a hit). If older, then there is always Michael Palin and assorted other comedians such as Stephen Fry and Paul Merton to provide a route across the world. In fact, their programmes are advertised here in Ghana llike tour guides for the better off. ‘Thousands now walk in their footsteps’, says the bleating advert. no doubt expecting to see the cultural anomalies that attract their rather lame, look-at -those –native- people- doing –silly- things, humour. And lame they are. There is nothing to compare to Ray Mears in the outback or this fellow Bruce Parry who fronts Tribe on the Discovery Channel. I haven’t a soft spot for him because he is occasionally too gigglingly hyper and intent on going native with those he is travelling among, to be authentically a social anthropologist. But he tries. He does what the tribes do and it makes I’m a Celebrity Get me Out of Here programmes look even more gratuitously superficial.

Last night I was viewing his latest hosts who live in rather splendid wood and thatch houses on very high stilts because in the past local head-hunters came a-calling. He went with them to kill boar, had his arm tattooed in the most painful way imaginable and ate sago yeast, chopped from trees and pulped. It was so dry he could hardly swallow. But the worst was yet to come. In these tree boles live sago pupae, like extra-terrestrial maggots in Michelin suits. The native tribesmen put one in our traveller’s ear to eat out the wax. To see a close up of poor Bruce’s ear, with this white bulbous thing waving a yellow head or butt – it was never explained – from it, didn’t help my supper go down. Then he was also requested to eat one. His face, unlike the comedians I mentioned above, was a perfect mix of respect for his hosts (who were chewing them like gourmet Cheshire cheese balls) and sheer disgusted agony. They were all stomach-creasingly merry at the whole business but what was very fine was that we had no idea whether the tribe were having a laugh at Bruce or not. Bruce, as the perfect visitor he is, laughed too. Out of respect.

In a way he was working with them, which corroborates my first point, that working alongside is the way to understand culture not being there as part of an extreme version of 18-31, or Saga Holidays.


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