Academic journal article History In Africa

Haunting Griaule: Experiences from the Restudy of the Dogon

Academic journal article History In Africa

Haunting Griaule: Experiences from the Restudy of the Dogon

Article excerpt


It really was a chance occasion, just before Christmas 2003. On my way to the Dogon area I had greeted my friends in Sangha, and was speaking with a Dutch friend, when a French tourist lady suddenly barged into the hall of the hotel and asked me: "There should be a cavern with a mural depicting Sirius and the position of all the planets. I saw it in a book. Where is it?". My friend smiled wrily, amused by the irony of situation: by chance the lady had fallen upon the one who had spent decennia to disprove this kind of "information". "In what book?" I asked, and named a few. It was none of these, and she could not tell me. Cautiously (maybe she had planned her whole trip around this Sirius "experience") I explained to her that though there was a lot to see, this particular mural did not exist. She left immediately, probably convinced she stumbled on a real ignoramus.

In retrospect I never meant to criticize Marcel Griaule, it just happened as a consequence of other choices, which eventually led me to Dogon country. After completing my PhD thesis on the Kapsiki/Higi of northern Cameroun and northeastern Nigeria, I started scouting for a second area of field research. For two reasons, I wanted a comparable setting: to allow myself to feel at home easily because I seemed to have less time, and to use in general the approach of controlled comparison. In my first field research I had made a more or less classic ethnography of a group of comparable size (150,000) in a similar environment, living in the Mandara Mountains south of Lake Chad and straddling the border between northern Cameroun and North Eastern Nigeria.

That particular choice of venue had resulted from an existing research tradition at Utrecht University's department of physical anthropology, which had run a project on the Fali in northern Cameroun. In Europe the connection between social and physical anthropology is not as close as in the USA-in fact often there is no connection at all-but I happened to have made that connection throughout my studies until the MA, starting out in biology and switching later to cultural anthropology. So for the venue of my doctoral research, I was inspired by their work to scout around in northern Cameroun and southern Chad. At the time the French were very active in ethnographical fieldwork in the area, and most groups had an "anthropologist in residence."

I made a reconnaissance trip to northern Cameroun and southern Chad, and visited the colleagues working from both N'djamena (exFort Lamy) and Yaounde. Finally, my choice narrowed down to either the Toupouri in the Logone plains or the Kapsiki in the Mandara mountains. A talk with Igor de Garine, who had worked extensively on the riverine populations in the area, convinced me that the second option would be more productive. So at the end of my trip I drove into the Mandara Mountains and made my first acquaintance with the Kapsiki plateau. Their wonderful habitat, with its lunar landscape of volcanic cores dotting an undulating plateau, immediately fascinated me, as it continues to do.

So I chose to work among the Kapsiki of northern Cameroun and as a consequence among the Higi of Nigeria, as they proved to be the same group. Other anthropologists had avoided the area because of the presence of tourists: "Trop pourri par le tourisme" was the verdict of my French colleagues; all tourists visiting the area inevitably ended up in Rhumsiki, at the heart of "Ie pays Kapsiki." However, I thought tourism might be a nice sideline in the research, preempting the anthropology of tourism that came of age more than a decade later. And that eventually proved to be the case (van Beek 2003).

The relationship with the Institute of Human Biology (as these physical anthropologists liked to call themselves) intensified after my graduation (van Beek 1978,1987), and I became involved in a joint project called "Human Adaptation to the Dry Tropics," headed by J. …

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