Travel authors often showcase the foreign lands they visit with colorful descriptions of the food and tourist attractions they encounter. Books of this genre depict abbreviated and relaxing trips.
When an anthropologist and a writer reflected on their return to a small community in West Africa, their story went deeper and showed that a trip to an unfamiliar world can forever intertwine the lives of distinctly different people.
UI anthropology professor Alma Gottlieb and creative writing professor Philip Graham reflect on their third stay with the Beng people of Ivory Coast in their new travel memoir, "Braided Worlds" (University of Chicago Press).
The Beng are a community of 15,000 people mostly living in the small, rural villages of their homeland, now that their nation's civil war is over. Men, women and children farm, hunt and gather to maintain a living. Their deep spiritual beliefs permeate almost all aspects of their lives, and daily happenings are often explained as the deeds of the ancestral spirits that they believe walk among them or as acts of witchcraft.
Each member of the Beng community has strong feelings of responsibility to the community and fierce pride in their cultural traditions. The important rituals that are observed in everyday tasks such as greeting and bathing, and the hierarchal positions of power that often dictate these interactions, are prime examples of these traditions.
In their first memoir, "Parallel Worlds: An Anthropologist and a Writer Encounter Africa" (Crown/Random House, 1993; paperback University of Chicago Press, 1994), Gottlieb and Graham wrote about their first two visits to Bengland. That book focused on Beng culture and described the process of anthropological fieldwork through narratives that offered a rare glimpse into the sometimes messy methods behind the polished published study.
Gottlieb and Graham use the same narrative structure in "Braided Worlds" to describe their new adventures in Ivory Coast, but this follow-up memoir focuses on the growth of their already established relationships with the Beng and their new understanding of the effects that these connections have had on their lives.
"For me, I think 'Parallel Worlds' was about learning Beng culture," Graham said. "And 'Braided Worlds' was about expressing to ourselves and to the Beng what we had learned: That we were adults now, we had a child, we had jobs, we had responsibilities ... and we had internalized the Beng notion of obligation and returning to your neighbors and your family."
"If one of the goals of 'Parallel Worlds' was to implicitly de-exoticize exotic cultural practices and beliefs by humanizing the people who subscribe to them, 'Braided Worlds' does that more literally, showing how Beng culture got under our skin," Gottlieb said. "The new book more explicitly shows the human connection that we were still struggling for in 'Parallel Worlds,' and shows how our lives became braided with those of the Beng."
In "Braided Worlds," the reader interacts with the diverse cast of characters just as Gottlieb, Graham and their 6-year-old son did. Through Matatu, a man driven to madness by his despair that he will never have a better life, the reader sees the effects of the nation's years of political turmoil and economic instability. But the reader also witnesses the great resilience of the Beng in people like Bertin who attended the UI with the authors' support and will return to Ivory Coast next year to give back to his nation and the Beng community when he takes up a position as a professor at the International University of Grand-Bassam.
"It's so easy for us outside of Africa to exoticize other people's practices and beliefs," Gottlieb said. "One of the gifts of living for a long time in a community of people who live their lives according to different rules from your own is that you begin to see a lot of common, shared humanity behind and beneath the surface of difference. And that, to me, is the gift of anthropology."
Royalties from "Braided Worlds" are dedicated to the Beng people.