Friday, 17 September 2010

Good Evans

EE Evans-Pritchard, 1935 Pitt Rivers Museum Oxford

 Juba, Southern Sudan

“I’ll tell you the thing about Soo-darn.” The way Doctor Doctor Tremendous pronounces Sudan reminds me of the way some of his North American compatriots used to say “Sarddarm Hoossain”, and, most memorably, “Kowsowvow”. Somehow it conveyed their unshakeable assurance that they knew about the things they were treading on.

Doctor Doctor T has left a fine rhetorical pause, so that all those in the warren of offices at this end of the ministerial pre-fab have the pleasure of awaiting his insight. “It is this.” Another pause. “In traditional tribal society here, they don’t have kings. That’s right!” He is triumphant now. “That’s why social anthropology was invented here!”

Now that Doctor Doctor Tremendous is getting into his flow, I settle my gaze on the plastic strip at the top of my laptop screen where it cuts off the expanse of Tremendous’s white shirt and striped tie. That way, I can feign enough interest to avoid rudeness, without encouraging him to expand further. My good South African friend Paul says such niceties are quite wasted on foreigners: Dr Dr T couldn’t care less.

“That’s right!” he continues, unnecessarily. He is, of course, rarely wrong. “That’s why the British colonial authorities hired Evans-Pritchard. They were failing to subjugate the Sudanese, and that's why he did all his work on the Nuer and all the other tribes of Southern Sudan. No kings, you see. Same as Afghairnistarn. I know a great deal about it actually. I’ve studied this in many countries.”

I have to admit that his theory engages me. Like his namesake, DDT is all-pervasive, indiscriminate, hard to get rid of, but nevertheless useful from time to time. God bless America.

Evans-Pritchard, the Nuer, the Azande... The haze of my student days in the common room of the School of African and Asian Studies seeps back at me. The social anthropology students are sitting on the floor, smoking Indian bidis, or wearing Vibram-soled clompers...

To me, the social anthropology students all appeared either impossibly good-looking, or to be raised some six inches above the singed carpet, or both. Sometimes they enacted anthropological events, of which the most dazzling was a New Guinea pig exchange. Having arranged a day, the students converged on the Common Room to present each other gifts of ever-increasing numbers of Britain’s plastic pigs, as testimony to each other’s, and thereby their own, greatness. Eventually, a hoard of students besieged and ultimately overran the office of Professor David Pocock (who liked to lecture first-year students on the significance of shit in social anthropology) with plastic Gloucester Old Spots in their Hundreds and in their Thousands.

That's all I remember about social anthropology, except a documentary about the Pitt Rivers Museum that Mrs M had a hand in.

Evans-Pritchard with Zande Boys
I wonder what Sir Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard would have to say about our consulting tribes. I expect we behave a little like the tribes of colonial officials and soldiers he met in his travels across the world. Take relations between the Upstreamers and the Downstreamers.

The Downstreamers live in the next plot down the Nile from us, and some Upstreamers don’t think much of them, largely out of jealousy. The Downstreamers’ camp started out, like ours, under canvas, but has now turned into neat permanent dwellings, with patio doors and a gentle curve in the road, like a suburban corner of the homeland. “A little picket fencing,” quipped an Upstream wag, “and they could film Desperate Housewives here.” At the end of its suburban road, is the Downstream shrine: an open bar under a thatched roof with two big screen TVs blaring different sports channels. It’s very pleasant, but it’s a bit, well, Downstream, like a Holiday Inn. Their leaders regard the compound as secure, because there is a guard at the front with a book. Sometimes Downstreamers sign their guests in and out. Their leaders are Americans, and they are passionate about security. They send each other messages warning drivers to vary their route. Above all, however, Downstreamers are experts on everything and everywhere. Like DDT, they have researched, tamed, and transformed hundreds of countries. Some display a dazzling technical knowledge, based on diligent research. For others, it is clear that just by flying over a country, not even invading it, they learn more about it than the miserable natives glean in their entire lives.

Downstreamers visit our Upstream camp. For many, it’s off-limits, security-wise. And those who do visit, generally just come once. Our pre-fabs are overcrowded, the bar is rubbish, and so is the internet connection and the TV. The Upstream management allow cats to wander around the dining area, and no one gives a damn. There are all sorts in the camp, particularly Russian helicopter pilots, and local people, just wandering in, to sit by the Nile. It’s hard to imagine how the Upstreamers stay clean. Evidently, they don’t. (Regrettably, I may be partly responsible for this perception by removing my shoes in meetings at the ministry.) The food takes hours to order and more to arrive - visitors rarely try the excellent and varied Upstream buffet. Worst of all, the Upstreamers are so stand-offish you wouldn’t think you existed. If they have a business card at all, they refuse to put any letters after their names, or their position in the corporation, so you never know who you’re talking to. Their knowledge is a patchwork, sometimes clever, but sometimes out of date and threadbare. And as for their attire, you’d think clothing was still rationed.

Take your choice: Wisteria Lane or Bletchley Park.

However, the big sloppy chairs under the mango trees take a lot of beating. Unfortunately, the cushions won’t take a lot more before they crumble through the remnants of the cane into the Nile.

This Upstreamer knows better than to brag about anthropology. It’s pretty certain that any of my fellows can make me feel a mug whether I choose ministerial intrigue, sport, or cinema. In this company, therefore, my special subject is silence. And that’s the worst thing about Upstreamers: we’re just as vain as the Downstreamers, just too vain to admit it.

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