During 1979-1980, Alma Gottlieb, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology went to the Cote d’Ivoire bent on studying one of the few native groups in that area that had not already been subjected to the anthropologists’ penetrating gaze. Alma’s husband, fiction writer Philip Graham, joined her on this thirteen-month adventure, not entirely clear on what his role would be.
Fortuitously, Philip’s contribution became as important as Alma’s. Beng culture intrigued him. Training his writer’s eye on the group’s folkways and daily routine, he began to write. The result is this book, which alternates between Alma’s carefully recorded anthropological findings and Philip’s observations of the new world the two of them were simultaneously discovering in an unsullied rain forest 180 miles due north of Abidjan.
The interweaving of the collective ruminations of two people well trained in observation and extremely sensitive to their surroundings has produced a book filled with extraordinary insights and fascinating stories. The level of writing is so polished and competent that once one begins the book, it is almost impossible to put it down. It moves forward with force and impact as the shifting points of view from which the two authors write provide the dramatic tensions that one might expect to find in a well-structured novel.
Readers will share the authors’ frustrations over bureaucratic entanglements that might scuttle their expedition (government officials had never heard of the Beng and urged Alma to study the already over-studied Baule instead), the trials of making a balky Renault run on rutted roads (or no roads at all), their adjustments to an alien culture, and their sudden promotion-by-acclamation to medical experts in a society without physicians.