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Book Reflections – Toraja: Misadventures of an anthropologist in Sulawesi, Indonesia by Nigel Barley

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Nigel Barley’s account of his anthropological studies in Sulawesi, Indonesia. In 1985, Barley was working as a senior anthropologist at The British Museum and decided to embark on a study in Indonesia, after studying the Dowayo people of Cameroon for many years. He set off for Sulawesi to study the Toraja people. Barley has a great writing style and offers fascinating insights into the people of Sulawesi. He meets and is accepted into the village of a young man named Johannis. Through Johannis he meets and invites to London four Torajan to construct an Indonesian rice barn in The British Museum.


The book opens in a way that comforted me that I was going to love the writing:

Traditionally, anthropologists… are  omniscient and Olympian in their vision. Not only do they have the faculty of shrewd cultural insight superior to that of the ‘natives’ themselves, but they never make mistakes and they are never deceived by themselves or others… This is no such monograph.

When arranging to get a taxi from Jakarta airport, Barley and the driver got into the van and another large man of suspect appearance climbed in. Barley was concerned and wanted to protest (the same thing happened to me in Kathmandu) but he didn’t (and neither did I):

As usual, I dithered, discouraged by lack of fluency (in Bahasa Indonesian). It is very hard to be determined and incoherent at the same time

As I have found countless times when trying to use the phone in foreign countries, e.g. in Saudi Arabia I tried (and failed) to order home delivered dinner because I was alone and couldn’t go out of the apartment without raising suspicious or hostile looks and couldn’t dine in any of the nearby restaurants because I didn’t have a male relative escort:

The first telephone calls in a foreign language are a daunting business. Incomprehension threatens the tenuous process of understanding from all directions. If people whisper or shout, have funny accents or talk fast, or of they cough or a truck goes past, the whole edifice crashes down.

When Barley arrived in a port town in Sulawesi he was helped by a kind local man to find accommodation.

Pak Ambon refused to let me buy his lunch. He refused to let me pay his bus fare back to his house.
‘You would do the same for me if I were lost in England,’ he declared. I felt deeply ashamed.

When Barley encountered two drunk and belligerent Australian tourists in Sulawesi it reminded me of an interesting novel by the Australian author Murray Bail (Homesickness – it’s funny and I recommend that you read it). It also reminded me of why I call myself a traveller and not a tourist and why I don’t photograph people and I don’t like sightseeing.

Tourists are the ugly face of every people. Is it the worst people who are tourists or does being a tourist bring out the worst? There is a nagging doubt that you are just the same as them, that – at least – you are perceived by locals as being the same. Tourism converts other people into stage properties that can be photographed and collected. I am not sure that at some level ethnography does not do the same.

There’s a lot to like about this book. Barley was fortunate to make friends and to have a good enough level of Bahasa Indonesian to get around. He learnt a lot and was empathetic with the Indonesians that he met. There are many funny vignettes in the book and I recommend that you read it. Throughout my reading of the book I reflected on the trip that we had in 2013/2014 to Indonesia (check the travel page of my blog for stories and photos of that great journey). Like Barley I have had the pleasure of interacting with many warm and kind Indonesians and I would like to return there one day.

Annotation on 1st May 2017: After listening to the BBC documentary Living with the Dead, I realised that I didn’t mention the death rituals that Barley observed when he was staying with the Torajans. He gives a lot of interesting information that supports what the BBC journalist reported.


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This entry was posted on March 17, 2016 by in travel writing and tagged , , , , , , , .
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