Field work Diary: the Tourist versus the Anthropologist

By Aglaja Kempinski (Staff Writer)

This post is about an experience which certainly wasn’t my proudest moment in the field and was, probably, the most uncomfortable I have felt in a very long time: the experience of being a tourist. So if emotional voyeurism is your thing, this is the fieldnote for you.

I think it is fair to say that, at least after a while, most anthropologists start to feel protective of the people they work with. I work with the San people of South Africa, and I, for one, often find myself defending the San as a group. More often than I would like to admit, I get too deeply involved.

However, as much as we become protective of the people we work with – which is only natural – we also become protective of OUR position in the field, or how we think about our relationships with the people we encounter. This, again, is understandable. Our presence in the field is part of our methodology, part of our work, part of our thesis - of course we are protective of it.

One of the most striking examples of this defensiveness regarding position and relations, is the distinction anthropologists wish to draw between themselves and tourists. At best we think about the tourists who wander into “our” field as naive, at worst we consider them exploitative and ignorant. Anthropologists, on the other hand, are engaged. We are there to be with the people, not to look at them. Or so we would like to think. Otherwise, what do our years of university training actually mean, if they do not make us superior to mere tourists tumbling through the ethnographic landscape?

This issue becomes particularly pertinent when your fieldwork is set in a place with a lot of tourism, and even more so if tourists and tourism activities are part of your studies. I have, by now, spent a good nine months convincing the people I work with and those around that I am not a tourist. I make a point of never buying souvenirs. I stand slightly aside when I observe tourists interacting with the locals. One of the best days in the field was when I was no longer required to pay entry at the museum village and even better, when people stopped telling me the lies they tell the tourists.

So, naturally, when I was suddenly required to drop all this and fully engage in the tourism experience I had shunned, I was mortified.

I was stuck in a city, 300km away from my fieldsite, as a result of car problems. The friend I was staying with had visitors from Germany, and wanted them to visit the Bushmen. I was instructed to dial down the anthropology talk and just let the visitors experience the tourism.

This would have been much easier for me had we gone to the museum village where I have a lot of friends and where I spend a lot of time. There, I felt, it would have been clear that I was not complicit in the exploitation brought about by the touristic enterprise. There, I thought, somewhat conceitedly, I would be able to just hang out on the local side of things and not become a voyeur (That is of course a ridiculous thought but dealing with it surpasses the scope of this post). However, the village we were driving to was much closer to the city. I knew relatives of the people living there but I did not know the villagers personally. I was out of my depth.

After driving roughly 80km on the gravel road, we turned onto an off-road track. “Finally it REALLY looks like Africa”, one of my travel companions exclaimed. Now, I don't know if it's because I'm an anthropologist or because I went to School of Oriental and African Studies, but hearing phrases like this makes me cringe. I know it's a statement that comes from a perfectly innocent place and yet..... What is this ‘Africa’ you are speaking of? Why is it symbolised by a dirt track? What does that mean? Were we not in Africa before? All these annoying thoughts were going through my mind but I bit my tongue and didn’t say a thing.

As we arrive at the museum village I was suddenly surrounded by ‘ooohs’ and ‘ahhs’ prompted by the sight of the leather clad half-naked people awaiting us there. The village consists of five straw huts and roughly 50 women sitting in a circle, working on crafts. The men sit across from them, working on some bows.  One of my friends asked me whether they live here. It takes all my strength to stick to a “no, I don't think so” rather than go for the far more tempting “well, let’s see, there’s about 70 people here and 5 tiny huts, 3 of which have almost collapsed and all of which are completely empty.” Plus, we just drove by a much larger and more modern village 1km back. “So, erm, no.” Basically I'm a horrible person. In a desperate attempt not to be associated with the tourist vibe, I approached some of the women, greeted them in Ju/'hoan (their language) and asked them if they could fix my necklace. The strategy was successful. Normally it would take about half a minute to fix a necklace like mine (made from modern glass beads with plastic string like the San women wear today). But since they only have traditional string and tools available at their workstation it takes much longer. They notice my anklets – traditional foot adornments sewn around your ankles. They ask me where I got them from, we have a conversation, and I feel included. Phew. Saved. I don’t have to be a tourist after all; that is until the tour guide comes and wants me to get involved in the activities he is doing with my friends.

Prompted by the intense need to not feel like a tourist, my mind has now entirely crossed the gap to its more infantile realms. I don’t want to see someone making fire with sticks - I have seen it a million times. I don’t need to see someone making a bow and arrow or anything else. Fortunately I realise that this sentiment is disrespectful not only to my friends, but also to the people putting on the performance. So I heroically oblige. I even smile and cheer my friends on as they are giving the fire making a go. And I pretend like I don't know anything about this, and like I don't recognise the lies they are telling the tourists to make it more digestible. But inside I'm dying from an anthropological superiority complex. The worst part is that I am not even here for research right now - so I don't even have an excuse.

It's alright, I tell myself. In less than an hour we will go back and then I can pretend to myself that none of this ever happened.  As I am thinking this, my friend leans over and asks “You see that guy's tattoo? What is that about?” Expecting it to be scarification which results from traditional healing I look up and in the direction my friend is pointing.

What the Holy moly? I immediately see the tattoo my friend is talking about. And it is nothing I have ever seen before. Well, I have seen it before, but not on San people. It is a proper tattoo, not scarification; and it looks distinctly...... Egyptian. Shook up from my self-indulgent mental slumber I take a closer look. I notice two of the other guys also have tattoos that seem weirdly western. While the tourists are trying out the bows they just crafted, my friend and I go up to the tattooed San and ask him about his adornment. It turns out he saw it on a tourist that he became friends with so he copied it using an indigenous plant for ink. He does not remember the name of this friend he copied it from, or which country he was from, but he liked the tattoo.

That, at least to me, is UBER-fascinating. I take out a notepad and ask more questions. I interview the other guys who have tattoos. Strangely, however, it's not giving me the “I'm finally doing anthropology stuff” feeling. Rather, I suddenly realise what a twat I had been. Turns out you do not actually need an anthropology degree to notice something interesting. Maybe it was in fact me, who drew up this barrier made of the 'Tourist Gaze' between these particular San and me. Maybe. being a tourist is not actually as intrinsically dismissable as we would like it to be. Maybe