DURING the early 1980s, cultural anthropologist Alma Gottlieb ventured into the West African tropical rain forest to study the previously undocumented Beng people of Ivory Coast. Her fiction-writer husband, Philip Graham, accompanied her. "Parallel Worlds: An Anthropologist and a Writer Encounter Africa" is the fascinating memoir of their nearly two years spent living with this African tribe.
After Gottlieb completed her ethnographic study of the Beng, the couple returned to the United States to become professors at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Gottlieb teaches anthropology and African studies; Graham, creative writing.
In this powerful narrative, the couple take turns recreating their day-to-day activities in Africa. They lead the reader on an adventurous journey to a world where they "alternately felt welcome and unwelcome, fulfilled and frustrated," writes Gottlieb. Yet they considered the two different villages where they lived their "second home."
They became increasingly absorbed in the Beng culture. They learned how to speak the language, which improved their relationship with villagers.
But living in a culture so unlike their own was filled with frustrations - from a shortage of supplies to difficulty understanding the Beng's belief system, which relies on a spirit world. When participating in village functions, the authors occasionally became involved in personal, sometimes uncom- fortable, events.
For example, disputes are common among the Beng. Resolving them is a communal obligation, and neighbors are tradition-bound to play their respective roles. Women have specific responsibilities that differ from those of men.
"The lesson of anthropology is that intercultural communication is difficult," Gottlieb writes. "But given the motivation to learn from mistakes, a significant level of mutual understanding is possible." That is the core lesson the authors relate.
Gottlieb and Graham describe a complex tribal group: Like other societies in Africa today, the Beng are ever-changing because of influences from the outside world. The authors observed increased interaction of the tribe with the cities, and the consequent exchange of values that were diluting the Beng culture.
"Teenagers enlivened the evenings dancing `disco' to a generator-powered record player; village women now rode bikes," Gottlieb writes. "But other transformations were troubling. Some high school students spoke less Beng than I did."
Instead of a strictly anthropological perspective, the reader is offered an extra dimension: As a married couple, the authors became a functioning part of the community. This helped them interact, giving them greater freedom to learn about the society they were studying. Both authors are meticulous in their details.
Although "Parallel Worlds" is written as a memoir that studies a small segment of African life, it offers Western readers a broader view of the state of affairs in Ivory Coast and of the continent's vast complexities. While policymakers and educators will find this book useful, it is written for the general reader.