Charles Lane’s part-memoir, part-photo collection of his time living with the nomadic Barabaig in Tanzania in the late 1980s begins with a focus on anthropological observations, but gradually evolves into an advocacy call on behalf of his hosts. Most poignantly, it is a valuable trip into the past, to a world which, despite the best efforts of the author, no longer exists in its traditional guise. It’s hard not to develop vicarious nostalgia.
The written text is interesting, but these observations are somewhat lacking in narrative. The real strength lies in the photo collections; intimate close-ups of jewellery, piercings, hands and facial features, with compassionate portraits and captured moments on this unique culture and lifestyle – all the more touching because of the knowledge that these scenes are now lost to history. There’s no holding back from some of the more gruesome aspects of the culture, including the suffocation of sacrificial bulls, and the circumcision of young Barabaig boys.
After delving so deep and so intimately into the lifestyles of the Barabaig, it is all the more harrowing to read Lane’s historical and first-hand accounts of how homesteads were burned and demolished by outsiders keen to take the land for themselves. It was only the presence of Lane among the Barabaig during this episode that enabled records to be kept in order to file charges against the perpetrators – the victims themselves largely illiterate, making it very difficult to mount a legal defence – and to begin the years of campaigning on their behalf that followed. In his own words, Lane moved from ‘academic researcher to advocate’. Detailed accounts of subsequent court cases do detract somewhat from the earlier tales of life among the Barabaig, although these events are vital in explaining why their traditional way of life can no longer be experienced in the way Lane once did.