|[a] Facial hair RF|
|[b] Beardless RF|
Let's start with a scene from a fieldworker who traveled to central Africa fifty-nine years ago, almost to the day. Jan Vansina was one of the great innovators in the Western study of Africa, and effectively fused history and anthropology over six decades of scholarship. His memoir, Living With Africa tells of his first days approaching the continent. It tells of clothing changes, appearances, and preparations. It says nothing about shaving. Nothing.
Finally the long-coveted day came, and I boarded the Copacabana, a mixed
passenger and freight ship. It was a bitterly cold day, December 17, 1952,
when we glided out of the harbor of Antwerp...[After various repairs aboard ship],
we limped southward into sunnier climes and quieter seas toward Santa Cruz
de Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, where we put in for repairs. For a few days
the white and pastel town, nestled between a high barren peak and the bluest
of seas, offered an idyllic interlude for us, being neither the Europe I knew nor
yet Africa: a dreamlike experience. Then we limped on.
One after the other, passengers began to shed their familiar clothing. Officials
donned their khaki or white colonial outfits, helmet and all, nuns and male
missionaries shifted from black to white robes, the other women sprouted
flowery dresses and floppy hats, while the male settlers loafed around in
somewhat disreputable beachwear. As I had read it would, one day the sea
turned brown, laden with clumps of vegetable material. The next morning we
turned into the estuary of the Congo River. All the novices, including me, stood
at the railing to spot the first "ethnographic" houses on the Angolan shore, the
first "natives," the first palm trees, while the old timers were busy in the bar.
Gradually, the mountains grew wider and wider, the river narrower and narrower,
and late that day we docked under the red-brown rocks of Matadi. We
disembarked amid an official fuss about passports and inspection of luggage,
and tips and no tips for porters. We waited a while longer on a pier and then
went off along a steep slope to a fortress on a rocky spur: the hotel.
So this was Africa.
Vansina continues to describe his transition. Prying open quinine capsules (until he knew better), living on credit in Léopoldville until his funding arrived, eventually hiring a jeep and learning to drive on steep mountain roads, and standing over a dying Jeep still many kilometers from his destination. Nowhere is there any word of shaving.
I learned the language all day long long and in the evening walked over to
watch a religious revival in progress at the small Bushong village nearby, from
which the place derived its name. At long last, a month later, I felt confident
enough to venture out, on foot, naturally, to town, and there I appeared one
day, the first European ever to speak some Bushong, a person whose existence
was known by gossip but who nevertheless suddenly walked out of nowhere
one day, someone who was neither government official, missionary, or trader:
in one word, a conundrum. For a while people furiously speculated about my
real identity. Some held that I was a Bushong soul reborn by a dreadful accident
in a white body, and one day some women offered me condolences about that.
Others rejected this explanation, but they had no other. So everyone just followed
my every deed and word with Argus eyes to gather further clues. Soon people
realized that I was neither a danger nor a profit to them. Gradually they accepted
me in their compounds, reluctantly began to believe that I was there to record
their culture, and set about to educate me. Finally I was doing fieldwork.
This is one of my favorite descriptions of how fieldwork "starts," and I might have made today's topic into "Beginnings" or even "Fieldnotes from History." On the other hand, fieldwork is all about being stuck in the middle and, if one is a typical Northern European male, growing a little facial hair. But still, we have no word from Vansina. We know that he was learning Bushong...but was he shaving? And with what?
|[d] Fieldwork ADV|
Think about it. Even in our internet age, how much "literature" is there that deals with, say, unlocking your car door and getting in? How about preheating the oven or making instant coffee? You will notice that I have given examples that actually do have a little bit of "documentation" in our hyper-textual world. Well, that is about the level of interest that shaving seems to hold when it comes to understanding fieldwork. How can we know much about it if the fieldworkers themselves don't bother to mention it? Here I am, asserting that facial hair is an important (gendered) psychological dimension of the field experience, and anthropologists aren't writing about it. What sources could we use to plumb the depths of these questions?
Pictures. Pictures. We have pictures, my friends.
|[e] Hairy ADV|
I opened the book and looked through the several dozen pictures. From the first photo of the author at seventeen through his Swarthmore and Harvard years, and all of the way to emeritus status at Johns Hopkins University, there is nary a facial hair to be seen. In the middle of the book, there is even a photo of a beardless Curtin talking with a bearded Senegalese man, reversing the common set of expectations of hairy fieldworkers talking with clean-shaven people in their homelands.
And that is where we will leave it for today—incomplete, partial, unshaven. Anthropologists don't write much about shaving, but beards cut a large swath through the history of anthropology (just type in the name of a famous anthropologist and "images" in any search image, and you'll see). Today's example of two clean-shaven fieldworkers in Africa (as well as hairless faces in pictures of 1920s and 1930s ethnographic heroes such as Bronislaw Malinowski and E.E. Evans-Pritchard) leads me to think that shaving (or not) has almost nothing to do with the last century's technology. If E.E. Evans-Pritchard could keep a razor sharp in the southern Sudan in the 1930s, facial hair fieldwork must be a choice.
|[f] Facetime continuum RF|
 Jan Vansina, Living With Africa (Madison WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994), 14.
 Vansina, 15-16.
 Vansina, 16.
Vansina, Jan. Living With Africa. Madison WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994.
|[g] Farcical hair RF|