Ethnography of West Africa – TMSE

By: Melinda Carr

For our second lesson at the Anthropology Outreach program at Tuscaloosa Magnet School Elementary, I led the class in teaching about the Ethnography of West Africa. Since ethnography is  a word that even us Anthropology folks stumble over, I broke it down into ethno (the tribe and people) and graph (to write) and through repetition made sure that the students got this word down.

I was really very surprised and happy to see how involved the students were when it came to answering and asking questions! We brainstormed together different questions that an ethnographer would ask someone from another culture and I got so many responses! I learned that it really helps to remember the students’ names and to remember their hobbies and jokes that they told the week before and found it helpful to maintain an easy going and laid back personality.

The students were super interested in learning about the Wodabbe people of Niger and their Guerewol festival. It was puzzling for them to wrap their minds around the fact that the boys in this culture have to wear makeup and dance to attract the girls. This culture also has rules that are much different from ours, such as the fact that the first two children born are raised by their grandchildren rather than their parents. The students thought that this is a good reason for us to do ethnography—if we didn’t know this rule about their culture, we would think that the Wodabbe are not very nice people!


The egalitarian clan decides who will be ethnographer


The ethnographer reports his findings to his clan


Observing another clan’s rite of passage

We divided ourselves into our clans from last week for our ethnography activity. Unfortunately, we had two students sick and since our class is rather small, we had to combine the clans. The students were excited to decide among themselves who was going to be the ethnographer, or interpreter, or clan member. The ethnographer who studied the culture of the other clan could only speak to the interpreter, and could observe the clan members doing their rite of passage. Some of these rites of passage are quite elaborate and much observing had to be done in order to get it just right. After, the ethnographers reported to the class their findings about the other clan. We then ended the day with a discussion reinforcing the key concepts from the opening talk as well as talking about some of the problems that may come up when one does ethnography. Once again, I was very pleased with the enthusiasm from the students as they not only remembered the information, but were able to see why it was so important. We might have some future anthropologists in our midst!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *