Dorothy Ayers Counts & David R. Counts

University of Waterloo & McMaster University

This essay is based on a public lecture and was written specifically for this web site. It is not to be copied or cited without our written permission. Our thanks to Jay Sokolovsky for suggesting it and to Bob Park and Keith McGowan for technical help and, especially to Bob, for managing the West New Britain web page for us until we learned how and for both his help and his moral support. All photos are the property of Dorothy & David Counts.

Two anthropologists who have recently completed a brief pilot study focussed on retired people who live and travel in recreational vehicles are invited to appear on a Saturday evening TV show designed for senior citizens, The Senior Report. The show is produced by TVOntario, a provincial educational television station and the host is Bruce Rogers. Mr Rogers greets his guests before the taping. After he welcomes them, a puzzled look crosses his face, and he asks: "You two are anthropologists who have done research in Papua New Guinea for over twenty years and now you're beginning a study of RVers? Why would you want to do a thing like that? Why study them? Where are the bones in their noses?

For more than two decades we did anthropological research with and wrote about the people of Kandoka village in the Kaliai census subdivision of West New Britain, Papua New Guinea. For a map of Papua New Guinea on which you can locate West New Britain Click here . For a map and some basic information about West New Britain, click here.

There has been little public interest in our Papua New Guinea research. Dorothy was invited in 1967 to be a guest on an afternoon television talk show in San Antonio, Texas, her home town. The interview was brief and the only question she can remember the host asking was "Where is Old Guinea?" In 1974 the "Radio International" programme of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation broadcast an interview with us and did a reading of a Kaliai myth "Akro and Gagandewa", and in 1993 we were consultants to Channel 9, the PBS station in Seattle, Washington, on a documentary on death and dying. It was not until we did our first field work with full-time RVers - people whose home is their rig and who live on the road -- that the news media or the general public paid much attention to our research.

In contrast with our work in PNG, the public interest in our RV research has been intense. Since 1990 we have been on public and commercial radio and TV in the US and Canada. Newspapers have published interviews with us across Canada and the US. One interview done by a Reuters reporter was published on the CNN website for two weeks. The wire services have widely disseminated our interviews, leading to live on-air interviews with radio stations in Japan, England, and South Africa. Our research was the topic of two TV broadcasts, one a seven minute spot on commercial TV, the other a twenty-five minute documentary on a cable network. We have also done three media tours - two of them involving lectures at 29 American universities - sponsored by the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association.

Media interest in our RV research began shortly after we completed our pilot research on full-time RVers in 1990, when the editor of the Gerontology Newsletter at McMaster University in Hamilton, ON asked David to write a short article about our findings. The producer of TV Ontario's regular program dealing with issues about aging, The Senior Report, read it and invited us to appear on the show on April 12, 1992. This was when Bruce Rogers asked us the question quoted in the introduction to this essay. Although both may decorate themselves in strange ways on ceremonial occasions, neither RVers nor the Kaliai wear bones in their noses.

Although both Kaliai villagers and RVers may decorate themselves in strange ways, neither wear bones in their noses!

The more we thought about Rogers' question the more fascinated we became by what he was really asking and by the assumptions underlying his question. It seems to us that Rogers assumed that the people of Papua New Guinea are so different from us, so exotic, that they are understandable only by specialists such as anthropologists. The "bones in their noses" is a metaphor for "the other. Elderly North American Rvers, on the other hand, are all around us. Almost everyone knows one: they may be our parents or grandparents, our widowed Aunt Ethel or Uncle Bill who has always been a character. What could possibly be exotic about them? What don't most North Americans understand about them? Where are the bones in their noses? This essay explores those questions, the assumptions underlying them, and what they mean for contemporary anthropology.

As we see it, one of the most important jobs of anthropologists is to make the "exotic" understandable to the people of their own culture: to answer the question reportedly posed by Evans Pritchard, "why would otherwise intelligent people do a thing like that?" The corollary to this is the responsibility of anthropologists to enable US, our own people to see that we, too, are exotic so that we may better understand why it is that we do the things we do.

I: Doing Fieldwork in Two Cultures:

Kaliai, Papua New Guinea

In 1966, as doctoral students at Southern Illinois University, we did our first research in Kaliai on the north coast of West New Britain. We went into Kaliai with very little preparation or training to do anthropological research. Drs. Philip Dark and Adrian Gerbrands co-taught a one-term, non-credit course during which they emphasized some of the lessons of Malinowski - learn the language, remember culture is a whole, live with the people, and stay for a year - and taught us how to use a camera. Both Gerbrands and Dark were interested in primitive art and were excellent photographers; in addition Gerbrands was a cinematographer. We listened to some tapes of the news being read in Tok Pisin, the lingua franca that is now one of Papua New Guinea's official languages, and Dorothy despaired of ever being able to hear which of those sounds were even words. Dark also advised us (unsuccessfully) to leave our two children, Rebecca (age 7) and Bruce (age 4) behind as they would occupy too much of our time and hinder our research.

When we arrived in West New Britain in the late summer of 1966, children in tow, we were guests of the Darks for two weeks at their research site, the Kilenge-speaking village of Ongaia. There we began to learn to hear Tok Pisin, we took our first field notes, and Dorothy met the housekeeping sister from the Kaliai Roman Catholic mission who expressed shock and disapproval that we would take our little children to live with "those people" without a gun to protect them. As it turned out, the sister had spent no time in the villages and knew none of the people well, but her warning sat heavy on Dorothy's mind. We also met Tule, a Kilenge bigman, who informed us that we were planning to go to the wrong village. We should go to Kandoka, where he had kin and business associates. He would accompany us, introduce us to the villagers and make certain we were welcomed and well treated It appals us now to remember that when we reached Kaliai nobody but the priest at the Kaliai mission knew we were coming; the household goods and Western-style food we had ordered in Lae had preceded us and were left in his safe-keeping. No one asked the people of Kandoka if they were willing to be our hosts; indeed, nobody - including Tule - seemed to think it was necessary even to inform them of our coming, much less ask their permission.


Kandoka village from the sea

Much later, after we had begun to achieve human status in the minds of the people of Kandoka, some of our friends told us that for months they wondered what we really wanted and why we were really there. We did not want to convert them, recruit them for labour, or sell things to them - the only type of interaction with local people that the white people they had met were interested in. What, then, could be our purpose in planning to live with them? They also told us that for years some of them continued to suspect that we were really ancestors returned to visit them. None-the-less, they courteously welcomed us to their village and built a beautiful large house for us to live in for the year we planned to stay.

Our house from across the Kaini River

Although almost all village houses have a space underneath where people sit to visit or work, our under-house space was particularly generous and was furnished with a large bench where visitors could gather to visit with us and each other. The Kandokans also offered us the only gun in the village if we wished to have custody of it, and began to teach us how to speak and how to behave.

Although almost all village houses have a space underneath where people sit to visit or work, our under-house space was particularly generous and was furnished with a large bench where visitors could gather to visit with us and each other. The Kandokans also offered us the only gun in the village if we wished to have custody of it, and began to teach us how to speak and how to behave.

Anthropologists do a unique, schizophrenic, type of field work called participant-observation. It requires them to live with and like the people studied, to participate in daily activities as well as dramatic ones in order to learn how to see the world from other eyes but, at the same time, always to try and remain scientific and objective in doing observations. Anthropological field work is always a balancing act. We spent much of our time observing and asking questions, and the Kandokans were as interested in and curious about us as we were about them.They wanted to know where we had come from, what our homes looked like, what our families were like, how we could light a fire in the bottom of our kerosine refrigerator and get ice out of the top. When we told them that Dorothy's parents were distraught with worry about the safety of their only grandchildren, Kamilus Kolia - one of Kandoka's big men - recorded a tape telling them not to worry, he would take care of us and send us all safely home.  In order for us to live safely in the village, to be under the protection of -- rather than at risk from -- the spirits of the ancestors, it was necessary for us to be properly introduced to them. So, when Kolia sponsored a ceremony in which children of his patriline were formally affiliated with their father's group, he led out our son Bruce to dance with the spirits. Although we did not realize it at the time, this was a clear signal that our presence had been accepted by the people of Kandoka.


Title: Bruce Age 4 Dancing with Kolia

We did research in Kandoka five times: in 1966-67, 1971, 1975-76, 1981, and 1985. During those years we also had two more children, David Riley born in 1969 and Stephen born in 1973. The presence of our children was, we think, critical in convincing the villagers that it was possible for them to educate us and integrate us into their society. The Kaliai are fond of and protective of children, and although we did not realize the full implications of their actions for years, in only a few days they had begun the process of incorporating Rebecca and Bruce - and us - into the community. Few days went by without somebody bringing a gift of food "for the children". Our lack of understanding resulted in the mistakes, and in our education in human behaviour, that David discusses in his article "TooManyBananas"(1990)

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