When local contacts tipped off Nigel Barley that the Dowayo circumcision ceremony was about to take place, he immediately left London for the village in northern Cameroon where he had lived as a field anthropologist for 18 months. The Dowayos are a mountain people that perform their elaborate, fascinating and fearsome ceremony at six or seven year intervals. It was an opportunity that was too good to miss, a key moment to test the balance of tradition and modernity. Yet, like much else in this hilarious book - the circumcision ceremony was to prove frustratingly elusive.
This very failure, compounded by the plague of caterpillars of the book's title allows Nigel Barley to concentrate on everyday life in Dowayoland and the tattered remnants of an overripe French colonial legacy. In the meantime, witchcraft fills the Cameroonian air, a man is lied to by his own foot and an earnest German traveller shows explicit birth-control propaganda to the respectable tribespeople. Beneath the joy and shared laughter in this comic masterpiece lies skilful and wise reflection on the problems facing people of different cultures as they try to understand one another. A Plague of Caterpillars is the second in Barley's trilogy of anthropological journeys that began with The Innocent Anthropologist and ended with Not A Hazardous Sport (all published by Eland).