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the Complete Review
the complete review - autobiographical

Journeys with Flies

Edwin N. Wilmsen

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To purchase Journeys with Flies

Title: Journeys with Flies
Author: Edwin N. Wilmsen
Genre: Memoir
Written: (1977-83)
Length: 154 pages
Availability: Journeys with Flies - US
Journeys with Flies - UK
  • Written mainly between 1977-1983, first published 1999

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting subject matter, eclectic presentation, half successful

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Journeys with Flies is, in many respects, a companion piece to Wilmsen's more academic study, Land Filled with Flies: A Political Economy of the Kalahari. An anthropologist who has worked extensively in the Kalahari region (mainly in Botswana), Wilmsen here presents a much more personal view of himself and his work.
       In short sections he relates episodes from his anthropological studies in CaeCae and elsewhere, autobiographical details from youth and student days, and bits of history and anthropology. It is an interesting collage, revealing and informative. It is a useful way for getting a feel for the peoples that he studied and lived with -- a personal, rather than academic study, indeed often more travelogue than anthropological text.
       In his prologue Wilmsen explains that:

I tried only to translate the texture of experience without claiming it to be mine alone, to capture chords in words. I wanted to render my experience in ways that could resonate with those of my readers.
       Of particular interest is also Wilmsen's description of himself and his background, revealed piecemeal through the text. Many of the most interesting episodes come from his Texas youth and then student days, making for a curious contrast to Africa (and offering insight into Wilmsen's point of view, in so far as it shows "where he's coming from").
       The book is not a straightforward narrative. Wilmsen readily shifts about, finding and making connections all along the way. Sections are even written in verse (of sorts). In addition, the text is heavily footnoted, the useful notes themselves going off on many additional tangents. Stylistically Wilmsen is daring, if often off the mark. (Here, as elsewhere, however, one still admires his spunk.)
       The mix is heady -- from quotes from songs by Crystal Gayle and David Bowie to Byron to a discussion of German South West Africa -- beside the anthropological focus of his trips. Certainly, it is an interesting volume. It is, however, not a polished work, its value in the nuggets rather than in the whole. Wilmsen is quite a fascinating man, and he's lived an interesting life -- from Texan poverty to becoming an architect turned anthropologist to wandering (and wondering) about the Kalahari. He certainly also has interesting things to say. The broad picture he tries to convey only comes half-across, but it is generally a more than worthy effort.
       Not a book for everyone, but those with anthropological, south African, ethnological interests should certainly enjoy it.

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Journeys with Flies: The Kalahari: Edwin N. Wilmsen: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of books from and about Africa
  • See Index of Travel-related books
  • See Index of Biographical works under review

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About the Author:

       Edwin N. Wilmsen, a graduate of the University of Texas and MIT, is an anthropologist. He has spent a considerable amount of time studying and writing about the peoples of southern Africa.

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