When anthropologist Alma Gottlieb and her novelist husband Philip Graham visited the Beng people of Cote d’Ivoire in West Africa the first time, it was for the purpose of research. At that time they saw their world in the United States as one running parallel but separate from the very different world of the Beng. By time they traveled to stay with the Beng for the third time, in 1993, they no longer saw it as visiting, but rather as living in Bengland, and they no longer could draw a firm line between the two worlds. Their shared memoir, Braided Worlds (University of Chicago Press 2012), draws the reader into their experience and shares the culture of the Beng.
“The multileveled cultural world of the Beng ultimately had come to inhabit us both, suggesting a potential connection far more intimate than parallel lines, and shaping much of our lives outside of Africa … our lives intertwined so much with those of our Beng friends and adoptive families that, finally, they became inextricably braided (ix).”
During their first pregnancy and the birth of their son, Phillip and Alma find themselves drawing from the medical practices of both the modern United States and the more homeopathic customs of the Beng. When their son Nathaniel is six years old, they return to live with the Beng, eager to share that world with their son, but worried that he might not be able to adjust to the poverty and communal lifestyle. He not only adjusts, but flourishes, receiving a Beng name and developing independence and knowledge that would not have been possible in the United States.
Not only does Braided Worlds tie two cultures together with their differences and similarities, it also braids the very different perspectives of Alma and Phillip as they each write about their personal experiences. While living with the Beng they candidly discuss views on child rearing, the value of being calm, and the effects of grief, guilt and resentment on the health of the mind and body. They also recognize that two cultures cannot meet without both of them being changed.
The writing is clear and readable; the emotions are honest and accessible. This book is a fascinating study of cultural differences which develop in response to variations in need and circumstance. By introducing us to real people living real lives, it also portrays the universal experience of being human and the absolute equality of individuals and societies that bridges education, science, politics, and wealth. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to know what it’s like to live somewhere else, in a world unlike our own, with people who are very much just like us.