‘Sit on the ground and talk to people.
That’s the most important thing.’
It was not a social anthropologist who provided this advice. Rather, this
was the answer given by Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary-
General of the United Nations, when asked over dinner by his friend
John Steinbeck what would matter most during a world tour. He
had followed a similar approach (though not necessarily sitting on the
ground while talking to the people) during a five-week trip through
large parts of Africa. The journey, from 22 December 1959 to the end
of January 1960, took him to more than 20 countries on the continent,
over which the ‘winds of change’ had begun to blow. Upon his return
on 31 January, he declared:
I would say that this experience over this long journey makes me
less inclined than ever to generalize, less than ever willing to say this
or that about Africa or this or that about the Africans, because just
as there is very much in common, especially the aspirations, there
is also an enormous diversity of problems, of attitudes, and of traditions.
In such a way, the journey makes me both a little bit wiser and
a lot more humble.