In this book, Paul Stoller, an ambitious graduate student, tries to make sense of social life of Songhay-speaking people in the eastern Niger. The Songhay have once possessed the largest empire in African history; their formidable magician-king Sunni Ali created an elaborate and effective administrative system extending all the way up to Timbuktu and even Morrocco and, as Stoller shows in this book, Sunni Ali's memory is still very much alive in contemporary Niger.
The book follows Stoller as he wanders around Songhay villages trying to document social mores. He quickly finds what M. Mead never did - that polling and questionnaire techniques he was taught in the US do not work with the Songhay. In Niger, a direct question typically elicits an outright lie; effective field work consists of listening and participating whereas direct interrogation is counter-productive. Stoller then falls into the hands of a local "sorko", or magician-healer, who offers to teach him the secrets of the trade. At this point, the author is faced with the question: should one maintain, in bona fide anthropological work, classical aims of "objectivity" and "impartiality" or should one immerse oneself totally and completely into indigenous life, risking drowning into it and being forever lost to science? Stoller does neither: he is awed by the power and mystery of the secrets that he is witnessing yet at the same time he seems to be unable to comprehend the most elementary laws of indigenous shamanic practices. Thus, like the proverbial deer facing headlights of a car, Stoller is is constantly paralyzed by incomprehension and fear.
For me, the book provides more evidence for the hypothesis that the "Western paradigm" is just one of many, and not that empowering at that. If we start to tinker with our paradigm by "apprenticing" to cultures based on hard, merciless and pragmatic obsession with spiritual power (such as the Songhay) we are in for a tough ride. Stoller was; he ran away and I do not blame him.
On the other hand, the dialogues in this book are great and often funny and the book is a must read for anyone contemplating visiting Niger, Mali or Burkina Faso.