Anthropologists wrestle with the ‘Prime Directive’
every time they enter the field. As the Enterprise,
landing on a Strange New World;
how much interference in the local culture does
Sometimes one can deter a group from a harmful or
unnecessary practice, but most times, one touch is
enough to cause mayhem.
In the old story of throwing the virgin into the
volcano to prevent eruption;
how does the anthropologist react?
Speaking against it?
Rescuing the damsel in distress?
Suggesting the eruption is going to be too powerful
for a virgin and needs the most powerful man in the
There is no answer.
If the virgin goes into the volcano and it still erupts…
if the virgin is spared, and there is an eruption…or
if the anthropologist winds up being the sacrifice….?
Further, an anthropologist is not a social engineer. He or
she has not been sent to organise society, to dispense
western mores, but to observe and recommend.
The ‘fresh pair of eyes’ has often been useful to governments
and non-governmental agencies, in understanding why something
does not work.
In Jamaica, for example, there were prison riots for three
days when condoms were introduced. Jamaica is, and is proud
to be, the most homophobic nation on Earth. The insinuation
that condoms would be necessary in an all male prison with
no conjugal visits, was totally unacceptable.
The better method was to give a lecture to inmates who
would be released within in the year by a young and
nervous female heath care worker along with an enormous
visual aid, to show the population how to properly use a
The reaction to this was amusement, and by simply leaving
condoms behind for appropriation, skirted the issue of
whether or not homosexuality was being practiced in the
To attempt to alter the opinions of Jamaicans in re
homosexuality leads to an uproar and has caused
greater antagonism than previously.
In Nigeria, the idea that polio vaccines caused sterility,
arising however it did, resulted in a public rejection, and
subsequently, an outbreak of what had been a cured disease.
The after the fact acceptance of the vaccine is no comfort to
those who are now crippled by polio, and proves the failure
of ignoring a culture or subculture’s view of an event.
A fresh pair of eyes ought have been dispatched the moment
the first opinion that the vaccine causes sterility was
The anthropologist, seeing the culture as a whole and as
‘other’ would have been able to gauge the power of the
sentiment, and the government would have been able to
implement less costly methods of compliance.
Unfortunately, this was not done.
Currently, attempts are being made in East Africa to end the
practice of female circumcision by using Islamic clerics to
condemn it. By working within the culture, change might be
more acceptable than passing a law to forbid it.
Other methods, perhaps giving a cow to uncircumcised females
as long as they remain uncircumcised, would be of some value,
especially by linking it with a girl remaining unmarried
until she is sixteen, when the cow would be gifted.
Building the practice of uncircumcised virgins receiving
a cow on their sixteenth birthday could be built into the
culture, but it must be done with the compliance of the
leadership of each village, so as not to threaten power
Threatening power bases has always caused the defeat of a
programme’s application. Just as stopping the virgin from
being thrown into the volcano is an affront to the leadership
which believes it would stop the eruption.
One must be careful to uphold the Prime Directive and seek
methods of having change, when necessary, come from within.
But it must grow from within the culture, not be enforced