It’s the Little Things that Count, Or: Why ‘Going Native’ Usually Doesn’t Work

Throughout the heyday of the exploration of the Western Sahara and Sahel during the 19th Century,  many of the explorers decided to go disguised as ‘Arabs,’  thinking this would ease their movement throughout the area.  Usually, it did not work.  Below are a few examples of explorers who did (and did not) ‘go native.’

Denham and Clapperton, Narrative of Travels and Discoveries in Northern and Central Africa…1822-24.  1826

The explorers Denham and Clapperton were circumcised by Dr Dickson at Tripoli, attended mosques and performed prayers. However, as Col Warrington (resident in Tripoli at the time) mentioned …»the people saw through all the mummery, and laughed, or were angry.”

It is also stated (by Robert Huish in Lander’s Travels) that Denham and Clapperton were the first English travelers to go as English and as Christians wearing English clothing: “…nor had they at any future period occasion to regret that they had done so,” thinking that their reception would have been less friendly had they done so.

Denham & Clapperton, lower r. corner. Source: Narrative of Travels and Discoveries...

Caillie, Rene-Travels through Central Africa to Timbuctoo…1824-28. 1830

In 1828 René Caillié visited Timbuctoo and returned to tell the tale in three volumes published in 1830.  He may have been the first European to travel to the city, although there has been debate as to whether he was – or whether he actually did reach Timbuctoo.

Caillie had learned Arabic before going to the region and travelled as an Arab.  However, it is said that he became tangled in many obfuscations and mispronouncements about Muslims in Europe, etc., and so also ran into difficulties because of his Arabic disguise..

Caillie Meditating Upon the Koran. Source: Princeton edu.

Robert Huish, Travels of Richard and John Lander into the Interior of Africa…from Unpublished Documents. 1836

This book does not state whether the Landers ‘went native’ – but from the following picture it appears they may have:

Richard Lander. Source: Records of Clapperton's last exp. to Africa 1830, vol.1

James Richardson, Travels in the Great Desert of Sahara, in the Years of 1845 and 1846 (2 v.)

Richardson did not travel in an Arab disguise, although he did sometimes wear Arab clothing.  He was very much against the practice of hiding one’s European and Christian identity, being a stout abolitionist and also supporter of enhancing non-slave trade with groups in the areas through which he travelled.  These were matters he discussed often with notables throughout his travels.

James Richardson in Ghadamese costume. Source: Travels in the Great Desert of the Sahara

Richard Burton, First Footsteps in East Africa; or, An Exploration of Harar [in 1854]

One of the few explorers who was able to carry off a disguise was Sir Richard Burton, in East Africa, who was an Arabic scholar and had already made his way to Mecca as a pilgrim before venturing into the African hinterlands.

Richard Burton. Source: First Footsteps in Africa...Harar.

Why such disguises usually don’t work often hinges on small things that are generally unknown to – or under-valued by Westerners – a fact that was brought home to me once again over the weekend.  No, I do not try to go native, but learning the byways and cultural ‘specialties’ of persons and groups with whom you are living can provide perhaps minor – but interesting insights.  Some examples:

It was very cold the past weekend and so I wore a pair of heavy-ish pants that have a permanent crease down the front of the legs.  Going over to the Hotel Lac Tanganyika for Sunday buffet breakfast, I was stopped by one of the staff women whom I know well, who asked me why did I have creases down the front of my pants?  I stopped, completely puzzled, and answer that because that is how they were made.

‘Oh,’ she exclaimed, ‘but creases are only for men – are those men’s pants?!  I said no, they were made for women and that is how women in the States wear pants.  She looked at me with a very puzzled expression and clearly any further attempts at explanation might lead to further confusion (who wears the pants in the US; etc.). I felt somewhat self-conscious thereafter, thinking that perhaps hotel staff and others were puzzling by my un-creasable pants.

Many years ago in rural Egypt, when I was doing my field research, Umm M. (with whom I lived in an ‘izba (small village) in Upper (southern) Egypt complimented me on my sweater.  It was a lovely, thick blue wool that was designed to look as though it was inside out when it was not.  I thanked her, and then she asked me, why did I still wear my sweater inside-out – did I still not feel safe living in the ‘izba?  Well, as I then learned, to wear one’s clothes inside-out was a sure way to keep the naughty jinn (devils) away from one.

When I explained that it was made that way, Umm M. laughed and said only Americans would think of making a special garment to keep away evil jinn!

Umm M. was as this woman from Akhmim, Upper Egypt. No Disguise necessary. Source:

And so, too, did 19th. Century explorers ultimately have problems with their Arab disguises – and even the irascible Hajj Burton did finally get in trouble in East Africa over his impersonation.


About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
This entry was posted in Africa-General, Colonialism, Explorers & exploration. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to It’s the Little Things that Count, Or: Why ‘Going Native’ Usually Doesn’t Work

  1. Pingback: The Prolific Quotes of Richard Burton – Associated Content from Yahoo! – « Poverti9's Weblog

  2. I am being confronted by this issue daily as I navigate through the wilds of Kingston!


    • dianabuja says:

      Rachel – Sorry for what must be the frustrations, just to be not left alone! A dimension of ‘living elsewhere’ that can range from absolutely infuriating to quite indearing.


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