Written by Sandy Dacombe in February 2001, originally published on the blog On Africa
After talking to Professor Brian Morris, I find I like humanity a little more.
I thought at first he reminded me of Noddy’s friend Big-ears, but that’s not true. Big-ears, as far as I remember, was a bit wishy-washy and indecisive. That could never be said of Brian Morris. All the same, if you crammed a red pointy hat onto his shaggy head, it would look like it had always been there.
Partly that’s due to his beard, his chunkiness and his crinkly eyes – what a birder would call his “giss”, his General Impression, Shape and Size. But I like the gnomic inference since Brian is something of a guardian of the treasures of the earth. Not the common junk like gold and jewels, but the infinity rarer, deeply precious stuff like the power that animals have in the lives of humans and why a flying-ant appears in the proverbs of the Chewa,.
He bustled out to meet us in shorts and tee-shirt, sandalled feet carefully sidestepping a cricket’s burrow in the lawn. “Hello!” he called, flailing his arms in welcome. “Isn’t this glorious?” encompassing the elderly house, the rumbustious garden and the gently drizzling skies in a sweep. “We must go for a walk!”
I saw brief disappointment in his face as I demurred, followed fleetingly by a rueful self-consciousness when I pointed out that it was not the estate I had come to meet. But he waved us into the house with good humour, his voice booming off the bare walls and curtainless windows. “Well, this is it! Basic, but everything I need. I’m a bit like Gandhi. All I need, really, is a bunch of bananas and a place to sleep.” Mmm. Somehow I can’t picture the Mahatma exuding such boyish enthusiasm.
Professor of Anthropology at London University’s Goldsmith College, Brian fizzes with the enthusiasm of an amateur. “I’m not an anthropologist,” he confides, “I’m a naturalist. It’s not people I’m interested in. I’m interested in the relationship people have with the world around them.” So every ten years he takes one year of sabbatical and launches out into another field about which he knows nothing. In the ’80’s it was botany, and he published a book on his study of herbalism in southern Malawi, called “Chewa Medical Botany”.
In the ’90’s it was animals, and his ethnography “The Power of Animals” followed. This time it’s insects. Every surface of every work space is littered with small plastic bags. He holds one up for my inspection. The contents appear to be a dozen or so small dried wasps. “These are mfulufute, flying ants.” Brian says. Two slips of paper share the interior with them. One has the local name inscribed on it and the other the common name. A third slip goes into the bag when Brian has identified the insect scientifically. I glance around automatically for the computer.
“Haven’t got one,”says Brian cheerfully. “This is what I use here.” He waves at a pile of foolscap notebooks. “Into the Journals go all my conversations and translations from Chichewa, all my observations and notes on the insects and their uses.” Page after page of neat script and pencil sketches riffle through his fingers. He picks up another. ” Then there are the Notebooks. Into them go all the information I get second-hand, from reference books, experts, so on. When my year is up, I sell everything except the clothes I’m wearing and fill my luggage with my notebooks.” Then comes the final synthesis back in his study in London, where his computer waits for him.
I watch him as he intently shares what he discovered about flying ants. Their nutritional value, their popularity as a snack with all manner of live creatures, the difficulty in catching them. How the Chewa proverb – which states “The mfulufute are coming out. Do not squeeze them at the hole,” an enigma to most azungu – was only clear to him in his battle to catch the little critters as they appeared. With each nervous grab, the winged ant would just disappear back down the hole. “Patience!” he booms, “that’s what it’s about. ‘Patience will be rewarded’ is what the proverb means!”
Perhaps that’s a proverb Brian himself put into practice as a young man. He left school at15 to work in an aluminium foundry outside Birmingham, like his father and his uncle before him. In his early 20’s an accident at work damaged his right hand, and he was declared unfit for foundry employment. Perhaps he had no prospects, but he had imagination and a love of wildlife. He began a slow drift around the world, eventually finding his way to Malawi.
Here it seems he found himself. Employment at a tea estate led to a delight in Malawi’s epiphytic orchids, the subject of Brian’s first book. In his late 20’s he enrolled to complete his schooling, and after completing both O and A levels in Malawi he returned to England, with wife and three daughters, to teach. He’s been teaching ever since.
And he has never stopped studying. He believes it is essential in revitalising tired teaching skills. His curiosity is huge and wide ranging; he has never stopped asking questions and writing down his findings. His doctoral theses focussed on hunter-gatherers in India and among his still unpublished books is a biography of Ernest Thompson Seton, a nineteenth century Canadian naturalist, and an exhaustive work on Pantheism. It’s all one to Brian. It all has to do with the way people fit into their world. He may not be interested in people but running as a current though all that he does is the essential core of his work, a profound affection for that frail beast Mankind.