Obituary: Godfrey Lienhardt

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The Independent Online
Ronald Godfrey Lienhardt, anthropologist: born Bradford 17 January 1921; Lecturer in African Sociology, Oxford University 1949-72, Reader in Social Anthropology 1972-88; Fellow, Wolfson College, Oxford 1967-72, Professorial Fellow 1972-88 (Emeritus), Vicegerent 1973-75; died Oxford 9 November 1993.

The anthropologist Godfrey Lienhardt was unconventional from the start, and he would sometimes teasingly attribute this to his 'mixed' Yorkshire and Swiss background.

A love of language and literature brought him in 1939 to Cambridge, where he read English with FR Leavis until war intervened. After serving as a transport officer who did not know how to drive, he finished the war in East Africa inspecting margarine. Returning to Cambridge, he met the anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard, who brought Lienhardt to Oxford with him on taking up the Chair in Social Anthropology there. Lienhardt began work in the southern Sudan, first among the Dinka in 1947-50, then among the Anuak in 1952-54. These field studies were the foundation of his greatest contributions to anthropology and to the study of Africa and religion.

In a series of radio lectures, in articles and especially in Divinity and Experience: the religion of the Dinka (1961), Lienhardt shifted the way in which the religious beliefs and practices of non-literate peoples were perceived and analysed. By recognising that there are contradictions between how people experience their religion in their ordinary conduct and what they are willing, on reflection, to say they believe, Lienhardt focused attention on scepticism and faith, and on the ironical recognition of the ambiguities of human experience, even among (or perhaps especially among) the religious experts of 'traditional' religions. Clearly written, subtle and poetic, not only has Divinity and Experience never been surpassed by any other study of African religion, but it continues to influence scholars studying belief and practice in 'world' religions.

His ethnography was followed by the much-admired Social Anthropology (1964), after which be wrote and published much less. He was shocked during his last visit to the Sudan in 1968 to learn from Sudanese friends the scale of the catastrophe of that country's first civil war, then reaching its height. At about this same time a new generation of anthropologists, more concerned with theory than with ethnography, began using both his and Evans-Pritchard's studies as the raw material for essays which were remote from the realities of African life as Lienhardt knew them. Unable to write about friends who were being killed, Lienhardt also refused to feed an industry of secondary literature which was taking anthropology in directions which he distrusted. Nevertheless, he took great care in everything he wrote, and the lectures and articles which he later produced were always perceptive and polished. His Frazer Lecture, given at Cambridge University in 1992, was typical of this later work: sparkling and apparently light in style, but profoundly thoughtful.

Both Godfrey Lienhardt and his younger brother Peter (also an anthropologist at Oxford) valued academic life for its intellectual activity rather than for its hierarchies and status. Godfrey resisted expectations that he succeed Evans- Pritchard to the chair (his dilemma, though not his character, inspired Dan Davin's novel Brides of Price, 1972). Teaching was a commitment which took precedence over committees, and could be done as well through informal conversations as through lectures or tutorials.

The intensity of this intellectual life was combined with great sociability, which brought together a wide range of friends, colleagues, students, and even friends' children. Long sessions in the pub and afterwards with the Lienhardt brothers could be both stimulating and alarming; Godfrey's wit was employed with equal effect to entertain or to lacerate his companions. In later life Godfrey faced, with some trepidation, a retirement within a contracting social circle, following the death of a series of close friends, but more especially of his brother Peter. The renewed barbarities of Sudan's second civil war affected him more deeply than he cared to admit. Much of the enjoyment of life drained away from him.

In 1990, while employed by the United Nations, I visited the area of Godfrey Lienhardt's first field- work. One elderly Dinka chief who had known Lienhardt 40 years before gave me a letter for him, which read in part, 'I will not forget the great help you gave me one time . . . All the old friends and generation you know well have died and I have remained alone. I can't tell you about the disaster. It is sad.' The reality of Dinka experience was never far from Lienhardt's mind. The Dinka concept of wei, which equates life with physical breath, seemed particularly apt in his final years when he was chronically short of breath. Lienhardt survived pneumonia last summer only to succumb to later infections. A few days before his death, as he struggled to breathe behind an oxygen mask, he remarked to my wife, 'I understand why the Dinka call it wei.'

(Photograph omitted)