There is much to do in preparation for fieldwork in a foreign country. Anthropologists know that a people's culture is encoded in their language and that language shapes perception of the world. Without some grasp of the local language, then, your work will lack the deeper understandings required of good anthropology. Many languages, however, are not written down so it may be necessary for you to take courses in descriptive linguistics to help you record and deciper your field language while in the field. Before going to New Guinea, I took such courses. I also learned tok pisin, from tapes and books such as the tok pisin Bible. The island of New Guinea has over a thousand languages. When Europeans colonized the island in the late 1800s, New Guineans coming from different parts of the island to work on plantations and government stations created a local pidgin so they could talk with one another. If you would like, take a minute or so to listen. Knowing tok pisin, I was able to communicate right away because most Gende know tok pisin from having lived in town or attended pidgin schools during the early days of colonization. Nevertheless, as soon as I settled into Yandera village, I began learning the Gende language, relying on three young men who spoke English as my teachers. I also inherited a German to Gende dictionary put together by one of the earliest missionaries to the Gende. But it was of little use in the field as it didn't include a Gende to German complement!

Packing for the field:

Many field sites are in remote locations and your gear and supplies will have to be hauled by carriers, sometimes over rugged terrain. Such was the case in my first fieldwork in the highlands of New Guinea with Yandera village a twenty-mile hike over rugged mountains, log and rope bridges, and muddy trails. Nevertheless, there were many essentials for a year-long study in a remote mountain village and I repacked my trunks and bags many times before leaving the United States. A list of some of what I took with me follows. Other items were purchased locally and are listed in the section Getting There.

Clothing: cotton dresses (2), denim skirts (2), sleeveless shirts (2), t-shirts (2), polo shirts (2), long-sleeved blouses (2), pullover, cardigan, windbreaker, rain poncho, umbrella, hiking boots, sneakers, wooden sandals, rubber sandals, socks (4 pairs, NOT ENOUGH!), flannel nightgown, underwear, sarongs (2), bathing suit, broadbrimmed hat, sunglasses (I left dressier clothing and shoes with a friend in Port Moresby).

Being just south of the equator, Papua New Guinea is a land of fierce sun and tropical downpours. Working in the highlands, as I do, you also have to prepare for high-altitude sunburns (the hat and sunscreen) and cold nights (the flannel nightgown, long-sleeved shirts and sweaters). As most villagers are conservative in dress, long pants or shorts are frowned upon for women and girls (although this is changing). When I bathe in the river, I have to cover my bathing suit with a wraparound cloth called a laplap in tok pisin, which is awkward if not dangerous in a rapidly swirling mountain stream.

Medical: aspirin, antihistamines, sore throat lozenges, ambesol, eye drops, nasal spray, blistex, antibiotic creams and powders, iodine, antifungal creams and powders, antiseptic, gauze, bandaids, wraps and ointments for sprains or sore muscles, bug repellents, sunscreen, baby powder, baby oil, medicated soaps, burn creams, multivitamins, and any prescription drugs you need as there may be no doctor or aid posts nearby.

My doctor made up a kit including penicillan, tetracycline, codeine, malaria suppressants (taken one a week, on Sunday), worm and parasite medicine (taken every three months) and medicine for severe allergy reactions. I was sick only once during my first year in the field but had pneumonia, pleurisy and malaria all in three weeks' time! Although it wasn't necessary in Papua New Guinea at the time, it is important to find out if there are any plagues or diseases, such as typhoid, to be innoculated against before going to the field.

Equipment: notebooks, typing and carbon paper, pencils, pens, pencil sharpener, file folders, typewriter, clip board, tape recorders, cameras, film, tapes, batteries, envelopes, stamps, plastic bags and containers for film storage, tape measure, scissors, pocket knife.

Some people take polaroid cameras for records of events that can be discussed further with informants. It is now popular to use computers in the field, but power is a problem in some areas. I prefer the old-fashioned notebook which can be shoved in a shoulder bag along with an instant 35mm camera for easy use. What you take will depend on your research: medical anthropologists working in my area took blood samples that required refrigeration; another studying food production will bring survey equipment in addition to everything else.

Other: music tapes and paperpacks for relaxation and downtime (the books will be exchanged for others whenever you run into an expatriate or local reader!)


One important preparation and ongoing activity in successful fieldwork is networking. At every turn you will need the help and knowledge of others, whether it be your local postmaster looking up foreign postal codes or finding someone (usually a friend of a friend or a contact of a professor who's done work where you are going) to pick you up at the airport when you first arrive. Once in the village, you acquire a network of informants and friends without whom nothing will be done and your very existence will be miserable or in jeopardy. This aspect of fieldwork is covered in detail in the sections on GETTING THERE, SETTING UP HOUSE, and RAPPORT. It is a good idea to keep a little notebook where you record the help (big and small) you receive before, during and after your fieldwork as it is a nice (and professional) gesture to thank your helpers in the acknowledgements of your dissertation.


Prior to going to the field your family, friends and colleagues will probably give you going-away parties, gifts, and ADVICE. Take the advice and enjoy yourself. Also, take snapshots of everyone. A box of photos works as an ice-breaker when getting to know your informants. During my fieldwork, young girls memorized my comments about the persons in my photos, saving me the trouble of going through the story every time a new acquaintance wanted to see my "American family and friends". Several girls were enamoured with one of my young male friends, borrowing his picture for days.

The most important advice I received came from seasoned New Guinea hands, all emphasizing the importance of immediate care for tropical ulcers (sores that don't heal quickly) and keeping a journal along with other notes to record the daily events in the village and my personal responses and understandings. This journal becomes a larger context for more specialized notes and interview schedules, as well as a place in which odd but insightful observations are lodged, reflected upon, and perhaps taken up in greater detail as their importance becomes apparent.

Copyright 1996 by Laura Tamakoshi and Brian Cross