Namibia Part Two: Into the North

So when I last wrote my supervisor and I had packed up the car after a few days in Windhoek and begun our journey to meet the Hai||om hunter-gatherers, and see if things at the farm where he had done his PhD fieldwork still bore much resemblance to the one he had left. We drove for about six hours from Windhoek to Tsumeb, a small mining town up in the North of the country, where we stopped briefly to resupply. It would, ideally, have been a briefer stop, but meeting a local business owner in Namibia involves the previously detailed temporal phenomenon known as Standard African Time, and we spent far longer in a petrol station Wimpy with terrible coffee in front of us that I think anyone would consider reasonable.

Much to the bewilderment of everyone else, I insisted on taking this picture:

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So for those of you not familiar with the peculiarities of the highlands of Scotland, that there is a Spar. I thought they were pretty much exclusive up there, a relic of the British past consigned to the most rural of rural areas simply because no other store could possibly imagine the benefit of opening one when the local population consists of two old guys, a herd of sheep and a black and white dog. Apparently not. They do a roaring trade in Namibia, and along with a serious moment of incongruity the mystery of how in the world they actually make money is solved. Explaining why I wanted a picture of it was quite fun, but it sounded a lot better in my head. At least three Namibians think I’m some sort of supermarket-spotter, which I imagine is several rungs below trainspotting in the hierarchy of sad, sad hobbies. Either that or I was taking part in the lamest industrial espionage ever conceived.

Nonetheless, our meeting went well, and we proceeded once again North. I was warned of bad roads, but alas the tarred road just continued on and on, much to my supervisor’s surprise, but not disappointment. We arrived at Tsinsabis (You’re probably going to have to Google Map these at some point, I still do) a few hours before nightfall, and finally got to test the camping equipment the project paid for us to hire, at a locally-run campsite known as Tree-Sleepers.

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If the last two pictures didn’t make it clear, it was really, really wet. Namibia is supposed to be the most arid country in Southern Africa, some places regularly going without rain for most of the year, and while the wet season was finishing up while we were there, I did not expect to be rained on like clockwork every single day. I cast my mind back to see if I had offended a wizard or something in the past, as my camping trips seem cursed. Either than or I’m the reincarnation of Douglas Adams’ Rain God. It finally felt like we were actually out there doing fieldwork, though, and it was brilliant. So in the mood was I that I decided to attempt a campfire, waving away the firelighters in an attempt to prove my bushcraft skills, learned as they were from my intense study of all the Ray Mears progammes. My confidence in my own abilities, much to my supervisor’s amusement, was somewhat misplaced. We had peanut butter sandwiches and droewors for dinner, and not for the last time.

The night brought, to nobody’s surprise, more rain, but in the morning we set off from Tsinsabis into what is called “the land of the soft sand” to drive to the resettlement farm where the Hai||om group we were going to see make their home.

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We started to be quite glad we’d hired a four-wheel-drive, and we made swift progress towards the farm. It is worth explaining at this point why a group of people known as hunter-gatherers would live on a farm, rather than being mobile in the bush. It’s a big question, and probably the main subject of my PhD, but in short the ownership of most of Namibia by comparatively few farmers has pushed the Hai||om to the margins. Etosha National Park, once the land of the Hai||om, is now one of the most famous game parks in Africa. When the park was established originally, the Hai||om were allowed to stay on, mostly because they were thought to be part of the wildlife. However, South African rule, and an increasing demand by the park’s mostly European visitors for a fictional “untamed wilderness” free of people (which, incidentally, means that they actually started to recognise the Hai||om as human rather than shooting them on sight) led to them being unceremoniously evicted in 1954. Most of the Hai||om today inhabit the farms around Etosha, where they were “resettled”. It’s about as nice as it sounds.

Transitioning from one form of social organisation (mobility and relative freedom from external restraints) to another (sedentary living and piecemeal, low-paid work as proletarianised farm workers) is tough. It is especially tough when you are at the sharp end of discriminatory policies that have relatively recently stopped classifying you as a member of the animal kingdom. All this is essential to understand at least some of why the Hai||om currently live as they do. Things are not all bad, however, and I remain consistently amazed at the ability of people to make the best out of what, in the understatement of the year, is a bad situation.

Incidentally, while the change to sedentary living started happening a long time ago, things are still a bit different for the Hai||om than they are for their traditionally agro-pastoralist neighbours. As I would later discover, traditional knowledge has a fair amount of resilience and is not simply a product of current living conditions. People keep a lot of what they remember, even if it changes form. At least, I think so. Ask me in three years when my PhD is published.

History and structural conditions aside for a moment (sorry Marxists) I was running all of this through my head as we approached the farm settlement, and wondering what to expect. I was excited to finally be in the field, and hoping I’d make a good impression with those who would hopefully become my field subjects.

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These guys.

The quick amongst you will notice that the houses are not necessarily the best for mobile living (well done by the way, have you considered anthropology?). They are in fact a fairly recent adoption for those Hai||om who have settled down on farms. However, two older ladies who lived next to our campsite would not sleep under anything other than the traditional Hai||om style of house, and I wanted to find an excuse to post just because they’re cool:

ImageYou’ll also probably notice how green everything is. The grass is lush and thick at the end of the rainy season, the insects are utterly deafening and the livestock are all encouragingly fat.

An unfortunate part of the reason that the insects were deafening is because some of them looked like this:

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AAAAAAHH! KILL IT WITH FIRE!

Now. I come from Northern Europe. Insects are roughly one centimetre in length here. That is normal. The demon hellspawn you see above, however, is not. Pulling one of those off your tent, car, clothes or anything else is tough. They are strong, and they make a hissing noise when angry. They are also everywhere. One more of those things I just have to get used to as I’ll be camping there for much of the rest of the year. Another of them is a spider that apparently is very poisonous, so the guy I was with decided to poke it with a stick. Natürlich.

I haven’t seen a Baboon Spider yet, but I am emphatically not looking forward to it.

Despite my encounters with insects and the odd snake (my life was saved by Hai||om travelling companions at least once), I knew I could not research traditional knowledge without taking a few trips into the bush myself. It turns out that even though the Hai||om at this settlement have been in one place for some years, there are still regular trips of groups of kids into the surrounding scrubland to gather bush potatoes (wild root vegetables), black beetles and other foods in addition to the firewood they come back with each day. I accompanied some of the young girls and boys from the village (all between about 8 and 15) as they went on one of these trips. I traipsed along after them for a good few kilometres, hoping that it was plants we were after rather than animals, as I was not being particularly stealthy. Patiently, I was shown the leaves of the |harusa, or bush potato, and instructed to help in the search. Quite quickly I managed to point one out, and was promptly handed the digging stick and it was clear that if I wanted that one I needed to dig it out myself. I made a terrible hash of it, but eventually liberated it from the earth. This done, I pocketed my prize and we wandered further away from the settlement deeper into the grazing land.

This, by the way, is a bush potato, taken from a later trip with one of the two Hai||om in the village who could speak English.

If you listen really closely you can hear my attempts at Khoekhoegowab. They are not great.

What is also worth mentioning at this point is that by the end of the rainy season, the bush has grown up so thick in the pastures around the Hai||om settlement that visibility is barely ten metres, and I recognise absolutely none of the plants you can see in a given glance. I might as well be on an alien planet where every plant has inch-long thorns and all the animals are both capable and willing to kill you. Each block of a couple of metres looks absolutely the same as the last one, and I was completely and utterly in the hands of my young guides. I had my uses, however. Being twice the size of all the youngsters with me made me the perfect candidate for party pack-mule when it came to firewood. No complaints from me, however. I like to think I reimbursed them for having to put up with a wheezing white guy brandishing a camera.

Even with me in tow, that particular gathering trip was reasonably successful, the only truly paltry haul of |harusa coming from me, but at least I had most of a forest under my right arm.

Later, I was introduced to my English-speaking friend, and a few days afterwards he decided to take me on another walk through the bush, explaining to me all the plants and animals we saw, as well as their uses. I learned a lot from him, and hopefully will in the future, but the highlight of our walk was definitely this chameleon:

Awesome. I did discover, however, that I am not in fact that great at being a hunter-gatherer, as when I make up half the team, this is what we come back with:

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I can’t even claim credit for the MASSIVE bush potato either. Damn.

It was great fun, I must say, although without a lifetime of experience backing me up I know I couldn’t live on it. Hopefully I might get better at finding the stuff in the 12 months I’m around. I’ll be somewhat useful, then. All I can say is that I can’t wait to go back.

Stay tuned for part three, folks, that’s all for now. Tschuß!

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Namibia Part One: Windhoek

Well, hello everyone! It’s been a hell of a long time. Something like six weeks. my last post was while I was preparing to go, and I already knew then that the update when I came back was going to be a mammoth one, so I’ve decided to split it up. The old laptop decided it would die a death when I was two days into my trip, so updates along the way were out. Now I’ve got to remember it all. Luckily we took something like fifteen hundred pictures, and spending two hours last week browsing through them has brought back a great deal of what it felt like to be there.

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Windhoek at sunset.

Namibia is a phenomenal place. Just a month there and I started to feel at home, I’ve got contacts, people to work with, and more people speak English than in Germany. More than that though, there’s something about it I can’t put my finger on. Maybe it’s that it’s a young country bigger than the British Isles with only about two and a half million people in it, but Namibia feels more like a small town than a country. Windhoek, the country’s capital, can’t be that much bigger than Inverness, and most of the “towns” up in the north you’d call villages if you were anywhere else. We were supposed to meet one anthropologist working there, only to find that she would be late as she’s been called last-minute to appear on a panel of experts on Namibia’s national television station. I must say, the programme was fairly well-directed, and I only heard one of the crew’s mobile phones ring once.

Windhoek saw some meetings, and my first couple of days on the African continent, for which I didn’t really know how to prepare beforehand. It turns out I didn’t really have to. My previous anthropological work in India had prepared me for a similar culture shock and mental rollercoaster as I tried to navigate a new city, but I had no such feelings upon landing. It was, of course, partly due to the presence of my supervisor at that point, who has spent probably more years in Namibia than I have spent studying anthropology at all, but partly due to the fact that Namibia just doesn’t seem quite frenetic enough to cause the same shock that I had landing in Delhi.

There’s a phenomenon my fellow Africanists call “Standard African Time”. Things happen when they happen. It might be when you were told they would happen, it might be two hours later, it might be not at all. When they are happening, though, you are definitely sure that they are in fact happening. This is the only time you can be sure. Very Zen. Admittedly Standard African Time is somewhat frustrating when you have a fifty-minute connection in Johannesburg International, and one of the two people very slowly stamping passports for a plane’s worth of people decides that then is the best time to clock off for breakfast, but for most of the trip it is sort of something you get used to. I’m confident I will get used to it: I’m probably going to go there in August this year until August 2015.

The meetings we had were incredibly interesting. There’s a legal advocacy group based in Windhoek that are currently bringing a case to bear on behalf of some of Namibia’s indigenous minorities to attempt to secure them rights to land. It’s the first case of its kind in the world, and I was privileged enough to be able to sit in on their meetings while they decided the best direction in which to take it. More importantly for me, because of the focus that my PhD has on traditional knowledge and its relationship to the land, there is the possibility that my own work can in some way be involved in this case, which would mean that a beginner social scientist like me would actually have the chance to contribute. While up North, I helped run interviews for them with some of the older people in the Hai||om villages about their past their connection to their land, and it helped me work out my own interview techniques, as well as training me in the fine art of acquiring translators.

The other great thing about attending these meetings is that I’ve started to build myself a network in the country, which I am going to need to use every last part of when I go back this summer. I’ve got a year, and I need results. Fortunately, and largely thanks to being introduced to this legal advocacy network, I’m not going to be totally on my own.

Apart from the meetings, Thomas and I got to put in a little bit of central Windhoek sightseeing, finding a city looking increasingly like Pyongyang.

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 The new Independence Museum on Robert Mugabe Avenue. That statue out front is the former President.

It turns out this resemblance is more than coincidental. I knew about lots of building contracts in Africa going to China, but it turns out that also in on the deal are the North Koreans, who designed and build the monstrosity above. The inside is an exercise in Socialist Realism, which apparently both totally still exists and is a thing.

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             Bonus points for the creepy baby with the face of a man.

A short trip in my car outside the city limits brought me to a monument that forever quelled the nagging desire I had to go to former Soviet-bloc countries to find out if architecture really can look like this:

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           And Boy Howdy, can it.

But step back a few paces, and the illusion somewhat breaks:

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   Coke, Communism and Baboons. Killer combo.

I suppose you can forgive some of this nation-building stuff when a country is only six months older than I am, but it set an interesting context for the exploration of what indigenous Namibians actually experience, or, as it turns out, don’t experience of their government on a day-to-day basis. These are the trappings of a country that was colonized by the Germans in 1880, by the South Africans in 1915, and only practically began to self-determine in 1990 after a bloody civil war. It’s an odd place in some respects, and very much feels like I imagine the Midwest of America might have felt like a hundred and fifty years ago.

Everything revolves around land, and the property rights of those that own it are almost absolute. Land is what many Namibians, after successfully liberating themselves from apartheid, strive for. Land is also what makes German and South African white people still the richest and in some respects most powerful group in the country, despite being a minority. The lack of land is the root of the problems that the people I study face, and it is unavoidable.

Even while in Windhoek, the ideas that form the backbone of my research question were surfacing. I’d finally started on the path to doing actual anthropological research.

So, the scene appropriately set, and the right hands appropriately shaken, My supervisor and I prepared for our voyage North into the lands where the Hai||om people make their home. It was visiting old friends for him, but for me something of an adventure. More to come!

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