First Forays into the Field

I spent the last two weeks on my first foray into the North, and thus begins the actual research that I will be basing this PhD on. When last I posted I was in a hotel in Tsumeb, a small mining town near the famous Etosha National Park, and I find myself here again two weeks later. It was my twenty-fourth birthday yesterday, and I took what I think was a fairly well-earned break and did very little, sheltering from the heat of the day, which here is climbing to the upper thirties as spring turns into summer, and joining Namibians in hoping that the promised rains start soon. I’m actually on my way back down to Windhoek again, as I need to extend my visa. The current one expires in a month, sadly, so I am back to dealing with bureaucracy, a trial best endured in person rather than on the phone, or god forbid via email, replying to which seems to be regarded as optional here. No matter. I am getting rather the hang of driving Helga, I think, having experienced some serious off-roading in the last few days, and I must say I’m really impressed. Having driven about two thousand kilometres in the last week, I am a little concerned with the amount I am spending on diesel, although I am reassured by the fact that this early part of research is bound to include a lot more back-and-forth than it will later. I hope this is the case, anyway. My daily allowance from the University of Cologne, already nowhere near enough to cover all my expenses, halves after sixty days. Let’s just say I am obsessively hoarding receipts.

The last two weeks began with a drive past what is known as the Red Line (the veterinary cordon marking the point North of which cattle cannot be sold to the EU) into Owamboland, accompanied by a local contact I met at university in Cologne, and his friend, who will be working with me as an English-Oshiwambo translator when I go to work with the Hai||om people there. Things are… different up there, and undoubtedly more what you might call “African”, in contrast to the European-friendly extension of South Africa that seems to be the prevailing feeling in most of Namibia. The marked absence of other white people was also definitely something I noticed. It seems there are not many that live up there. We arrived late at night, and my contact kindly offered a room in his house for me to sleep in for a few hours before we began the arduous trek of the next few days.

In order to conduct research among the Hai||om people in Owamboland, we needed permission to do so. Firstly, we needed to speak to the regional councillors of both the areas which we intend to study, as well as speaking to the Headmen of the two communities. We also needed to to this in two days, as my contact had meetings back in Windhoek shortly after. The two areas, unfortunately, are also hundreds of kilometers apart. In between, we earned a well-earned rest at one of Ondangwa’s many roadside bars, sitting on garden furniture on the sand beside the main road and sipping mercifully cold Windhoek lager.

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The first meeting with the officials and the headman of the area near the Angolan border went incredibly well. The councillor was pleasantly affable about our research, probably because of its incredibly vanilla and apolitical nature, and the headman (who I was much more concerned with impressing than the government) welcomed the research with enthusiasm. When I told him what I would be looking at (traditions, folk knowledge and skills) he even confessed that he thought my research needed to be done, and would be very interested in the results. We were welcome to camp at the clinic near the Hai||om community and talk to those he represents. His enthusiasm totally blew me away, and has opened lots of doors in that region. I did not expect such interest, but it gives me a huge amount of motivation and strength to know that I might not just be doing it for my own benefit after all. He sounded like he has dealt with anthropologists before, too, which makes it much easier when I reassure the people I will be working with that I am not from the government or an aid agency and I am not evaluating them.

Unfortunately, the second region, nearer to the border with Etosha, met with less success from some highly obstructive civil servants. I dare not speak to the Headman without government approval, as the idea of being turfed out by the Namibian Police Force is not one I relish. Hopefully we can get permission soon. I suspect it is because this region has not had anthropologists in it before.

I had aimed to spend two or three days with each community while up there, and since we had the green light for one of them, one of my contact’s appointed translators and I proceeded towards the border with Angola to conduct the first reconnaissance trip of this fieldwork excursion. I was excited to finally be on my way, and this was dampened only slightly by getting suck in the deep sand on the road to the community, known as Ekoka. Dug out, we continued, and eventually reached the health clinic whereupon we set up camp. It even has toilets, making it positively luxurious in contrast to other field sites I will be spending time.

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After a quick chat with some of Ekoka’s inhabitants, we discovered that thanks to the extremely long days working on the farms nearby, the best time to go and speak to people was in the early mornings. For three days, we went along at about half past seven to have a chat with people, and try to get a broad sketch of what life is like there, partly to see whether they can contribute to my PhD. I wrote lots, and what follows is a couple of small excerpts from my field notebook. I’ve left out people’s names, and heavily edited down the ten pages of biro scribbles, but here is an impression of my first time this trip among the Hai||om:

21st October 2014

The smell of goats. That seems to be the defining feature of the place so far. Never really liked goats, but I will get used to it. Ekoka is a big spread-out sort of settlement, but the Hai||om seem to all be squashed into little one-room brick dwellings that are all arranged in two long lines. I asked one of the inhabitants about them. He said they get more space inside the houses, but they were not meant to live in straight lines like this. I think it might be so they can all have electricity and water, but I’m not sure about that yet. Or, to be frank, whether the electricity and water works.

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That same man told us where to find a contact recommended by the headman the other day, who should be able to direct us to the right people to speak to about knowledge and skills, and we will meet him tomorrow. He even showed us a shortcut through the bush back to our camp, which shortened our journey back by some considerable amount. Very grateful. The sand is hard to walk in for any length of time.

Under a tree at the centre of the settlement, I interviewed an assembled group of six elders […] I learned that hunting does not go on at all any longer, and only the old ones have the knowledge, although they are no longer physically capable of doing it. They were emphatic about how much they would like to hunt again, though […] Apparently, the younger people don’t like bushfood (gathered fruits and roots) any more, either, since they started cultivating mahangu (millet) as a staple food […] This could all be accurate of course, or it could just be get-off-my-lawn griping of the old people about the younger generation. I will have to test this.

22nd October 2014

We decided to go back to the Hai||om settlement again early this morning, echoing our trip yesterday. This turned out to be the right thing to do, as the morning sees tolerable temperatures before midday brings highs of nearly forty degrees. In the shade, as I sit writing now, it is almost livable if you do not move much […] I thought the best thing to do in contrast to yesterday’s relatively well-organised group meeting was to wander informally around the settlement and speak to people individually.

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Speaking to an older woman of about sixty who was weaving a basket, I found out that she makes them to sell in town […] She takes fronds of the tough, palm-like Makalani plant and makes concentric rings, wrapping thicker, flatter stems around them and sewing them together with what looks like a stiff, blunt darning needle. She collects the Makalani herself, and has to go into the bush to gather ones that are just the right “texture”, wetting her hands while doing it to ensure the fronds remain firm and supple. I would also imagine that the contraction of the drying fibres will work to tighten the weave of the basket. She told me that she was taught to weave in that way by her mother, who had been making these baskets for some time. We thanked her for her time and gave her some pipe tobacco for her trouble, and sweets to the children.

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As we walked past the bakkie (pickup truck) on the way up the settlement, we noticed a gaggle of young boys sheltering from the developing heat in its shadow. One of them had with him a home-made slingshot, which looked as if he had made it from sticks and inner-tube. I asked for a demonstration of how good he was, and watched him hit an empty plastic bottle with a stone at about ten metres. I asked for a go myself and he obliged. I managed to repeat his feat on the second try, although my own misspent youth and former possession of a similar slingshot myself were undoubtedly on my side […] I’m sure he is a menace to the local avian population and his parents alike.

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[The chap who guided us back to camp on our first night] went into his house and emerged with his bow and arrow, complete with metal arrowhead and chicken-feather fletching. He was definitely proud to show me this, and had only yesterday enlightened me as to how important he thinks hunting is […] Thanks to the illegality of big game hunting for the Hai||om, however, he has not made a kill in four or five years.

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When hunting, the arrow would be poisoned using a particular tree known in Oshiwambo as Ombo and in Khoekhoegowab as |gou , which he still knows how to find and extract the poison from. I want to see if he can demonstrate this for me when I return […] The bow does not look like it has been much used, though. Whether this is due to lack of use or simply meticulous care is difficult to say […] I asked about range and power, and he indicated through reference points that we could both see that at six to seven metres the arrow would punch straight through most animals (he indicated his neck at this point) and the bow had a slightly less effective range of about fifteen metres, and at this point the hunter relies on the poison to slow the animal down so that it can be spoored (tracked). As such, the closer one gets to the quarry, the better […] He said he got his first kill when he was fifteen, and smiled when I said that must have been a great day.

So I got a huge amount of information in those short three days there. I’ve got a good idea of where I’d like to go from here, and in reassuringly familiar anthropological style my talking to the Hai||om has raised so many more questions than it has answered. This is good. I am looking forward to running these short impressions past other anthropologists when I return to Windhoek to sort out the visa, and to see whether I have the right end of the stick, or whether I am going in totally the wrong direction with my questioning.

As of now, I am sitting in a wonderfully air-conditioned hotel room on my way south. When I return, I hope to be armed with more questions and, more importantly, more confidence in my own abilities. I think this should go okay. I’m glad I have a bit of experience just there to prepare me for what is to come, and to get me accustomed to the role of leading an expedition for scientific data. We shall see how it goes, but thanks to the people I have met at Ekoka, I am looking forward to my return.

For now, Tschuß!

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