Gone Hunting

It’s been an intense two weeks. I’ve spent them camping at the health clinic at Ekoka, a tiny settlement near the Angolan border. I hoped that by being around for slightly longer than last time, I could build up some trust and assurance that I will be back, as well as getting some broad brush strokes to give me a hint as to what data I would be getting when I return for three months. In contrast to my time at the resettlement farm near Tsinsabis, I am not well-known at Ekoka, and that shows in the suspicion it took me the better part of the two weeks to break through. It’s completely understandable, though; I wouldn’t trust me right there and then. Too many government people have come and gone, taking notes and promising things, yet nothing has really come of it, at least with regard to the San (!Xun and ǂAkhwe) people who make Ekoka their home.Thankfully, they no longer think I am investigating anything on behalf of the government.

At the beginning, I found trading tobacco, coffee, tea and sugar for time spent chatting was a good approach, although of course the supplies do not last forever, as I have to keep saying. Thankfully the short trip meant that my supplies held out long enough for people to want to stop and talk to me regardless of whether I could offer them something, which I hope will be a pattern repeated on my return. When I left, at least, the greeting waves were less begrudged than at the start, and accompanied by smiles. This means a great deal, especially in tandem with the filled-up notebooks that I am happy to be able to return with.

Distributing tobacco to a lady that reminded me very much of my grandmother (father’s mother).

We are communicating in Oshiwambo, mostly, though I have a list of phonetically-spelled !Xun words in the back of my fieldnotes book that I get hilariously wrong, to general delight. I have greetings and a few phrases in Oshiwambo, too. Hardly interview material, but enough that I can be polite and engage in some sort of basic trade, which is how my German started (and remains, to be honest, albeit at a slightly more advanced level) if I recall correctly. It is proving helpful in small towns in the North here, too, where I am starting to be seen as someone who works here rather than just a flying visitor and a tourist.

The Ekoka San settlement itself has a long history, being set up first by Finnish missionaries, although the San have been here for thousands of years, passing through as mobile hunter-gatherer communities. Only with the advent of the missionary work did they start to settle down. This puts them in close proximity to the Kwanyama Owambo herders who also live here, which makes them ideal candidates for research on hunter-gatherer societies in transition. They have to negotiate encouragement from the government to settle down and start farming, something some of them are more comfortable with doing than others, as well as increasing fencing-off of land, as I saw at the resettlement farm near Tsinsabis, which limits their ability to hunt and gather bushfood. Along with sedentarisation also comes an increasing awareness of the modern world, which brings its own set of challenges, drawing the younger generations away from a traditional foraging existence, much to the chagrin of their elders, who maintain the importance of teaching the old ways.

Before we arrived at the settlement, however, we had to negotiate the way in. As I found on my last trip, calling the road to Ekoka a “road” is a bit of a stretch; the place is nearly impossible to access without the benefit of a four-wheel-drive, and even then I am often grateful for my locking differential, faced multiple times a day with being buried in thick sand.

Now imagine this happening every time you go somewhere to get a mobile signal, or if the clinic is closed and you are in labour.

After speaking to the headman of the village, I think I may be able to use some of my contacts in Windhoek to get the government to at least put some gravel down. Apparently they have promised to do it multiple times, but Ekoka being an easily-forgotten settlement of shacks and one-room brick dwellings on the border with Angola, it’s easy for them to simply tell the residents it will happen next year. It would be good to be able to have a bit more of a tangible impact on the village by the time I leave, so I will see what I can do to put the pressure on.

It might work to make a lasting impression, which would certainly make my research easier. As it is, however, I seem to have made a few good friends in my time there. One of them, JL, was good enough to take us hunting, after he mentioned in passing that it still goes on, and even with the ban on shooting big game it was a good way to get meat. I accounted the experience in my fieldnotes. We went twice in the end, so here are some excepts of my account of our second trip:

Wenesday 26th November 2014

Went hunting again this morning. It wasn’t quite as hot as last time, but getting up at 5 after poor sleep, as well as this looming dehydration headache, means that I am writing this on the verge of collapse. We must have walked about 10km.

We got to the San houses at 0615, and found JL attempting to rouse his hunting companion from last time to join us once again. To no avail. We found a young lad on the way, though, and he was up for joining us. We drove over a field, the hunters walking ahead with the dogs. We had nowhere secure to leave the bakkie until we got to the woods, so we followed at a crawl until we could leave it behind.

JL said that as it had rained last night the sand was harder, a blessing for my feet but it made it harder to track the prey. Nonetheless, we were able to pick up the trail of a rabbit, and begun to follow it.

Can you see which way the rabbit is going? I couldn’t.

While following, I made enough noise to scare off a large game bird that was in a tree nearby. A shame, as it would have made a decent lunch. It was similar to a grouse or pheasant in the noise it made flying away, and had the rapid wingbeats and throaty call I recognise from Scottish hillsides.

There is a pattern in how the tracking happens, and it makes clear why JL wanted to go in a group of at least two (competent, i.e. excluding my translator and I) hunters. When a trail was found, one would point to it and they would discuss the various attributes of the spoor, including its size and direction. Upon finding a branch in trails, working as a pair allows them to explore each avenue separately, the one with the stronger lead will call out to the other when it looks promising. Finding the direction in general means that they are not following the spoor directly from one mark to the next, but their knowledge of the way that animals leave tracks in the ground allows them to walk in the direction they know the animal is travelling in. The pace is slow but steady. Without the tracks being directly pointed out to me, there is no way I can distinguish them at all.

We clambered over a fence and followed a track North for a while. I noticed that neither of our companions seemed to be taking any pains to keep their voices down. I suppose they know how far ahead the animal is.

JL on the trail.

As the distance narrowed, their voices became hushed. I kept my eye out for movement, and froze, but saw nothing but the dogs investigating the underbrush. Suddenly, in an explosion of activity, two of the three dogs bolted. JL laughed, then disappeared after them, and out of sight. Catching up, I was pointed to the thicket in which the rabbit had been hiding, but alas, we were not lucky enough to come upon it but a few seconds earlier. JL hurled a stick into the thicker part of the brush, in case the rabbit was hiding, as the dogs took a serious interest in the ground around us.

There were many tracks around, but we picked up the spoor again and they led us (as all rabbit tracks must do eventually) to a large warren nestled in a clearing, and a scout around there seemed promising enough when a dog took off again that JL knocked an arrow. This time, though, he was looking up at the treetops, where another of those birds was perched.  Once again, and mindful of my earlier blundering, I stopped all movement apart from my eyes, but this one was wise to us as well, and fled before JL could get a clear shot.

We got separated again, thanks to JL’s attempt to snag us a bird, and when we caught up with him he had taken off his shoes and was halfway up a tree to retrieve an arrow he had shot and missed with.

JL arrow-hunting

There was a shoot growing out of the bottom of the tree that he could use for support while climbing, but for most of the way he pressed his arms and bare feet to the trunk and and edged his way up, with considerable effort. Arrows are hard to make and they are regrettable losses. It soon dropped to earth, however, and enabled us to continue the hunt.

We found ourselves circling back and retracing our own footsteps for another half an hour or so before deciding that the day was pretty much spent (this was about 1100) and there would be no more game for the taking. It’s a shame we didn’t catch anything, but I learned loads.

In addition to this, on our first hunt (also unsuccessful in terms of meat) we did find a tortoise that JL said we should bring with us for luck. So we did. I christened him Dave.

My translator LA trying to eat Dave.

He now lives with LA here in Ondangwa, with LA’s other pet tortoises. We did not eat him.

Our counterparts on the gathering trip, apparently, had more success. I was shown some caterpillars that are a delicacy for the people here. They were squirming most unpleasantly, something they had in common with my stomach when it ran through my head that I was going to have to eat a live caterpillar.

Slimy, yet satisfying.

I mentally steeled myself.

Okay, I thought, you can do this.

But it’s a live caterpillar.

Your job is here, to form friendships, to try new things, to show we’re not that different.

But it’s a live caterpillar.

You can’t refuse to eat this. They foraged it, and they will offer it to you.

But… live caterpillar.

Just take it. You might like it.

But…

There was a paper a few years ago on how we should eat more insects because they are a great source of protein.

Eat the fucking caterpillar.

I had prepared adequately, I thought, and was ready for anything. So I asked the question:

“So do you eat these raw or cooked?”

After translation, she looked at me like I was mad.

“No, we salt them and dry them”

“Obviously” was heavily implied.

I breathed a sigh of relief.

I actually ended up eating one later, when they were salted and dried. They’re really not bad. More chewy than crispy, meaty-ish but with an aftertaste of green leaves, sort of spinach-y, because of what they live on. They’d be pretty good in a stir fry I think.

Apart from eating bugs, one of the most interesting parts of getting to know the people at the community was the relationship that we managed to build up with the children there. For a lot of the time, the children have nothing to do outside of school, which means that a lot of them are in the business of getting food, sometimes a lot more successfully than we did on our hunt.

The goat they bought slaughtered, the mice are their own catch.

I like to think, however, that we were able to provide at least a passing source of interest. We were regularly surrounded by dozens of children whenever we did anything, purely as we were a source of entertainment, however we managed to distract them for a while by organising a tug-of-war Highland Games style with the rope I brought to hold up my tarpaulin. We managed to divide them into roughly equal-sized groups, with only a little shouting and signing from me . The adults thought our attempts to organise the mob were hilarious, but nonetheless we managed to referee a fair contest, the winning team walking away with a big bag of sweets.

Easily the best picture I have taken while in Namibia.

I’ll try and find one of those big packs of outdoor games that you get to take to the beach. We left them with the rope, but some other stuff would go down well, as well. LA also insisted on taking this picture, which proves once and for all that I am the biggest walking cliche alive.

Truly in the spirit of gurlgoestoafrica.tumblr.com, I think you will agree.

So I think, all told, things went fairly well at Ekoka. I am looking forward to returning for three months, even though two weeks there was exhausting. As for now, I will probably be returning to Windhoek soon for Christmas, as well as preparing the cognitive experiments that I want to run in my field sites when I am back there long-term. Hopefully some hard data will follow.

Undoubtedly even my short time at Ekoka so far has made an impact on me, and I hope to the residents too.

For now, Tschuß!

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Connections are everything.

With my visa documents handed in, and email assurances and reassurances that they have been sent to the Home Office from an increasingly careworn though not unkind agent in Windhoek, I have been able to start my second reconnaissance mission into the North, and my three field sites. I quite enjoy the long drives, really. I meticulously pack up my stuff from my recent home, tidy the back of the pickup, fast becoming something of a snail or tortoise shell to me, and plan the driving of the day ahead. It’s much nicer now I’ve made the executive decision to take my driving easy from now on in, having run two experiments that were both dismal failures last time I was in the North.

My first mistake was to take advantage of the lack of livestock on the road south of the veterinary cordon fence and blast my way from there all the way down to Tsumeb at 140kph. I thought that the reduced amount of time spent on the road would make up for increased fuel consumption while driving. This is not the case, and meant that my driving was both expensive and stressful. My second mistake was to drive from Tsumeb back to Windhoek for five hours on a Sunday, hungover from a party and with no shops open to sell me a morsel of food. I have officially redefined what “irritable” means after being cut up by a taxi after four hours of nothing but gas station energy drink for sustenance and thirty-five degree heat.

My drive back up, by comparison, was a dream. I cruised up, stopping every hour or so in one of the many rest stops under trees at the roadside to sip from the flask of coffee I had thoughtfully remembered to bring. It was hampered only by my slight anxiety about finding a room in Tsumeb. I wanted to stay in the same place I spent my birthday just a few weeks beforehand, but phoning in the morning I was told it was fully booked up. They said they’d keep an eye out for cancellations, and gave me the number of another hotel. They were also fully booked, but didn’t give me the numbers of anyone else. I’d run out of places I knew in Tsumeb, and resolved to head on up to see what on earth was causing the rush just as the tourist season is winding down.

It turns out that my being hungover on the drive down, or at least the reason for it, was incredibly helpful. I’d attended a party the Saturday night with the owner of the hotel in question, and bought him an awful lot of drinks. Upon arrival at the hotel (dropping in in person always seems to help) I of course asked for him by name, which got me a bit of an odd look from the receptionist, who asked how I knew him. I told the tale of our partying escapade, and she resolved to phone every booking that had not yet turned up to check in to see if they were turning up that night. I, meanwhile, found numbers for every place to stay in Tsumeb and rang most of them. All were booked out, with nary a room at any inn within ten kilometres. I appreciate a good historical reference as much as the next man, but this one was a good six weeks too early, and I am almost definitely not pregnant.

The last person she could have phoned, it turned out, was not coming that night, and I was saved from a night wild camping next to the road somewhere, the legality of which I am unsure of. Needless to say I left enough of a tip with the reception staff to buy all of them a drink or two.

Dropping names so I don’t have to sleep in my car.

The hotel, incidentally, is the Makalani, and I thoroughly recommend it for N$450 (€30) a night and the most helpful staff I have ever met. The owner also knows his way around Tsumeb’s nightlife, to which I can attest with enthusiasm.

Tsumeb, despite being an adventure in its own way, was simply a stopping point on the way up to the Hai||om settlement on a resettlement farm at a place called Mangetti, named after the Mangetti nuts (|Gom) that grow on the trees (|Gom hais) around there. I’d been there before. It was the field site of my supervisor when he studied his PhD, and everyone there knew him well. The last time I went, however, I looked incredibly different (curly mop, beard, and about twice as big) so I did not expect them to remember me. How wrong I turned out to be. Smiles of recognition all round from everyone there, and words to the effect that they were wondering when I would be back. It is as at home as I felt with my hosts in Brakwater, and I am looking forward immensely to doing research there. As before when I was at Ekoka, I wrote field notes, and what follows are some excepts of my impressions of the place.

Wednesday 12th November 2014

So it turns out that this is something of a flying visit. I lost, or forgot to write down, [The chap who owns a campsite  in a nearby town and who has offered to provide me with an employee of his to do translation]’s number, so on this trip I just had to turn up at [his site] and hope he was there. He wasn’t, but I had my second stroke of luck in two days in meeting the owner’s second-in-command, a !Kung guy who was the person he recommended for translation for me. We sat and had a chat, and it looks like he knows or is related to almost everyone on the farm. He was free the next day to head up there for a day and a night. I greeted him in Khoekhoe, which seemed to go down well. For last night, he gave me a spot on the site to camp, complete with flushing toilet and actual shower. I was pretty pleased with this.

Yes, that is a solar hot water tank. Luxury.

Incidentally, upon waking in the morning I also found the biggest millipede I have ever seen.

Less terrifying than the giant spiders I’ve been seeing, I’m sure you will agree.

My new translator was free at ten thirty and we proceeded on our way to the farm. I have no idea how, but I remembered the way completely, having been there only once. No pointers or map consultation needed. My translator was surprised, as was I, although I didn’t tell him that.

I’m sitting in the car writing this now because the rain is absolutely intense. I’ve never seen anything like it here. Sure, a shower of rain that comes down I can deal with here, but squalls coupled with tropical blattering is something else. I keep checking the tents through the steamy car window. Not much I can do about them right now, but I hope they will be alright. This sort of reminds me of home. It’s impossible to do a single thing outside right now without getting soaked to the skin. It seems to be slowing down just now and the wind might be dropping. I hope that’s the last of it. Let me go and check the tents. They seem okay. Wouldn’t want a night of it, though.

I didn’t expect anyone here to remember me, particularly as I’ve changed so much in the intervening time, but it turns out that either the people here have great memories for faces or hats. I was wearing the same leather wide-brimmed hat as I was last time, which is how I think the school principal here recognised me, anyway. So many people who I remember from last time have come up to me and asked how I have been. I’m honestly touched. Someone even said they’d heard rumours I was back in Namibia and was wondering when I’d turned up. I wish I was staying longer.

I managed to find the new headman (the old one passed away a few months ago, I was sorry to hear), and I was happy to see it was a chap I’d got friendly with last time. He took me for a walk around the farm in March, and stopped me from unthinkingly treading on a very poisonous snake. I may well owe this man my life. His smile was broad and warm as he shook my hand. He joined us at our camp for a cup of tea and a pinch of tobacco, and I asked him whether it would be alright to do my research here, and to conduct a task I had been set by the Legal Assistance Centre in Windhoek; a happy “yes” on both counts, which I now understand in Khoekhoe.

Headman on the left, my translator on the right, in the shade of a |Gom hais (Mangetti tree).

The task I had been set was to follow up a signature-gathering trip on a case the LAC are working on, to ask folk whether they signed it, and whether they knew what they were signing. I had a list of a few people of interest to talk to, and the headman agreed to help me locate them.

The third woman I spoke to was incredibly frustrated with the lack of progress that all outside institutions are making when they try to make life better for people at the farm. I asked what the problems are.

“We are under a lot of pressure. The Owambos fence us in from one side (she points) and the farm to the other. We cannot hunt. We are like goats in a kraal. Many cars come and they say “we can get you somewhere to stay”, but it is just empty promises. It is like they are playing a game.”

“This is really important information” I said “and thank you for sharing it, I will pass it on.”

She nodded.

“Sorry, that must sound like another empty promise”

She laughed at that. We’re taking one of her friends to the government office in Tsinsabis tomorrow so he can pick up his disability cheque. It’s some of the little money coming into this village.

We later talked to the headman, as afternoon turned to evening underneath that same Mangetti tree.

“Hunting stopped in 2008,” he said “everything [the woman] said was true.”

My translator lamented the situation; he misses hunting.

“It’s in my blood,” he points to the veins in his arm, “it’s part of me”

I said that in March I saw a man head off into the bush with a bow, and asked if hunting still went on after the ban. I didn’t get a straight answer, nor really did I expect to. It’s my job to ask, but I wouldn’t tell me either.

The last thing we talked about was the approaching storm clouds, a seemingly appropriate metaphor for the increasing problems the Hai||om seem to be facing here. We packed up, and the headman returned home. My translator left to visit a friend, and I sat in the car to start writing.

Burnt my thumb quite badly just now trying to light the stove. It must have got wet in the rain. No tea.

As for now, I sit in a B&B in the northern town of Ondangwa. I should be heading tomorrow for Ekoka and two weeks of camping at another San settlement. I can hear wind outside even now, and while I got more than my fair share of rain at Mangetti it seems not to have found its way here yet. Maybe we will get some tonight and it will be cooler tomorrow. I can but hope. The B&B is nice, and has intermittent Wi-Fi. I hope this will post alright. I’ll probably have a connection again in a fortnight or so.

For now, Tschuß!

The Good, the Bad and the Bureaucratic.

We are still praying/hoping for more than a spot or two of rain. Peter described the weather at the moment as a “tease”: we get a rough cold downdraught of of air, and black clouds overhead, followed by thunder. We can all feel it coming when the wind gets up, but alas after a dribble of water the clouds move on. We think it might actually be raining, but the raindrops are evaporating before they hit the earth, and going back up to form clouds again. There is a meteorological name for this, however being but a mere social scientist I forgot it instantly when I was told.

It’s unsurprising the rain has never made it down, really. I found out upon my return to Windhoek that the temperatures I regarded as “unbearable” in Ondangwa were justifiable: Forty-two degrees in the shade. You cook meringues at that temperature (thanks, Mum!). You can also cook anthropologists as well. Such has been the heat that it got down to twenty degrees one evening and I had to go and find my jumper as I was shivering. It’s cooled down a tiny bit now; here in Windhoek I’d put it back down to the low thirties, which is fast becoming a comfortable temperature for me. The other thing the heat has driven me to is shaving my beard of five years completely off my face. As well as the fact that I am getting quite dark-skinned and my hair is fast becoming a foofy absurdity, I no longer recognise myself. Nor, apparently, do people who I last saw in March. I’m putting this down (at least with non-white Namibians) to the fact that I was told in Owamboland that all white people look the same. I wouldn’t know if that’s true or not, obviously being one. Answers on a postcard, please. I am also now sleeping under a net every night, besieged by beetles on every side, and hordes of mosquitoes intent on molesting me should I awake in the night and need to use the bathroom.

(No, you are not getting a picture. I eschew blog “selfies” because I am 24 years old now and officially a grumpy old man. Get off my lawn.)

I returned to Windhoek to renew my visa, and intended to stay only for a few days. We are into week number two now, mainly because getting hold of the necessary documents, which now need to be certified copies thanks to a recent rule-change, has proven somewhat difficult. My thanks to the good people at the Legal Assistance Centre (link in the sidebar) for providing me with a letter of association as well as some tasks to accomplish on their behalf when I return to fieldwork and the North. Nonetheless, it should be done and dealt with come the end of the week. I can then stay until February, when the process shall begin again. Joy of joys. The good news is that the LAC is also home to a number of people who can help me immeasurably with my research, in return for the odd bit of proofreading, which I am more than happy to do, as well as well-acquainted with  thanks to my position as one of the few native speakers in my English-medium graduate school in Germany. I’ve also been in contact with a number of researchers who have recently done work in some of my field sites, and have some reading to do of my own. All being well, I should be able to be published in a Namibian journal this year, provided I have something of value to say, which one would expect.

Windhoek has had some other advantages, too. I bought myself a guitar for camp entertainment, as I’ve been missing playing music enormously. It was a N$700 (€50) pawnshop prize, and I’m rather pleased with her. She needs a name, though.

I went into what I think is Windhoek’s only music shop in order to get spare strings and picks, and found two guys there not only incredibly happy to help, but who were also metalheads. We had a great time chatting about Opeth for a while before I reluctantly left behind a N$4000 Fender to go to Cash Crusaders and what eventually became my guitar. Some things I don’t think I can justify on expenses. Nonetheless, she seems to be holding together well, and I hope that people at the San communities I will be visiting like folk music, although it is more for my sanity than anything else.

On Saturday my hosts invited some of their relatives over for lunch. We had a great time, eating, chatting, then probably after not long enough a swim in the alarmingly green pool. However, the lack of fencing on the plot, as well as the large number of animals roaming around, developed into something of a horse-shaped problem.

At that point, the charming “Biggie” (not also known as “The Notorious H.O.R.S.E., although he really should be) had his head in the fruit bowl in the kitchen, and would not move for anyone. Eventually we took the hint and I charmed him and his cohort out of the house and garden with the promise of two bales of hay up at the stable. It’s quite hard to imagine that at one point I was quite scared of horses. This doesn’t fly here.

Lastly, I have booked myself a holiday. I’m staying in country, of course, but in between Christmas and New Year my girlfriend is coming out to visit me here in Namibia, all the way from Scotland. It will be amazing to see her after all this time, but also great to be able to do all the Namibian tourist-y stuff like visiting Etosha National Park and the Skeleton Coast without feeling guilty and like I should be working. I can’t wait to be honest, and it will be brilliant to have a two-week break just after Christmas. I might even finally get to see a big cat, although I’ve been reliably informed that this homestead here in Brakwater is home to a certain leopard, who may or may not have some cubs in the scrapheap next to the entrance. Rest assured, if I can think of a way to take pictures of them without having my arm ripped off by an irate mother, I will do so. Going and looking for them seems a prime way to get myself a Darwin Award, though.

I’m afraid that is pretty much what has been going on recently. It’s a short post, but hopefully soon I should have this visa business sorted, and be back up North doing research, as I am supposed to me. Ever it is bureaucracy that stands in the way of progress, but quite a lot of good has come of being here in Windhoek, and I’m planned out all the way through until January. Ideally next time I post I should have some more fieldnote extracts for you. We, as ever, shall see.

Tschuß!