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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!