Creature Comforts

Apparently, this is what anthropological research feels like.

By this, I mean that I am inordinately happy to have four things on this short weekend break in Ondangwa. In order of importance these are as follows:

1) Internet access. Even if it is patchy enough to induce the rage only known when the internet is temperamental enough to induce prayer in the most ardent atheist.

2) Air conditioning. I switched it on at eighteen degrees upon my arrival. I have not since touched the remote control.

3) Hot water. I can shave, and my showers do not begin with yelps of shock.

4) Decent coffee. I bought a cafetiére. Those who remember me from the dark days of my Civil Service job will know how happy/excitable/twitchy that makes me.

Oh glorious coffee, how I have missed thee!

Oh glorious coffee, how I have missed thee!

Of course these things are the sort of things I would take for granted living in most places, bar possibly the air conditioning in Europe. Living in a tent in the bush certainly makes one realise the things that make life enjoyable, the things that make life bearable, and the things that make it merely possible are often quite different. Not only that, but the various amenities I have grown up with do not always fit into the category I think they do.

Let’s take a flushing toilet for example. Now at my first field site, where I am working at the moment, I am very fortunate. We have been allowed to camp at the health centre, and is has one of these. Ekoka is the only field site that has this. But back to the question: Does a flushing toilet make life possible, bearable or enjoyable? I’ll give you a minute. Here’s some music while you decide:

Upon arrival, I would have said the second option, but really meant the first. It’s neither. You don’t really need one. Not if you have a shovel. It’s become one of those things I’d say is “nice if you can get it”.

It’s a luxury. Like internet, coffee, tobacco, alcohol, a shower, a proper bed, climate control, the means to wash your clothes, food that does anything other than fill a hole, and things to stave off boredom when you are not engaged in the business of feeding and clothing yourself, as well as (in my case) making hundreds of pages of notes and many hours of recordings.

This is something I have realised. I now look forward to hot showers and meals that didn’t come dried or in a can with almost indecent enthusiasm. I arrived at this guest house yesterday, late in the afternoon, just under twenty-four hours ago. I have showered three times, and I am on my third cafetiére-full of coffee. I appreciate little things more than I did. I think if I went and stayed in a posh hotel I would probably explode or something.

Research, such that it is, seems however to be going reasonably well. I am taking encouragement from the fact that the people at my first field site seem to like me. At the very least, they seem to be getting used to me. Only once in a remote village I had not visited before did one woman flee before me shouting that “the Boers are coming back!” Apparently white people haven’t been seen much since the South Africans blew the place up about thirty years ago.

We have had a few strange animal encounters, too. By far the most terrifying and memorable was our minor brush with one of Africa’s most venomous denizens, the Black Mamba. I do not need to give this snake an introduction, I am sure: It is legendary. Its bite, known to some as the “kiss of death”, causes collapse in forty-five minutes, and death in the seven to fifteen hours following without antivenin and treatment. Before the development of antivenin, the mortality rate from a bite was 100%.

Strangely enough, I do not fear snakes in the slightest. Spiders (almost all of which here in Namibia are completely harmless to humans) send me running for the hills, but upon our return to our camp at Ekoka after our last break the news that a mamba had been seen in the vicinity caused me more interest than alarm. I wanted to catch a glimpse of the African legend.

It took me some time to get the name of our dangerous visitor from my translator. Owambos, according to him, do not like to speak the name of it, lest they tempt fate and encourage its approach. We eventually played a strange version of Animal-Vegetable-Mineral while I endeavoured to work out why he wasn’t sitting down anywhere and wanted to borrow my torch every time he went for a pee. “Does it have legs?” and “Will I die if it bites me?” are reliable stalwarts if any of my readers here are faced with the prospect of identifying a venomous snake whose name it is unlucky to speak. I, for one, decided to call this particular one Voldemort.

Of course, as I know from a lifetime of wimping out around spiders, not seeing the snake is much more scary to most than seeing it. However we did not have long to wait. A chap who hangs around with us a lot near the health centre where we camp presented us the following afternoon with a box.

Don't panic, it was dead. That would have been the world's least funny practical joke otherwise.

Don’t panic, it was dead. That would have been the world’s least funny practical joke otherwise.

He had delivered the killing blow with a stone launched from his home-made slingshot. This consisted entirely of a Y-shaped stick and some bits of inner tube. The kill, he said, took about an hour, forcing him to dance with death around the bottom of the tree it had made its hiding place. I do not envy him. A second snake was seen some days later, however its discoverer was somewhat better-armed. A muffled boom in the distance told us that the headman’s brother had made short work of it with his shotgun. That one was bigger, I heard. Apparently little Voldy here still had some growing to do. He was already about a metre and a half long.


It would be quite cute without the deadliness

So I’ve seen a mamba. I’m pleased about this, but still more pleased everyone involved in the ordeal is alive. Once was quite enough, and I’ve no desire at all to see more of them.

On the further subject of animals, my other run-ins have been wholly less deadly, although the first was somewhat disgusting. One of the security guards at the health centre has taken to coming around to our campsite in the evenings, sometimes to share dinner with us, and sometimes just for a chat. Her English is improving, which is, I think, part of why we hang out. She turned up one evening with a handful of something crunchy which she was eating like popcorn. She offered me one.

Spoiler: It is not popcorn.

Spoiler: It is not popcorn.

The small dried insect, which I promptly ate, was horrible. She asked how it was, eating another. I tried to be as polite as I could. I think what I said was that it “wasn’t really my thing”. What I meant was that it tasted like cow dung. Obviously I didn’t say that, as I didn’t want to be rude. She intoned, conversationally, that they live in the field, and eat cow dung.

I will not be eating any more of them.

Aside from the weird things I insist upon eating, my other encounter with animals is far more conventional, and a whole lot more adorable. My translator told me that his mother wanted another dog to replace her most recent one, and far out in the bush, at the same place where I was mistaken for a South African, one of the dogs had just had a litter. He bought one, and we took care of him for a couple of days before our return to Ondangwa, where he would find his new home. This is the couple-of-weeks old puppy, which my translator christened Buddy.

Very confused but very very adorable, I think you will agree.

Very confused but very very adorable, I think you will agree.

Sadly, the downside is that for the journey back to Ondangwa my car did have a distinct aroma of puppy pee. Washing the floor mat and a couple of air fresheners will hopefully have sorted it out by tomorrow.

For my sanity, what I have decided to do is to implement a two-week on, weekend-off cycle of research, giving me a good bit of time in a chunk at my field site for the time I am here, with some points at which I can update myself with goings-on in the world at large via WiFi (such that it is) at regular intervals. I think that should work.

It’s Sunday today, which means I have one more night in this luxurious bed with the cool of air-conditioning before returning to my tent. I think I will enjoy it. I might even have another coffee.


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