Here we go

So it turned out I could shave a good couple of hundred Euros off my flights if I booked ones for tomorrow (Saturday 13th) rather than today, so that is what I did. Thanks to the excellent German public transport network, I can fly from Munich. As the Germans are big on reducing folks’ carbon footprint, many airlines, South African Airways included, have signed up to the Rail-and-Fly program. This means the six-hour, normally €140 journey on the high-speed ICE train costs me nothing, and I get to sit in a special Lufthansa carriage all the way there, getting a nice view of the Bavarian scenery. One ticket, costing €750, will get me all the way from Köln Ehrenfeld station, about two hundred metres from my room where I now sit, to Hosea Kutako airport Windhoek. Incredible. My travel schedule, however, is a long one. Six hours on the train to Munich, a wait in the airport, a ten-hour flight to Johannesburg, another wait in the airport, then two hours flying to Windhoek. This is over about two days, and I will catch the train at about eleven tomorrow morning, arriving in Windhoek at twenty past three on Sunday afternoon. I’ve booked a guest house to check into at four.

It’s all sorted, everything is booked, and all I need to do now is check in to my flights this evening online, scrambling with everyone else on the flight to get myself a bulkhead seat for my unfeasibly long legs. I then need to find a printing shop on the way to the station to print off the boarding pass, which shouldn’t be too difficult.

Packing has been a bit of a chore, although thanks to the guy replacing me in my room being 1) a car owner and 2) absolutely brilliant, getting the stuff I’m not taking to Namibia to the office to live under my desk for a year was not too much trouble. Gretel is now safely stowed in another friend’s basement, and after what I think qualifies as an actual physical fight with my stuff, I’ve also packed my bags.

Here is the stuff I’m putting in the hold, which all fit into a 65L hiking rucksack (reluctantly) and weighs about nineteen kilos.


Yes, that is an Irish tin whistle and accompanying book. As I’ve had to leave my guitar and mandolin in Cologne for the next year (although I plan to buy a cheap guitar there) I thought I might take the opportunity to learn some tunes on the whistle. I’ve always liked the idea of an instrument I can fit in my pocket, but the draw of the mandolin for fiddle tunes has, until now, proved too much. No choice now, so time to learn. The funny black thing in the bottom right corner is also an amazingly-compact giant solar panel, which I found in the office. Apparently there are perks to being on an anthropological project with a hefty budget. I’ve also had to pack a little strategically: Johannesburg airport has a bit of a theft problem, and I lost a mobile phone last time. I am preparing by topping off the side and lid pockets with my dirty socks from the days before. Heh heh heh.

Here is what I am taking with me on the plane:


The Indy hat, I will admit, seems overkill, but it was invaluable last time against the terrifyingly powerful Namibian sun. The map of Namibia that has been on the wall for the last couple of months is also coming with me.

And here is the lot of it together:


This is everything I will own in Namibia until I buy a car. I will then fill that car with camping equipment and live out of it for the next year. It should be good.

I’ve got a good couple of hours before I can check in online for my flight, and similar to my earlier blog post about Karneval, just before I left last time, I think that this one was probably a little frenetic. I certainly feel frenetic. Maybe I’ll wax my boots again. I sure as hell am not repacking the bloody rucksack.

See you in Africa, Tschuß!

Delayed departure

Well, it turns out that thanks to one thing and another, I’ve had to keep putting off my date of departure to Namibia. The main problem has been getting hold of the visa. I’ve been doing it through an agency in Windhoek, and the representative there let me know that my permit to research has in fact been approved some time ago. This is fantastic. All I needed to do was to pay the relatively paltry sum of N$870 (about €50) to get it emailed to me. Having done this, I was promptly emailed to let me know that the money would be sent to the Namibian Home Office on Monday (yesterday) and that they would issue it in “the next few days” with my agent emailing it to me “the moment [she] receives it”. Being as my departure was previously set for Friday, in three days’ time, this poses a number of problems. Sure, it is possible that my visa will be dispatched in time, but landing in the country without one (and without a return flight on the cards to prove I am going to leave again) is a definite no-no. I do not fancy an expensive return to Europe with my tail between my legs.

So, as it is I have delayed my departure once again, hopefully for what is to be the last time. My revised departure date is now September 12th, and I have emailed my agent in Germany to instruct him on booking a single flight. The idea of booking a one-way flight to Namibia is a little bit frightening, although by now I am just desperate to actually be on my way. I’ve been preparing for this for a good amount of time now, and could do without further delays, not to mention constantly leaving my German friends in a state of flux as to whether they will see me again or not. I’ll feel better when I actually board the damn plane.

The good news is that I seem to be able to get a direct flight from Frankfurt to Windhoek on the relatively-new Air Namibia, on their only long-haul service. This saves me a fifty-minute dash through Johannesburg O. R. Tambo’s bustling terminal, not to mention the painfully-slow passport-stamping practices it enjoys. I was surprised at my agent’s choice, given the only recent resumption of long-haul fights to Hosea Kutako Airport Windhoek, on account of their not having enough safety equipment to reasonably put out a massive fire on the runway. Reassuring stuff. It seems they’ve gone and bought enough fire engines now, though. I also didn’t fancy an impromptu trip to Gabarone when I didn’t ask for it. I’m sure Botswana is lovely, but, you know, I’ve got appointments. As some of the Namibians I know might say: “Welcome to Africa!”

Back in terms of preparations here (as ever they must go on) I visited the doctor this morning for a fairly confusing run-through of vaccinations, and received a much-welcomed prescription for antimalarial medication, which is Doxycycline. I am not really thrilled about this, but Frau Dr. knows best. I also shudder to think how much four months’ supply of the damn stuff is going to set me back. Drugs are pricey here in Germany. Sadly, I am going too soon in the future to make Rabies (Tollwut) vaccination a possibility, but I’ll just stay away from dogs, as I did in India a few years ago. That should go fine. Still, I’m not sure what they put in those other vaccines but I’m a bit dazed and achey now. Maybe that has something to do with the four hours’ of sleep I’m coasting on, though, and the large quantity of coffee. It was a useful two hours’ spent at the Uniklinik, however, and at least the flesh is willing to travel even if the mind is weak.

Fun fact I discovered in the waiting room: the German translation of “resuscitation” makes it look excitingly like you can take lessons in necromancy at Cologne University.

The friendly face of zombie science.

Pictured: The friendly face of zombie science.

On that note, I think I’ve got about fourteen emails to fire off again, and I’m sure my kit list needs checking for the umpteenth time.


On waiting and becoming German

Most of my life at the moment seems to revolve around waiting for things. I’ve written before on the phenomenon fellow Africanists call “Standard African Time”, and I am beginning to feel its effects. What I wait for at the moment is my visa to come through that will tell me I can enter Namibia, and stay for three months. I will attempt to renew this documentation while there. Getting all the documents I needed was a challenge, but finally, a good few weeks ago, I had compiled everything I needed, and sent them via email to my agency contact in Windhoek, promptly recieving… nothing.

This agency seems to think themselves above emails acknowledging receipt, so all I can really do at this point is hope that someone in the Namibian government is considering my application. We shall see. It’s not kept me up too many nights worrying, mainly because I can’t fit it in when I have so much else to worry about as well. I’ve sorted my equipment and my finances, even if I have to hire a car for a bit, but my insurance, my medical assessment and my drugs to fend off the spectre of Malaria are still in the works. Maybe at some point I will have some free time to read some anthropology.

Preparing for an expedition is a bit more fraught with stress than you would think, but you won’t catch me complaining too much. At least when I actually board the plane to Windhoek (whenever that is) I will know that even if I am not totally prepared, there is bugger all I can do about it at that point. This relying-on-other-people-to-get-stuff-done business is almost as frustrating as having to rely on myself to do it all. Not quite, though. After this, organising anything will feel like a walk in the park, and part of me is beginning to think that this might be the most useful function of my PhD, even considering the whole business of contributing to the academic landscape and developing my skills as an anthropologist. Anthropology is actually the easy part. I trained for that. Maybe I’d feel better if I’d taken an undergrad course on “Dealing with Bureaucrats 101”. Take note, Edinburgh University.

Nonetheless, I had a rather enjoyable break recently from the constant stress with a short trip back to Edinburgh, in which I discovered that I accidentally am becoming German.

I’ll explain.

After a really nice dinner at an Indian place in Stockbridge, the waiter brought over the bill. Without thinking, and on automatic, I pick it up and start vocally adding everything up on it, to try and work out what everybody had so we can split it up. Cue stares from my dinner companions, along with a question as to why I had to be so exact and clinical about it.

Ah, I thought. Not what is done here.

In the UK, if you don’t know, fairly common practice in a group at a restaurant is to roughly divide the bill by the number of people, maybe with a couple of extra pounds here and there if somebody had steak or an aperitif. In Germany, by contrast, not only is separate payment considered the norm, but the waiter or waitress will often ask what you had, add up your individual bill yourself and take separate payment for it, in which you include a tip. I find this altogether more fair and logical, but apparently this is not shared in Britain. This way, as I argued, I made sure that nobody paid for anything I had but they didn’t, but the way it seems to the British observer is that I want to make sure that I didn’t pay for anything I didn’t have.

I think I finally understand two things. Firstly, why the Germans are sometimes perceived as rude by the British, and secondly why Germans on the whole are completely mystified as to why they might come across this way. This particular social dance has echoes in it of the curious German practice of some married couples, instead of having one double bed, having two single beds pushed together with two separate duvets, thus eliminating the perennial problem of bedclothes-larceny and allowing the sensible early-rising German to make their bed in the morning whether or not their equally sensible spouse has arisen yet, all in one fell swoop. This leaves more time for eating black bread and cheese for breakfast before making your way to work, not forgetting of course to put on your Hausschuhe upon rising lest a tiny amount of your body heat be transferred to your icy tiled floor.

The German way of doing things is empirically easier. There is no doubt about this. It’s cleaner, it’s neater, everybody gets what they want, and we’re all a bit less stressed. But for Brits it’s not really about that, at all. For us, if it all goes swimmingly, something of the magic is lost. I think Brits (who, thanks to my recent restaurant faux pas, I’m not entirely still comfortable throwing myself in with), don’t really want the most efficient way to pay for their dinner, or to stay warm at night. Sure, you might end up in a bit of a verbal spat over whether getting the prawn instead of the chicken Madras was really your idea, but that’s part of the night out, in some strange way. Even if your spouse or partner is the most appalling duvet-related petty criminal, you wouldn’t have them any other way, and sleeping alone is faintly sad partly because you don’t wake up blearily at four in the morning wondering whether your vivid dream about seal-hunting with the Inuit was more than just the result of some dodgy prawns that you sure as hell didn’t ask for. And I do miss it. Maybe it’s something about a leopard and spots.

I think one of the main issues is that if things went well then the British couldn’t complain about stuff, and this is well-acknowledged to be a national pastime. This is why we invent sports like cricket and tennis, that can only really be played in good weather.

Nevertheless, I’ve now found myself on the German end of a cultural misunderstanding, and what I find interesting is how naturally the German way of eating out has come to me. Having never lived in a different culture for any longer than a couple of months, this is an entirely new experience. My German friends, upon hearing this anecdote, were rather pleased. Less with the rubbing off of their culture upon me, that is to be expected after eight months, but more about how happy I was for it to have happened. To put this anthropologically, I feel like I’m inhabiting a liminal space more and more: living in the spaces between the lines. I’m sure any expats can empathise. I’m still quite happy about it though. All that remains is to actually learn a bit more of the language.

Well, as much as I can before I depart again. While writing I did actually receive email confirmation that my visa was being processed, so I take back what I said about the agency in Namibia. Not enough to delete it, though.


Adventures with Gretel

I finally decided to make the trip out of Cologne I’ve been planning for ages. I didn’t go far, but being raised in the country has left me with a tendency to feel somewhat bereft if I spend too long in the absence of fields, trees and other “natural” things. I don’t have a map, and my mobile telephone is notoriously unreliable when it comes to accessing maps on the move, so I decided to rely on my intuition. Bearing in mind where this has got me before, I decided to follow the road I live on until it exits the city, and just see how far the outskirts of the biggest cities in the industrial Rhineland go.

A quick glance at Google maps showed what looked like a lake, so I thought it best to aim for it.

Screenshot from 2014-07-03 15:43:09

Upon cycling out, however, after the normal car park that you’d associate with a natural-ish thing just outside of city limits, I found what amounted to a filled-in quarry, complete with signs telling me not to swim, as if it had looked particularly inviting beforehand. Even in the thirty degree Rhineland sunshine, diving in there would have taken a bravery that I think crosses the line into stupidity. I was disappointed about the lack of natural-ness, but not deterred. I passed what looked like still-working quarry equipment, and continued on my way, wondering how much Gretel (my dutch bicycle) could handle as the rocks on the dusty road seemed to grow in size the farther I got from the main road.

I passed a stables, and found myself on a farm track leading through a wheat field. At last, I thought, here I am in The Country. If I pretend not to see the cooling towers and the massive power lines, this almost feels like a very flat, very warm Lowlands. I felt at home. For one thing, past the stables, I didn’t encounter a single soul, and couldn’t hear a single car. This, living in Ehrenfeld as I do, home to boy racers and wandering drunks by the pubload, was a welcome relief.


2014-07-03 12.18.20

Actually, more than anything else, I was reminded of trips into the English countryside during my six years of living in the home counties (those posh bits around Lahndahn where you’re judged on the amount by which your house increased in value, and the ways on which you hold forth upon this topic at Come-Dine-With-Me-style dinner parties) and it was altogether pleasant. Thirty degrees of sunshine and (I cannot stress this enough) no bloody people made for a fantastic lunchtime ride.

I was struck once again with a nice bit of luck as I rounded the corner at the end  of the track above. Squinting through the haze, I could just about see the top of the highest building in Cologne, the fantastically ugly Colonius tower. Fantastically ugly it may be, but it marks my home district, and meant that despite seeing nothing but fields and trees around me, I could orient myself without compass or map, and find my way home.

2014-07-03 12.28.34

It was approaching twelve, and it is the beginning of July, so a break at the copse in the middle of the wheat field was in order. I’d been prepared enough to bring two litres of water, for which I was very grateful to my former self, however I had not thought to buying anything for lunch, full up as I was upon my leaving with tea, toast and Marmite. I’m still on the Namibian supply of that stuff, and need to head to the English Shop (no joke folks) soon to get some more. Nonetheless, I was in a field, and a handful of heads of wheat rolled in between your hands frees up a surprising amount of grain. Along with the water and a bit of shade, it did nicely. I also found what I thought might be a badger set, unless anyone reading this knows otherwise.

2014-07-03 12.37.25

Rested, refreshed and with the faint taste of grass and flour in my mouth, I made back for Colonius along a new farm track, glad I could make something of a round trip of it, and feeling like I’d done a bit of exploring to boot. I weaved back and forth between fields and bits of woodland, noticing even here that the cycle paths were not only present, but signposted with distances in kilometres to the next town. I must say, the Rhineland cycle infrastructure has impressed me. Apart from some token efforts in parks and cities, my homeland seems rather far behind in this regard. We can only blame the hills for so long, countrymen! What is more, I encountered a couple of my first serious hills on Gretel, and she handled them magnificently.

I did find a lake in the end, along with some blackberries that will be an excellent dessert for the Rhineland hunter-gatherer in about a month.

2014-07-03 13.02.48

Alas, they were still too green. The lake was nice though:

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Distinctly industrial-machinery-free, for which I am grateful. All in all, I think a rather successful trip. I feel like the city isn’t the entire world, which is a bonus, and I found out that Gretel can handle (or should that be Hansel?) quite a lot more than I gave her credit for as a city-trundler. I may make that epic Europe bicycle trip yet. I’ll be careful, though. I might cycle everywhere now, but that can’t have been more than thirty kilometres, and my legs are already complaining. Looks like I have some work to do.

For now, Tschuß!

The World Cup, Return to Scotland and how Thor hates the Rhineland

Well, once again, it has been far, far too long. I’ve been back in Germany for a good two months now, with a visit back to Scotland thrown into the mix, and am once again in the preparation stages for my mammoth trip back out to Namibia, this time for twelve months. We will see how that goes. At the moment, I’ve just submitted and got feedback on a roughly 6000-word proposal, which may give you the erroneous impression that I know something of what I am doing with the next year or so. Please do not get the wrong idea. I do not.

Nonetheless, with the proposal under my belt, and a big list of things to do to make sure the Namibians won’t chuck me out, I will now take a break and turn to what is really actually important in Germany right now.



In case you were not aware, there is some football on at the moment, and my adoptive country’s team seem to be doing rather well. I’ve never really been one for sport; being from the UK makes most international sporting events a wincing exercise in plumbing the depths of anticlimax and disappointment, but since füßball seems to drive the people here a bit mad, it makes sense to get at least a little bit into it. I refused to buy a shirt, but thanks to a good friend I now have a rather fetching tricolour cape. The next Germany game is on Saturday, and all being well I should be watching it from a biergarten next to the Rhein in nearby Bonn, which I’ve never been to, and which I have been told is rather pretty. It has to be, in comparison to Cologne, although I don’t like talking much about how ugly and modern the architecture is given that it was sort of our fault. Ahem.

Well, I can pretend I’m going to see the city of Bonn as much as I like, but when we managed a four-to-nothing victory over Portugal, I couldn’t help whooping and cheering and really getting into it, so of course I’ve got to show my support für unsere Jungs as well. I’m not the only one getting really into it. Football also seems to bring out the latent patriotism Germans have. You won’t catch them flying the national flag very often, but as with Karneval, when they do show it, do they ever.

Well, I did find this on Reddit's /r/schland board, but you get the picture.

Well, I did find this on Reddit’s /r/schland board, but you get the picture.

All fun and games. Aside from that, I had a rather enjoyable trip back to Scotland recently, the first time for about six months that I actually went to my home country. As expected I both drank and spent far too much in Edinburgh, and everyone laughed at me when I forgot myself and used my newly adopted “Ja, genau!” interjections in conversation, but it was great to see some of the old crowd again. It is very strange going back to the country you have almost always lived in as a visitor. I kept looking at people on the street when I heard them speaking English, feeling very rude as I could accidentally eavesdrop on their conversations, although to be fair I have got better at doing that in German, even if my own German is still embarrassingly poor. I suppose it gets better with time, which to some extent it already has.

After Edinburgh, I saw the folks up north, complete with our new woolly and snuffling acquisitions (the eleven sheep and the two pigs respectively), and have decided that while the sheep are somewhat endearing their stupidity and timidness is a little wearing, and the pigs are far more entertaining as company. One of them will be Mum and Dad’s Christmas dinner, I am told.

Sausages, anyone?

Ham, anyone?

Home means feeding these guys, as well as chasing them around.

Home means feeding these guys, as well as chasing them around.

It’s actually quite fun, and being able to tell people on fieldwork as well as in Germany that Mum and Dad are smallholders/farmers makes for interesting chats, as well as something in common with about ninety percent of the Owambo and Herero people I meet when I’m out in Namibia. I know this because the first thing I was always shown was pictures of a man’s cattle. There was sometimes a picture of his family in there too, but not always. I should get some of these printed to show people.

The other upside of Mum and Dad having a croft is that I can work a tractor. Well, barely.

Life Skills(tm)

Life Skills(tm)

Needless to say, I put the flail mower over a rock on the acre of grass I was mowing and broke the failsafe shear bolt, with the uneven grassy result reminding me why I don’t shave very often. Still, if anyone needs a mini tractor driving about, I’m your man. It was quite fun, actually, and in combination with the fishing and the mountain climbing meant that I had my regular dose of countryside, which I desperately need. I’ve lived in cities for about six years now, and they still make me antsy.

My return to Cologne was punctuated by probably one of the worst storms I think I have ever seen, including the ones I experienced in Africa. I was sitting out on the grass with a colleague enjoying the warm weather, the clouds not bothering us too much as perseverance in the face of weather is something of a Northern European speciality. Granted, we were a little concerned when the sky turned green and a breeze got up, but I was not too concerned, having not seen extreme weather in Cologne before. I learned later from some Americans that when the sky turns green, you run. Good information.

Apparently, weather in Cologne is perfectly capable of being extreme. The gusts that followed tore branches off the trees beneath which we sat, and bowled over my poor bicycle Gretel. I picked her up and along with Enid bolted for shelter. I have to say, I cannot remember before that day actually running in fear for my life before. We dodged more falling widowmakers, and finally took refuge in Enid’s flat, which I was unable to leave for an hour as rain pelted the windows and the most phenomenal forked lightning rent the sky overhead. Thus went my first night back in Germany.

I learned later we had been very lucky for a number of reasons. It turns out it was a bit more than your regular storm. I landed in Düsseldorf about an hour and a half before the Nordrhein-Westfalen was hit by that apocalyptic weather system, and was fortunate enough to be able to get a train before they all stopped for a good number of days. My bicycle ride back from Enid’s flat to my own after the worst had passed was incredible, swerving around fallen trees and giant puddles in streets still thankfully very quiet as people stayed in waiting for it to happen again. I have since revised my thoughts on extreme weather in the Rhineland.

Nonetheless, I still remain here and in one piece, and ready for the next crazy adventure for either Germany or Namibia to throw at me. I’ve learned it could be either that does it.




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:


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.


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.



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.


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:



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:


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!

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.


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.


 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.


             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:


           And Boy Howdy, can it.

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


   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!


Kölle Alaaf!

I’m writing from my bed in my Ehrenfeld room/cell (I am still yet to buy furniture) and surrounded by the stuff I am going to be taking to Namibia. Today. I’ve checked, double-checked and triple-checked my kit, my documents and everything else, and I think I should be good. I’m catching the train to Frankfurt in a couple of hours, and from then on to Johannesburg, and Windhoek. I’m pretty nervous, so this post may be a little frenetic.

But that isn’t what this post is about. As you may or may not be aware, Karneval happened recently. It’s Cologne’s Mardi Gras. To attempt to put this succinctly, the entire city goes off its rocker (to use my supervisor’s expression) for about a week, everyone gets drunk and wanders around in costumes. It’s a massive mashup of culture, a mix of Cologne’s Catholic tradition and the pagan past. Parades are everywhere, and there’s always a party. I don’t know whether it’s that Germany has some sort of wholesale cultural repression going on most of the time, but when they open the valve, it is wild. I’ll admit that when Thursday came around I had no idea what was about to hit. I’ve drunk more in the last week than I think I did in the last year, met some amazing people, and even managed to speak some German.

Costume-wise, I am eternally grateful to David, one of my old Scottish government colleagues, for getting me a joke present upon my departure. Karneval for those unfortunate enough to be out with me, looked like this:

Yes that is me. Yes it is terrifying.

Yes that is me. Yes it is terrifying.

To be honest, after so long, I am sick of the bloody sight of it. Goodness knows what my flatmates must think. I have temporarily retired it to being mounted on the clothes horse in the hall, until I shall call upon its services again. It was a good conversation starter, though.

The best costumes, of course, are the home-made ones, and there were some breathtaking outfits out there. Here’s what my colleague Felix looked like:

It’s not even a costume.

Magnificent. I only regret you can’t see his tail. I partied with sailors, pandas, Scotsmen (shouty drunk Germans in kilts are brilliant) and still others not definitively something or other, just using the excuse to wear the loudest, most garish outfit they could cobble together out of their wardrobe.

Most of Karneval’s many, many evenings were spent at what I am now sure is my favourite place in Cologne, a bar called Qlosterstüffje (I know, I can’t say it either), which was great because not only was it full of weirdos like me, but all the profits went to keine jeck es illejal (no one is illegal) a great and worthy cause supporting refugees in Germany. Never have so many drunk so much for such a good cause, I am sure. I even knew some of the songs they were playing, although it being Karneval it meant that there were about ten cheesy ones all on loop, and all of which I can probably hum right off the top of my head. Nobody minded, though, least of all me. The oddest moment had to be when the entire bar sung about kicking the bourgeoisie up the arse and establishing full communism, for no other reason than the DJ put the song on. I couldn’t stop laughing.

The anthem for the local football club (1 F.C. Köln) was also played liberally. It is rather bizarrely sung to the tune of Runrig’s Loch Lomond, so for a full evening I just thought the bar was making an effort to make me feel at home, while I brazenly sung the Scottish words as everyone else was singing about football. There is another traditional Kölsch song sung to the tune of Highland Cathedral, but I didn’t pay that much attention to it at the time because I simply assumed I was delerious.

Days in Cologne were punctuated by some amazing parades. Floats and marching bands walked through the streets in a gigantic procession lasting hours at a time, and there was one for every single district. Here’s a bit of the central one:

This city is mental.

Yes. Everything you’re thinking. It’s really like that.

What the guys in blue are doing is throwing large bars of chocolate, with surprising force, at a crowd of people with their arms up. All of the costumed Kölners below are shouting “Kamelle!” (“sweets” in the Kölsch dialect). This goes on for about three hours as the parade makes its way into town. When I say that, I mean that if you stand in one place the procession will take that long to pass you.

Even better, the Ehrenfeld parade passed right by our open window. My flatmates and I spent the afternoon in the first-floor flat downstairs shouting out the windows and dodging hefty chocolate bars as they threatened to brain us. All of this takes place in a slightly beery haze, mind you, so even when there’s a direct chocolate hit it doesn’t hurt too much.

So after all that, there was only one evening of Karneval left. The last night was a bit more subdued than the ones before. I’m not sure if it was Cologne’s collective hangover, or just mine, but I didn’t feel up to as much of a party on the final night. There was, however, a ritual burning of an effigy.

Once again finding myself in Qlosterstüffje, a torchlit procession made its way solemnly out the door. It was accompanied by a figure on a stretcher. We followed as it wound its way through the darkened alleyways to a platz beyond. There, the crowd laid the figure upon the stone, and we fell silent as sheets with collective chants were handed out.

It was dark, and I can’t pretend to know everything that was said, but a whispered translation from a friend gave me the gist of it. This figure represented all of our sins from the past year, the sins that Karneval was to see the end of.

The poem was read, and we chanted, whooping and hollering before the figure was set alight. As it burned, we leapt through the flames. I’m pretty sure I’m totally sin-free now. Or at least I was on Wednesday, when I woke up with a smoky jacket and the sort of hangover I might have called “bad” before Karneval.

Cologne feels different now. I’m not sure whether it has changed, or I have, but I certainly feel we’ve got to know each other better over the last couple of days. I might be nervous about heading to Africa for a month, but I’ve taken in so much culture here in Cologne that I’m pretty certain I could write a PhD just about the general weirdness that seems to overtake this part of Germany every now and then.

I love it here. See you in Namibia. Tschuß!

Papieren, bitte!

So it’s been a while since my last update: I’ve been colossally busy.

Namibia looms closer, and two conferences along with its associate work and socializing, not to mention the fact that three Scots decided to drop in last week, means that I’ve had hardly any time to cram in the odd article or two about hunter-gatherers, but I do feel like I’m getting somewhere, which is nice I suppose.

I’m currently in the process of designing/re-applying some social experiments to try out in the field next month, just to see if they work, as my supervisor secured some funding from a US university on the understanding that we help them out with the cognitive anthropology stuff they’re working on. Lots of questions about relationships with nature, and the conception of points of view in hunter-gatherer society. It’s interesting, and has a big literature basis, so I now feel like I’m trying to read everything on earth that was ever written, ever. I hope this works out.

On the learning German front, I’ve actually had a couple of breakthroughs. It turns out that before a week after your arrival, you are supposed to go and register with the city of Cologne at your local council office so you can get your papers with the scary eagle stamp on them.

Forgive me for finding this absolutely terrifying.

Forgive me for finding this absolutely terrifying.

I did that only the other week, but the civil servant I spoke to didn’t seem to mind. The main thing I got out of my interaction with her was that civil service offices are the same everywhere. We had a bit of a laugh about dealing with the public, but only after she asked where I was from, I said “Scotland” automatically, and she spent a good ten minutes wondering why my country wasn’t on the system. Whoops. I sheepishly corrected myself and said “Great Britain”. She then thought my passport made a lot more sense.

However, my actual breakthrough moment was just before this. Upon my entering the Stadt building, I went up to the receptionist and told her in German that I don’t speak much and was wondering if she spoke English. She didn’t. An earlier version of me might have left in shame, however I decided to press on. I said “Registieren mein Wohnung”, which I’m convinced makes absolutely no sense, but she fired off a paragraph in response in which I recognised the words, along with “new resident” and “take a ticket and wait to be called”. I indicated my understanding, thanked her and I’m pretty sure what she said in response was “See, we didn’t have to speak English did we?”

I was on cloud nine all day. And I have my papers. Dad says that this means when we play “Escape from Colditz” at Christmas I now always have to play the German.

Because Germans just love a deep and throughtful depiction of their history.  Fun fact - This box art is illegal in this country.

Because Germans just love a deep and thoughtful depiction of their history.

I also went and got a haircut today. This does not sound like much, but is unbelievably nerve-wracking when the only relevant phrase you know is “Can you cut it short, please?”. I was steeling myself for the Evie from V for Vendetta look, however the nice woman cutting my hair decided the best thing to do was to err on the side of caution. As a bonus I got to find out what a professional stylist thinks looks good on me, with almost no input from me. I have mixed feelings about this. It’s not quite as short as I usually would get, and when she put stuff in it she clearly had something of the 1950s on her mind. Thankfully with the stuff washed off I do not look like a member of the Stray Cats.

Style incarnate.

Style incarnate.

So all in all, my German is getting better, and I am eternally grateful for this. There is so much more to learn, but learning your second language is no picnic.

Lastly, and with regard to the blog, you may have noticed my decision to put more pictures in my posts. Eventually, there will be more actual pictures of Cologne, however this relies on my owning a camera, which I will before I go away, hopefully.

I’ve told the university I need one, so fingers crossed. Academics really do live their lives on expenses. I shall post again before I go to Namibia. There may even be photos of Karneval. More to come.



Fahrradmarkt und mehr!

Today, I finally decided to buy myself a new form of transport. Behold:

Taking this made me the world's biggest poser.

Taking this made me the world’s biggest poser.

Between the delightfully old-fashioned swept-back handlebars and the dynamo that would not be out of place in an early 20th Century technology museum, I rather fell in love with this when I saw it among its fellows at the bicycle market in Cologne.

I was tipped off about the market; it travels around the city week by week, and is a veritable treasure trove of old bikes in various states of repair and various stages of sale, maintained by people of all ages who really love what they do. An older chap, complete with pungent cigarillo, immediately decided he would sell me a bike that day. He was undeterred by my lack of German, and chattered away happily about his charges while I picked out words to repeat back, nodded, smiled and hoped he wasn’t asking me a question. With the help of a translator, however, he did eventually make the sale. Turns out this one was very special because it had once been his (and if you’ll believe that, I’ve got some great investment opportunities for you with only a small pre-payment).

I haggled him down a bit, and then he sold me a lock as well, but only after he tried to get me to upscale to the most massive lock he could find as the one I’d chosen was the “one that housewives choose”. I was not discouraged by this attempt at igniting my latent masculine insecurity, however, as I was reminded of the discerning and valued judgement of the archetypical Hausfrau.

Excited, I pedalled off home through the sheets of maliciously-timed drizzle, pausing only to remember halfway up the street that I was supposed to be on the right side of the road. This corrected, I locked up my newest investment in the stairwell and decided I would wait for the rain to stop before exploring.

As it turned out, it was not far off sunset by the time I could go out for a ride. As you may have predicted: I got lost. I had some grand plans to cycle from my lodgings in the North to the Rhine, and managed this without issue. The path North looked far more interesting, as I’d not seen it before, and I trundled happily along before deciding a few kilometres later that as I didn’t know Cologne even had a shipyard (It does, and it’s called “Neil”), it was probably time to head home. I managed to get from the river into some identical-looking residential streets. From that point on I managed to see every single identical-looking residential street north of the main ring-road.

The centre of Cologne is reasonably easy to navigate, mainly because it takes the form of a spider’s web. You can work out where you are by the long circular roads going round, the many parks, and the straight roads branching out from the Altstadt (old town) in the very middle. Everything outside is, in comparison, a mess. I was lost somewhere in Nippes, which is a lot bigger than I thought it was. Google Maps (partially loaded thanks to the poor reception) thankfully guided me back, and thus I am not cycling around there still.

So I now have a bike. This is great, and means I can save money on the trams while getting fitter than I was (not a hard task) simply getting from A to B. Sure, my legs seem to hurt quite a bit and the back-pedalling to brake has been my undoing at far too many junctions, but these are problems solved with experience. The important thing is that Cologne just got a lot smaller, and more fun to get around in.

As a side note, I managed to see the world’s most determined Koelners in the park on the way to university yesterday. It being the second of February and sunny (although cold) was lovely, however I’m not sure I’d call it barbeque weather. It seems they disagreed. Many props to them, mad as they are.

Lastly, I am now based in a new flat, with all the moving completed today (it was two trips on the tube. Travelling light is brilliant). My place is now in the district of Ehrenfeld, and my new flatmates don’t speak a huge amount of English, which is nothing but a huge bonus for me. Hopefully Deutsch will be forthcoming. They seem great people, and are willing to teach me. Plus they have an N64 with Mario Kart on it, a language that transcends mere words.