Surrealism, Anthropology and Mental Health

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A Friend of Order – Rene Magritte (1964)

A few weeks ago, I found myself unable to determine with any real certainty the existence of either myself or the outside world. More specifically, I felt that I could not trust my memories. I have learned latterly that this is called “depersonalisation” or “derealisation”,  and it formed the anxious nadir of my generally-poor recent mental health. For an anthropologist and an ethnographer, losing trust in memory is deeply troubling. While I have books of field notes, my work calls upon my memories more than perhaps I would like, the ineffable qualia of the field fading the longer it has been since I returned. Memory is evidence for reality, and reality is, as some sort of scientist, what I am supposed to be studying. Not being able to trust that impression of reality is discomfiting. A certain absent-mindedness, or a problem forming short-term memories, is a byproduct of the constant fight-or-flight state in which the anxious brain resides. When one’s brain thinks it is within second of being eaten by a tiger, it seems dinner plans, for instance, are not filed as “important”. The derealisation, however, was a new and frightening development, that was set into motion by the tiniest of kinks in the order of things. I have learned since that it is a defense mechanism put into place by a brain under siege from cortisol, adrenaline and other stress chemicals, and not, happily, a sign of psychosis. I visited the doctor nonetheless.

I am relaying this because it is important for academics to write about the problems that they experience with mental health, being as a third of us will experience mental health problems over the course of our PhDs. It can often feel like we are going through our issues alone, or that they are some sort of personal failing, that we are “not cut out for this sort of work”. This is not the case, and writing about it brings us closer to an academic environment when the mental health record of its apprentices is not so poor. Ending the stigma associated with mental health issues in the academy is vital, however I have sat on this post for longer than any others out of concern for how this advertises me as an academic and an anthropologist.

Now safely being treated, I am left to ponder on what I should take from my experience with anxiety-induced derealisation. Reading James Clifford’s On Ethnographic Surrealism (1981) and revisiting my own fascination with the unreal in art seems to provide some level of insight as to what it might mean for my work. Unlike the reactionary nature of derealisation, surrealism was transgressive, and transformative, in its unreality, rebelling against the traumatic mechanism of the First World War to call for a new conceptual frame through which to look at the world. Clifford sums this up by quoting Walter Benjamin:

A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside that remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath the clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body (1969)

This feeling of trauma as a result of European degradation and barbarism seems to mirror a mind at constant war and tension with itself. Just as the human mind eventually detaches from the conventional assessment of reality, so too do the people in a broken continent eventually call for a reassessment of what constitutes “real”. In the surrealists’ Europe, this generation of Benjamin’s were hostage not to the events themselves, nor even to the trauma that they caused directly, but to the implications of the reality drawn up by the war, namely the fragility and brutality of so much of human existence.

In rejecting that reality, the surrealists were taking charge of their perceptions, rather than “checking out”, as a derealising mind does. The surrealist embraces unreality actively, rather than languishing in it passively. Seeking out unreality and luxuriating in its possibility, using the Other (in this case, the unreal) as a lens, surrealists are making decisions about reality. The valorisation of dreamscapes, as you might find in a Magritte painting, was an active decision to look somewhere else. Finding their fetish objets sauvages in “exotic” cultures, surrealists found unreality through the reification of a geographical, cultural Other, from browsing the Marché aux Puces, or from absconding to other places and directly using other cultures as tools for examining our own. The lines of similarity to ethnography are clear here, as are the clear orientalist assumptions that early 20th century scholarship is saturated with.

My own work in the field has done the job of “making the strange familiar and the familiar strange”, not least because it is anxiety over the writing up of findings that has lead to a temporary detachment from reality in the first place. But it takes a deeper and more autochthonic tone than this. Necessity leads me to adopt full-time work outside of academia, as it does for many of us, and the language used about it often takes the tone that I work “in the real world”, intensifying the unreality of the work I conduct in my spare time, the work to which I have “belonged” for so long. Does the implication that I only now work “in the real world” mean I belonged in the “unreal”? This is a scary thought, much like a derealisation experience.

We have, in true anthropological style, a Levi-Straussian dichotomy of the “real, mundane, profane ” work of the day to day, the humdrum, the nine-to-five, set against the “unreal, esoteric, sacred” work of the thesis*. One makes the other feel unreal. At no time is this clearer than now. I have just come back from a four-day excursion back to Cologne for a small conference, in which much to do with cultural mapping and decision making was discussed, and I had the privilege of taking part in some wonderful exchanges of ideas with people whom I enormously respect. Now that I have returned, the conference’s location a plane trip away from my day-to-day existence reinforces the feeling of “unreality”, and my desire to prove that it exists. Academic life for me is in a different country from the one in which I live; another place or, perhaps more correctly, an Other-place.

Like the surrealists, I too have been holding on to my own objets sauvages , totems and reminders of Other-places in which I have lived. The most mundane objects from Namibia: strings of beads I wore, a t-shirt long past its wearable state; even trash from Japan: a chopstick packet from my favourite pub, an unreadable stained fortune, a train ticket. They are proof that either the “reality” or the “unreality” of my life as an anthropologist exists, not to show others, but as evidence that what happened was somehow “real”, so far away does it feel. It is a tension that breeds great stress, as well as mono no aware, or the gentle sadness of things. The same drive that causes some to repair pots with gold leaf to celebrate the passage of time, causes me to hang on to the most mundane of items from the past as evidence for my own memories. However, by following the surrealists, and by actively embracing this feeling of unreality, by confronting and examining it, the question of “what is real?” becomes not an objective right or wrong one, but instead a choice. The question becomes not “do I belong in the real world?” but simply “where do I belong?”, a happy question because it is one of the few to which I know the answer.

Surrealism, perhaps, teaches us that by taking control of and critically examining both reality and unreality, we can deal with the inevitable breaking down that happens when our reality becomes somehow traumatic (even if we have suffered no explicit traumatic incident). Our world can certainly seem traumatic, but research on the media bubbles in which many of us ensconce ourselves shows that our realities as informed by our news media are becoming ever more polarised, and different from one another, making it hard to know what is “true”. When all of our information conflicts, it is difficult to insist upon an objective reality. Instead, we should take control of our collective and conflicting unrealities, and explore the edges and boundaries of them to find new insights. Reading the meta-message is how we now are supposed to know the news.

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Day and Night – MC Escher (1938)

Taking control is the primary drive in most anxiety-related behaviours. Frustration, irritability or even anger at a perceived lack of order is a manifestation of the will to control anything that one can in world perceived to be chaotic, disordered and untrustworthy. Escher seems to encapsulate this feeling in some ways. Even in nonsensical situations, such as in Day and Night, all feels ordered, everything fits. I always interpreted Escher not as hewing order from chaos but, like Franz Kafka, seeing the order in chaos and the illogicality and chaos that can be buried within order. The bureaucracy taken to its illogical conclusion expressed in The Trial seems to echo the inherent strangeness of the tessellations in Escher’s Day and Night and Encounter when they are brought out into the more “real” perspectives. Working now in something of a Kafkaesque situation, the order/chaos tension and harmony speaks to me even more profoundly than before.

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Encounter – MC Escher (1944)

Where am I going with all of this? The feeling of unreality one has upon returning from the field has been touched on before, but deeper in this is the question of how anthropologists think about how we relate to the world outside our discipline, and how we adapt to living in it. This has sometimes been a story of a failure to adapt, born of a desire to belong to something we conceptualise as “the real world”. This desire is, like most desires, misplaced, and the source of great suffering and anxiety. Interrogating the notion of order, control, and the desire for both, is part of dealing with this, and unreal art forms a wonderful lens through which to examine it. Tied up in all of this is the lesson which the surrealists have to teach us: that our perceptions of reality and unreality are shaped by the choices we make as well as our feelings and experiences. By embracing the feelings of unreality and critically and academically examining them, we can have a hand in shaping our own engagement with what happens to us. This is a valuable insight in a world in which “reality” feels more unpleasantly flexible than ever.

 

References

“On Ethnographic Surrealism”, James Clifford, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 23, No. 4 (Oct., 1981), pp. 539-564

*Durkheim laughs at me once again as I even now refer to academia as “the Temple” and somehow sacred in arguments about the profit motive in university, annoying even those who agree with me in fiery wine-fuelled diatribes about the small minds of businessmen, and the casting of the moneychangers from the actual temple in Jerusalem (Matthew 21:12).

Settling in, and Exploring

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Pontocho-dori, Kyoto

It’s been five days now since my arrival in Kyoto, enough to get settled in reasonably well at the African Studies Center. I write from my desk in the postgrad office, a thankfully-modern and centrally-heated building, unlike my flat, in which my breath steams in the mornings.

It turns out that I was using the kotatsu, or heated table, completely wrong. As I sat underneath it’s space-heater warmth, while I felt not unlike one trapped in a toaster I noticed the leaking of heat from the open sides of the table firstly did nothing to heat up the frigid room and secondly meant that only about ten square centimetres of me was warm at any one time.

In frustration, I took everything off the table in an effort to lift it onto its back, thinking that at least I could have a look and see if it had a higher setting. Upon attempting this, the loose top came off in my hands, revealing the frame. After a minute of thinking I’d broken it, I remembered the extra, though bizarrely square, duvet that sat folded up in the cupboard.

Behold, a correctly-used kotatsu:

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I live here now.

It is warmer, and I still have a table. The only downside is my reluctance to ever leave its warm embrace. I have never sat on the floor so much in my life. You may recall I was going to ask about a space heater, however my googling about the kotatsu found that in Japan houses are rarely well insulated, and central heating is by no means normal. My “When In Rome” anthropologist programming has taken over, and I am determined that to use anything else for warmth would make me weak.

On the occasion that I can actually extricate myself from the floor, I have mainly been exploring some of the many temples and shrines that Kyoto is famous for. I won’t see all of them. I couldn’t in a year: there are 1600 of them.

I had heard, however, that there was a Shinto shrine and garden just opposite my house, so on my first day exploring I endeavoured to find it. Having seen shrines by the side of the road, lovely little boxes with offerings to the spirits who live everywhere, I was expecting something similar. Hidden behind a wall and a line of trees, however, I found something a little different.

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Pictured: A very big box on the roadside.

Heian Shrine is in fact a miniature (Ha!) copy of the Kyoto Imperial Palace just up the road, and is a holy place considered highly important to followers of Shinto across Japan. It extends back for hundreds of metres,  a fine gravel floor on the inside. Worshippers washed their hands with small bowls on sticks outside before proceeding in. I wasn’t quite sure what I should do, however as nothing was stopping me from entering I did so. The worshippers (along with the curious author) proceeded to the far side at which time photography became expressly forbidden, so you will have to take my word for it when I say that the inside was stunningly beautiful.

An offering was made of coins into a large grille, the devotee would bow, clap twice, bow once more, then step away. They seemed content to do so with my observing, and in fact hardly seemed to notice, despite it being relatively quiet. I would feel rather self-conscious doing so.

Behind the shrine is a Japanese garden, the first one I had in fact seen, and my first glimpse into the fact that gardening in Japan is considered an art quite as much as painting or calligraphy. Even in January, it is a beautiful place:

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Everything is immaculate here.

I think the main takeaway from the gardens is how stunningly quiet they are, even positioned as they are in the middle of the city. Once you step inside, you could be in a garden anywhere. It’s fairly new, too, founded in 1895 to commemorate 1100 years since the establishment of Kyoto as the once-capital of the Empire. Perhaps that is the reason the engines of the cars on the road seem so well blocked out by the thoughtfully-placed walls and trees.

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This is exactly as peaceful as you think it is.

It made for a rather contemplative first morning, and a wander through Nishiki market (where you can “get anything”, according to Lonely Planet) was a bit of a surprising change. Nonetheless, it got me to somewhere I could experience one of the things about Japan that I had been looking forward to the most: Food.

At a small family-owned wooden restaurant just off the main market plaza, I asked, with the help of my ever-present phrasebook, for something they recommended. I was not disappointed:

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Left to right: Miso, rice, black beans, beetroot, fruit I don’t know, Tofu with fish-flakes on, egg roll, pickled ginger, salmon, and green tea. The green tea is nearly always free.

I paid between five and six euros for that lot. Not bad. I’ve decided, food-wise, to throw myself in at the deep and and eat local food as much as possible, partly because I love it anyway, and partly because the total absence of bread, cakes and cheese (had none since I got here) has got to be doing me some sort of good after Christmas. In Germany I live on bread and cheese.

I’m noticing in my diet a slowdown on meat consumption, too. I’ve eaten a bit, but where I am eating, admittedly more budget sort of places, along with the student canteen, it seems to be much smaller portions than I eat elsewhere, and more often than not tends to be fish, which I am really enjoying. I cooked some beef myself at home to put in my ramen, and there was some pork in a Chinese-style tofu dish I ate for lunch at the student canteen, but other than that for the last five days it has been fish, vegetables and either rice or noodles. The umami flavour receptors are having a wee party, I can tell you. Salt seems to be the main problem: I get the feeling I’m eating too much of it. Other than that I feel pretty good. Christmas food is nice, but getting away from the winter European diet has got to be good for me. Barring the occasional pizza craving (determined as I am not to satisfy it) I am happy with it, too.

The green tea is, as you might expect, bloody amazing, and in most food places free and unlimited. Also very high in caffeine. I am being careful as a result, and laying off coffee. One cup a day, then green tea, seems to be the ticket, and I am awake but thankfully not climbing the walls as I used to with the office percolator making half a litre of espresso for three people back in Germany.

Probably contributing to feeling good is the amazing fact that I now have my very own way to get around Kyoto:

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This is what freedom looks like.

Courtesy of the University of Kyoto in their generosity, I now have two wheels upon which to get around. I went to the bicycle shop and asked for “the biggest bike you have”. In truth, this one is still a little small for me. The saddle is held just above the “Maximum” point, and my freakishly long (for Japan) legs do still bend at the bottom of the pedal rotation but no matter. It’s comfy enough, and comes with a stand, lock and dynamo, and is my first step-through frame dutch bike. I honestly don’t think I’ll go back, they’re so convenient. Gendered assumptions about bicycles be damned, I can stop and step off this one with a load on the back at a moment’s notice.

The only thing it needs now is a name. Suggestions welcome, although in keeping with tradition since Japanese money bought the bike I think that a Japanese name would be fitting, although it has to be a rare enough one that I won’t encounter someone bearing the name later on, thus making it odd.

My days at the moment seem to consist of an hour or two’s cycling around and sightseeing in the morning, followed by working in the afternoon. I’ve not forgotten why I’m here, and it is now merely thirteen days until my presentation is in fact due to be presented on the 26th January. Fortunately, I have come up with a plan. I’ve never spoken for more than about twenty minutes on the subject of my thesis, especially in its unfinished state as it is, but it is surprising how much more I have than I thought I did. This “writing a bit, putting things away and forgetting about them” strategy means that I am happily doing more editing than actual writing next week to construct my hour-and-twenty-or-so seminar talk. I shall not be confident until it is fully written, though.

As I settle into the rhythm of living and working here in a new and unfamiliar place, I shall say, for now, sayounara!

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Kennin-ji Rinzai Zen Temple. One of the oldest Zen temples in Japan.

An Anthropologist Not In Cologne

*Blows dust from the gears and levers of An Anthropologist in Cologne*

I’m still paying for this domain, aren’t I?

Well, that’s convenient. Eighteen months’ hiatus while I wrestle with the writing of my actual PhD, and find the German environment increasingly comfortable, even as the Western world seems to crumble around me, have put the kibosh somewhat on interesting cultural observations and immigrant tales.

No longer. We’re firing up the generators once again just in time for the Anthropologist in Cologne to, er, not be in Cologne. The cycle of the travelling academic, must, it seems, go on. I’m a little closer than I was to finishing the PhD, though nowhere near where I would like to be, but sadly the ever-benevolent Landesamt für Besoldung und Versorgung Nordrhein-Westfalen, my benefactors, have as promised ended my contract with the close of 2016.

This means many things. I have said goodbye to my faithful bicycle Gretel, now passed on to another recent immigrant, who has promised to keep calling her by her name. I am leaving my wonderful flat, and saying goodbye to flatmates who have become like family to me. I have cleared out my office, spent at least half an hour tearing my hair out about why books weigh so damn much, and my tickets are all lined up to fly home for the holidays.

Once again, I find myself saying goodbye.

Outrageously, the end of my contract also means that I must find gainful employment while I complete my magnum opus, almost as if I was a normal human being, rather than being employed as a civil servant here in das Vaterland in order to pursue my education.

Gainful employment for the months of January and February has made itself known in the form of time spent as a visiting academic at the Center for African Area Studies at the University of Kyoto, Kyoto, Japan, a placement I have taken the greatest pleasure of accepting.

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Artists’ impression of the author in Kyoto courtesy of Enid Guene.

It seems that immigrant tales and amusing anecdotes of my faux pas will be in vogue again, and it seems fitting to record my outrageous cultural transgressions in an entirely new context. The language, I was recently informed by one of my new colleagues at Kyoto, has around 30,000 characters, depending on how you count them. Most primary school children, he reassured me, only have to learn 1,000. I have, let us say, given up on the prospect of reading.

Nevertheless, my goal in two months is to be able to shop without a chaperone or a translator, as pathetic-sounding a goal as it will be difficult. It took me roughly two months to do that in Germany. German, incidentally, seems like an easy-to-learn and rule-free language by comparison.

I shall record here some of my preliminary expectations and thoughts about visiting a country I have wanted to visit for many years, but about which I know little. I think it will be interesting to see how wrong I am.

I shall begin my travels to Japan from Edinburgh on the 6th January, and barring any further industrial action from Lufthansa[1] I should arrive on the 8th to begin my new life as an ignorant gaijin. Rest assured that I have been watching anime with subtitles rather than dubbing, and provided that Japan features handy subtitling of any and all conversations, street signs, and swordfights in which I avenge my father, I should be absolutely fine. I am, however, somewhat concerned that my hair is neither blue, purple or red, and that I do not know any giant flying robots.

Almost the entirety of my knowledge about Japan, having never been there, comes from pop culture, the most fun but hardly the most reliable of lenses through which to view an incredibly rich and complex civilisation. Fortunately, I also have this:

Oh yes. Memes.

Japan seems to occupy an interesting place in the popular psyche. Aside from being told to “enjoy my holiday” (you know who you are) many of my friends and colleagues seem to think I shall be visiting a giant shopping mall filled with wonders. Do not worry, I shall return with gifts, and will admit to no small amount of stereotyping when I get excited to the point of mental breakdown at the possibility of visiting certain places.

I am also expecting tatami mats, taking my shoes off, and meditating a lot, though I find these quite a lot more likely given that my flat was advertised as having the first, so I shall want to do the second, and that Kyoto has a ridiculous number of temples in which I can continue the meditation I practice anyway. I am also expecting to eat a lot of fish, and given that I have been living a long way from the sea for a long time, I am also unreasonably excited about this.

On a more academic level, I shall be working in an African Studies centre, and I am sure that such a familiar environment will be something of a rock of certainty for me, as African Studies has been my common theme between all the places I have lived for the last three years. I can also take heart that most of my Japanese colleagues will be anthropologists, and so I should not worry too much about cultural misunderstandings. I suspect they are used to it.

Japanese ethnography has been consistently important and powerful as a tool for understanding life in Southern Africa at least since the 1970s and the work of Jiro Tanaka. It is through one of his former students[2] that I have received this kind invitation to work there. It is, without exaggeration, a great honour to be invited to work in the department at Kyoto. I hope that I justify my being invited there and am able to contribute to the department. I also hope that this will be the first of many trips to Japan.

I guess we will see how it goes.

Tschuß, Goodbye, and, I guess for now, Sayounara!

[1] Blame the bosses not the workers for strikes, folks. An injury to one is an injury to all.

[2]One of only two anthropologists to work long-term at Ekoka to my knowledge. The other is, well, writing this.

The Hippie and the Noble Savage

I’d like to share with you all something that was shared on my Facebook wall recently, and which I think encapsulates a lot of the problems that the people I work with, among others, face when dealing with people from industrialised societies. It’s to do with representation.

Here’s the post:

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I hate this hippy dippy bullshit.

“An anthropologist” Which one? When?

“African children” – Africa is huge. Soweto is in Africa. Cairo is also in Africa. Children in these two places have remarkably different cultures to grow up in. Are we supposed to believe they both think of “Ubuntu” simply because they were born on the same lump of land? It is one more to add to the tally of people thinking Africa is one big wild place full of mystical black people. It’s not. It’s a spot on the surface of the Earth. A damn big one.

Who are these people the story describes? Where are they? Are we expected to believe they have no concept of individualism? Give out sweets to kids on the field sites I have experience of and they clamour to be first. Like kids in many places. It may be a shock to the writer of this story but “African children” are not smiley examples of how the world is pretty. They are children. People.

“African concept of Ubuntu”. Does the article mean like the “European concept of dialectical materialism” or “European concept of capitalism”? What does that even mean? Do all Africans (the Pan African movement is interesting, and worth investigating, but is not entirely relevant to this) identify with Ubuntu? Are Africans more tuned into Ubuntu because they live on the same arbitrary lump of rock as the people who made this word and have this cultural concept? Am I more a Communist or a Capitalist because I’m European?

No. I’m more of those things (or less) because the culture I come from has shaped me towards or away from these things. There are so many cultures on the African continent and it is as meaningless to lump them together as it is to lump Japanese and Turkish people together as “Asians”.

It would be interesting to see a source for the story, if it exists at all. It sounds like something made up by a hippy to make the world seem like its full of sunshine and roses when it isn’t. Certainly not in Africa. If these “African children” are so full of Ubuntu where was it among the people of Rwanda in 1994? Where was it under Apartheid, committed by white people, yes, but white people who had been on this continent so long it would be meaningless to call them anything other than Africans.

Colonialism is one of the many reasons that the continent has many problems. Borders drawn by Europeans in Berlin in 1890, that bear no resemblance to tribal and ethnic lines. Violence, repression, genocide. Entire cultures sold into slavery in the Americas by my ancestors, the British. It’s not that “Africans” are too nice and full of Ubuntu to resist. This whitewashes the long and noble history of indigenous rebellion. I only know the Namibian history, but the resistance of the Hereros to German atrocities, the blood shed in the fight against apartheid, these were not nice people laying down and dying so that they could be picked over by “vultures”, as this story puts it. It is a “bless their noble savage hearts” attitude, the idea that people are not fit to engage with the modern world simply because they are African. It is disgusting, white supremacist, eurocentric bullshit, and moreover isn’t true.

The use of “vultures” as an image is doubly vile. It implies that Africa is a carcass, a dead thing, its people unwilling or unable to fight back, to resist, to make the world in their image as other cultures have done for centuries, and which people from Africa have done! Look at the pyramids, the magnificent Sudanese civilisations, who built monuments without writing a single word. The simple fact that almost all popular music is African in origin. The Symbolic Revolution, when we started making art, likely took place here. The rock art in Namibia is another example. Centuries of sophistication and deep culture. But to say that the entire continent is somehow dead, by using the metaphor of vultures, is thoughtless if unintended and racist if intended.

Ubuntu does in fact mean “I am because we are”. It is Swahili, though, a mixed-up language from many roots just like English, and is from Kenya, thousands of miles away from where !Xhosa (note the correct spelling, with a uvular click) is spoken, which is in South Africa. More evidence here, if it were needed, that the author of this piece just thinks Africa is one place full of smiling black kids.

“Ubuntu” does have another, rather amusing side, too. It roughly goes like this:

<Sitting in a shebeen after a long day>
Complete and utter stranger: Hey, man, buy me a beer!
Me, tired and crabby: What? Why?
CUS: I don’t have a beer.
Me: What makes you think I have the money?
CUS: *pointedly looks me up and down, and notes my foreign accent and whiteness* Come on man, we’re friends!
Me: Huh *buys beer out of exasperation*

I have no problem with this, but it’s not all smiles. You have, so I have. Fair enough, most of the time. If I claim to be a socialist, this is the reality of it.

Also what the hell is an “African website”!?

I’ve read this fake story before about a thousand times, and it makes me very angry. It’s because hippies don’t know that this holding up of a “Noble Savage” in this ideal “primitive” state is really really racist. They think they’re being nice, but they’re not. Also why are the children naked? This is symbolism. The Primitive, the Savage, the Undeveloped, the Human In His Primal State. Africa is not that! Africa is a continent, with people on it. People just like you, and me.

I think it’s important to debunk this stuff, even if I get really angry about it. I know it’s well-meaning, and I know it doesn’t come from a place of malice, but it’s harmful in a different way. If we are to engage with people from different cultures, and to focus on exploitation and one-sided geopolitical relations, we need to begin from a place of equality. We need to engage with people keeping the idea in mind that more than anything else the people we are talking to are people. It sounds so basic, but it’s not happening. These microaggressions and dehumanising representations add up, and actively work against the interests of the people they claim to want to learn from.

If debunking faulty or racist depictions of indigenous people that I come across is something that readers want to see, I might make a series of it. We shall see.

Tschuß!

Art, Science and Real Work, or: I have no idea what I’m doing.

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I’m back on fieldwork at a place just a shade north of the famous Namibian Red Line, a veterinary barrier that separates communally-worked farmland to the North, never conquered by colonial forces, and the more ordered and familiar farmland to the South, the former territory of Boers and Germans in years past. Despite being but two hours’ drive from where I sit now, in a hotel with an internet connection that I have previously called The Last Homely House of Elrond, the site feels more isolated than my last one. I have almost no mobile signal there, and trips back into the domain of Wi-Fi bring me up to speed with two weeks’ worth of news in a day, making me feel like the world is moving on very fast without me. It’s an odd feeling. I’m doing fairly well, though, and while I only have six weeks or so at this site, thanks to a much-needed trip back to Europe in May, and the increasingly pressing need to prepare for my participation at the Eleventh Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies (CHAGS) in Vienna in September.

I’m slated for an appearance on the panel “Research and Activism among the Kalahari San” and have submitted an abstract saying, thankfully vaguely, something about fresh field data from my work at Mangetti West and Ekoka. I have ten minutes plus a Q and A, and should probably say something mildly provocative to get remembered, though the thought of Richard Lee, Akira Takada and other Kalahari anthropologists I have been reading since first year undergrad questioning me on my fieldwork and its contribution to the field fills me with a mounting sense of awe and dread. Hopefully I won’t have to reference too much literature, given my focus on fieldwork and the conference’s enthusiasm for new researchers with mud on their boots, as it were. Given that the time between my leaving Namibia and speaking there is measured in weeks rather than months, is quite probably literally true. I leave on the 24th August, when my last visa runs out. I can’t come back until 2016, having used up my 90 day tourism allowance as well, and it’s going to feel very strange. That’s next month, now.

The three weeks of research at my second site in the Mangetti farms has yielded some interesting comparisons, I think, and I’m able to get a good deal more data in a shorter time. My translator is excellent, and knows or is related to almost everyone there, meaning that the two weeks of building up a trusting relationship that had to happen in the North was cut down hugely here. I’m camping right in the village, and it means I’ve been able to get involved in events as they happen, the “participant observation” part of my work, and data-gathering is by comparison to my other site, effortless.

I even accidentally adopted a puppy, who in fact belongs to the community’s traditional healer. I started feeding the small furry family in the hope that they’d hang around camp to deter other would-be explorers (wild dogs, jackals and even hyenas are not unheard of), and the puppy I’ve named Xoriab (“hunter” in the local dialect of Khoekhoegowab, a joke on the fact he’s tiny. Say the “X” like the “ch” in loch, or the “G” in Grootfontein, for Afrikaans-speaking readers) has got rather attached to my fire and the fact I insist on teaching him to play fetch, which he does not understand.

Xoriab sitting by the fire, expecting something to happen. Probably food.

Xoriab sitting by the fire, expecting something to happen. Probably food.

I have to say I’ve grown rather attached to him, as he seems to have done for me, though I do harbour some suspicion it is cupboard love in some ways.

Some of the food is my fingers.

Some of the food is my fingers.

This post isn’t about that, though, nor is it about CHAGS. What I want to write about a bit are some of the problems that I’ve run into data-gathering for my PhD.

It’s a mammoth task, but the problems do not revolve around mere size. You’ve got to know your parameters, your variables, what questions you wish to answer, before you set out on any kind of scientific research. The problem with conducting anthropological fieldwork, or any kind of social research really, is that it isn’t really possible to know that beforehand. I was advised, before setting out, that I should have a question in mind, then be prepared to change everything about that when confronted with the field. I understand this. Better to have a plan that you later change, than no plan at all. But when the field actually presents itself to you, in all its chaotic splendour, involving as our research does the single most unpredictable organism on the face of the earth, no amount of planning can prepare you for being back at square one. As a result, I made a vague plan, knowing it would not stand up in the field. I knew the areas I would be considering: “folk knowledge”, “traditional skills” and so forth, but no more than that. I did not even have any research techniques in mind.

The problem starts with my discipline itself. It doesn’t like putting people in boxes, a strange habit for a subject concerned with primarily that upon its inception. Our ancestors measured people’s boiled skulls as well, though that is Something We Don’t Talk About any more.

Social anthropology is often said to walk a fine line between the arts and the sciences, some, rather more hardened to cliche and aphorism than I might say it is “the most artistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the arts”. I dislike this forced symmetry, but doubtless social anthropology operates on a strange bridge somewhere between the two, blurring lines and deconstructing dichotomies itself in the same way its practitioners adore doing with cultural events and ideas. During my undergraduate degree, the idea that dichotomies could be permitted to exist at all was somewhat blasphemous, and always we were encouraged to think about the outliers, the spaces between, and the borderlines. We’ve moved on from Levi-Strauss’s oppositions in the house, so to speak.

There’ve been several traditions in anthropology that have tended towards the artistic and the surreal. The undergraduate favourite (at least at Edinburgh class of ’12, represent), Clifford Geertz’s 1960s idea of “Thick Description”, posited anthropologists less as scientists but more in the way of literary critics, picking apart and interpreting culture as one would a paragraph of Tolstoy, or a stanza of Keats. I loved this. It meant we were free in some respects from the tyranny of The Scientific Method, which in my mind always smelled like antiseptic. We were artists, writers, creatives, we had sculptors’ clay under our fingernails and because we studied human culture it was the very stuff Adam was made from that we were working with. It was all Very Important. I tapped away at one thousand five hundred word essays, due at the tutorial tomorrow afternoon, about how Science (Big “S”, always) was a closed-minded, Euro-American-Centric (God forbid we say “Western”) way to think about the world, and interpretation was better, more democratic, and less white, either in coat or complexion.

From there I read (or tried to read) Michael Taussig’s Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man, a foray in what you might call “surrealist anthropology”, and to be honest I do not remember a great deal about it. There’s a long, unpleasant bit about torture, which I think is an illustration about colonialism, and much of the rest of it that I read felt faintly like being led through someone else’s dream. There were definitely psychoactive drugs involved, as well there might be, given that it’s about shamanic practice among Amerindians. I remember writing a very bad essay on the subject about how there was a place in anthropology for something I really am not sure I ever understood. It’s about the limit of the really artistic stuff I ended up getting into, and I teetered on the precipice before settling back into regularly quoting the sort of things I think Geertz would have said about culture, literature, description and interpretation.

Above all else, it made me feel better. I had occasional wanderings into the bleak, sterile world of neo-modernist positivism, but I did that with most of the -isms at university, and I doubt it’s a rare crime. The idea of the anthropologist as a literary critic was attractive to me because it meant that nobody ccould ever accuse me of being wrong about anything, as such. This was just how I saw it. Great. It seemed, if I’m honest, like less work, too.

Yet here I am in Namibia on German (of all countries!) scientific money gathering data ostensibly used to flesh out a computer model of the movements of ancient hunter-gatherers, as well as fuelling some book or other and getting the very hard to obtain D before my name, followed by an elusive R and a positively impossible to pin down “.”. I write “Research Scientist” on things asking my occupation. I’ve actually had to start doing the job I’d been writing about the theory of doing for about four years.

At the root of this job is data. Data I need to gather. Questions I need to first find, then answer, as well as dealing with the practicalities of asking those questions of a very poor community, who live very far away from me, and who don’t speak any languages I do.

A lot of anthropology relies on something called “Participant Observation”, which is part loitering, part nosiness, inserting yourself into someone’s life in an attempt to learn about them. This is prime venue for the “Thick Description” side of anthropology. When I’m on fieldwork, I write. I write a lot. I’m scribbling in my little notebook when something interesting happens, and I’m writing up, scratching it all out in my bigger notebook like it’s trying to escape from my biro, when I can find two or three hours in the day that something else scribble-worthy isn’t happening.

It has its flaws, though. How do I know whether what I am seeing is reflective of the whole community? How can I accurately reflect The Truth about what is going on? I can, and have, argued for many years that there is no such thing as objective truth, but even I will concede that there is a difference between saying that the people in my field site all drive Lamborginis and saying that they place hunting as very important to their way of life when it isn’t really. As with everything, it’s a question of degree rather than kind, and I have a huge incentive to identify as closely as possible what is really going on, even if I never truly (whatever that means) know, and that is simply because I want to know, to get closer.

I can’t very well judge people solely on observation alone, then. So what about interviews? They’re another anthropological staple. Well, they work, too, but one has to be prepared for the fact that people do not blurt facts like robots. They have an interpretation, too which makes it a great tool to have in the toolbox, but not the only one.

This is where the problem starts. The anthropological toolbox is vast, and can encompass any sociological tool you like, from surveys to free-lists, psychological experiments to marriage statistics, but to the PhD student starting their research the vastness of the available tools, and the wide range of possible uses reflected in anthropology which range from systematic analyses of kinship diagrams to surreal passages about drug-fuelled shamanic rites in the Amazon Basin, the primary problem is figuring out what anthropological research is actually supposed to look like.

My problem has been gathering what you might call systematic data. By systematic, I mean answers to structured yes/no question interviews, compiling free-association lists with the same parameters, conducting a direction-finding psychological experiment, and other similar things. It’s incredibly hard to do this when your field subjects are not the least bit interested in repeating the same task with you five times, and every task you come up with on the fly, to test something you observed and wrote down scruffily yesterday, has to be either revised or miss out on some crucial aspect that you have discovered is important. Which do you sacrifice, repeatability or thoroughness?

Above all else is the feeling that despite this being a huge moment in your academic career, you are simply working it all out as you go along, as there are so many things about doing research that nobody tells you, and that you are expected to Just Know. I’d never conducted a structured interview or free-listing in my life before I got to the moment when I was constructing an exercise that will give me important information for my PhD. Nagging at me constantly is the feeling that when I step back from the systematic exercises, and think about interpretation, art, the beauty of the well-written word and the other fluffy things that help me sleep at night, I am making excuses for not doing any Real Work. And Real Work is Science. There are no standards to work to, precisely because, I think, the others who have gone before me haven’t had those standards either, and are loath to set any. The only standards are the ones I set myself. In true form for me, this means they are usually either impossible or non-existent.

The simple fact that this research is PhD research means that it is my first time doing it, or really anything approaching it. A PhD is built up to be something upon which you definitely know what you are doing, and you do it to make big and exciting waves in the academic community, but in fact it can be characterised more as your proving moment, the time you find your feet. In anthropology a scholar’s PhD thesis often becomes his or her defining work, and this fact is something that weighs heavy on my mind. What will I turn this into? Will this define me? What will it say? It is a nightmare of neuroticism and anxiety, and I am convinced social anthropology contains more people prone to neurosis and social anxiety as a proportion than does the population at large. The anthropologist I confided my concerns to got into studying people for the same reason I did: That we were neurotically doing it anyway, and had become somewhat proficient. Whether the neurosis informs the work or the work inflames the neurosis is perhaps a question for another time.

The thing to take away from this, if you happen to be reading and are suffering similar concerns in your academic work, is that the reason you do not know what you are doing is that you are not meant to. The reason nobody is telling you things that you think they think you should Just Know is that they don’t really know them either. If they do, they don’t know how they came to know them. Another anthropologist in Scotland told me that if you have no idea what you are doing, you are probably on the right track, and if you think you’ve got it all worked out then you’re probably missing something out somewhere. The world is a complex place, and human beings are perhaps the most complex of all. The only people who think they’ve got it all worked out are eighteen-year-olds and those who have never grown out of the mindset they had when they were eighteen-year-olds. Both of those sets of people are probably wrong, and I have just reminded myself of my opinions at eighteen, and cringed.

I joke at parties (it’s true, I get invites occasionally, ask anyone) and say that I am making a career pretending to have read books that I haven’t. This is hyperbole, but the nugget of truth there is that in academic circles Knowledge has a capital K, it is currency, and nobody wants to admit that they don’t know something they feel they “should know”, because the others in their circle of colleagues have been pretending they know it already. Nobody is going to tell you these things. Nobody really can. If you have not embarked upon fieldwork for an anthropological PhD you will probably, if you are like me, have existential crises on the regular and start looking for office jobs online. This is (probably) normal. The best therapy for these moments of terror is usually to plan the following day. No further. When you feel more confident, start planning weeks. When you get back, you might find you know more than you think, and tying it together will be a cinch. Get someone acquainted with your field to ask you questions about your site. Before you know it, you’ll be reeling off things and telling people that something is “common sense” when it’s something nobody has observed before. Congratulations. You’re now an anthropologist. The existential crises probably stop. I don’t know. I’ve not got that far yet.

Then again, what am I doing giving you advice? I have no idea what I’m doing.

Tschuß!

Fieldwork Proper

It has been a very long time since my last post. Only now I have returned to the thriving metropolis of Windhoek do I have a stable enough internet connection to upload anything as meagre as a text post, let alone something with exciting pictures. As always, the difficulty in finding what to post increases exponentially with the time since the last one, but I thought the best course of action was to pick a few interesting anecdotes from the last couple of months.

I’ve been on fieldwork proper since January. What that means is that I’ve finally been doing the job I actually came to Namibia to do, namely fieldwork among the many and varied San people that occupy the reaches of the North I have been exploring. It’s been a tough but thoroughly educational experience, and of course any plans I had regarding such trivialities as the Whole Point Of My Research have changed massively, sometimes doing so day-to-day. Right now, I’ve got some recorded interviews in the process of being transcribed and translated from Oshikwanyama to English, I’ve got some videos, I’ve got hundreds upon hundreds of pictures, and a hundred and fifty pages of notes and observations, closing on two hundred if you include the results from my experiments. Only time and extensive rereading will illustrate their usability. What with the prevalence of computers throughout my education, I think it’s reasonably fair to say I’ve written more down on paper with a pen in the last few months that I did over the entire course of my university career to date. I used up ballpoint pens. I knew that could happen in theory but I’d never seen it. My battered notebooks, of which I am painfully conscious there are no copies yet, are the fuel for my PhD and I am concerned to the point of neurosis about anything happening to them. They currently reside in a locked trunk in a locked cottage twenty-five kilometres outside town, which is where I reside while here, upon the hospitality of my hosts. I could, of course, painstakingly transcribe them into my laptop and back up the data about a hundred times as I have done with pictures and video. I will, at some point, given that these notes may well make up data I use for the years after my doctorate. It’s busywork, but given their value to me and the lack of copies, I do not trust anyone in the world enough to pay them to do it for me. It’s a problem for another day.

The line between recording observations and obsessively keeping a journal like a fourteen-year-old is fine indeed.

The line between recording observations and obsessively keeping a journal like a fourteen-year-old is fine indeed.

I’d say that anthropology is a lot more difficult than it sounds, but to be honest I don’t know anyone gregarious enough to think that forcibly inserting yourself into the lives of other people twenty-four hours a day, enthusiasm for constant social interaction being a requirement, is a prospect to entirely relish. Mentally, it is quite exhausting, though not in ways that are conventionally considered “work” in the sciences. Of course that cultivates a certain anxiety that one isn’t doing the utmost work possible, and is not collecting enough data or the right data. Because in one sense qualitative research never actually reaches a conclusion in the field, uncertainty and panic over a lack of systematic data due to flaky participants is also a perennial psychological side-effect of social research. It is worth it, though, and it is, in some strange sense, fun. It is an odd but pleasant feeling developing friendships with people who I can only speak to via a proxy, even if the feeling of meeting them alone reminds me unpleasantly of linguistically losing a limb. I will probably be able to tell you more about in what ways exactly it is fun with a little more temporal distance from it.

It also is impossible to engage in anthropological fieldwork without a serious change in how one deals with tasks, and people. The first thing I learned is that before research is conducted dreams abound as to the wonderful reams of data that will be collected. In fact, studying people has the rather obvious complication of the subjects of study, and their varying sense of enthusiasm for research. It does not lend itself to systematic data collection. I am starting to recognise the need for interpretive and slightly more literary analysis, without such aspirations to over-arching truth. The spectre of Clifford Geertz from second-year anthropological theory haunts my data. The second thing I learned is that there is no way to remain in any way detached or “scientist-like” while doing research of this kind, and to attempt to do so is to be disingenuous. I had learned this before, from books, but had to stop myself fighting the urge to adopt a strange aloofness to protect myself from what was to me the strangest environment I had ever inserted myself. “Just going with it” is a lovely hippie mantra, but even for an ex-hippie such as I it is not the easiest to follow, particularly when the primary mental defence one employs against culture shock is periods of self-imposed isolation. I had time off, however, and read about ten novels while kicking around at camp. I like to think, however, that I succeeded in getting involved and “going with it” at least to some extent, and that shows by comparing people’s reactions to me (as well as mine to then) in February against those of when I left a few days ago.

Among the greatest of the experiences I was privileged enough to share in was a successful small-game hunt, which rendered a dik-dik and a hare (which they called a rabbit). I’ve videoed most of it, although most of that amounts to Blair-Witch-Project-style shakycam footage of bushes race past as I attempt to keep up with the swift pace of my hunting companions.

Yes the dik-dik is adorable. Yes this was a problem for me.

Yes the dik-dik is adorable. Yes this was a problem for me.

The capture of the dik-dik was rendered still more impressive by the fact that the successful hunter caught it with his bare hands, by simply bending down and picking up the terrified thing from a bush. It was kept alive, in the hope that its plaintive cries would attract its mother, but alas, to no avail. To those wondering, the dik-dik was sold still alive to a lady from the herding community, who when we saw her was feeding it with milk and keeping it with the intention of growing it into a full-size adult. So thankfully no charming baby animal was slaughtered in front of the soft European. The rabbit, however, was another story, and would hopefully be in the pot that day for some meat, which I was desperately craving. It was quickly dispatched in the field, and was prepared on some open ground near to the settlement, but not so near that those not involved in putting the work in with the hunt came over to beg for some meat. This was a huge issue for my hunting companions, who felt fiercely protective of a kill that is rarer and rarer these days, what with one thing and another. They used ashes from the fire to aid their hands in pulling out the rabbit’s fur, singeing off the remainder on a hastily-put-together fire before gutting it. It was taken off to be cooked “later”.

If the dogs look like they are circling hungrily, there is a good reason for that.

If the dogs look like they are circling hungrily, there is a good reason for that.

This turned out to be something of a mistake. One big issue at the community is sadly the prevalence of alcohol, and when we ventured out “later” to find what had become of this rabbit, some of the younger members of the hunting group informed us that the rabbit was sold by the one person who’d promised to keep it, the money inevitably spent on Tombo, the locally-brewed libation. Such is the way of things, and what a lot of hunters will experience if they entrust their kill to someone else when the cucashop (the shack that sells drink) is open. My other companions on the hunting trip were similarly disappointed by the lack of rabbit, and we all grumbled about it together.

We did have a bit of luck later on, however. Word travels fast in the community. I remember when I first arrived I asked a few questions about hunting, to which nobody at all responded, with one chap endeavouring to avoid me altogether. This is because of the greyish legal area that hunting currently occupies. Small animals are, strictly speaking, totally legal to hunt, but that does not stop policemen and government representatives making trouble for those that persist in it, going against the government plan that is expressly, in one policeman’s words, trying to “make farmers out of the San people”. In order to practice something that used to be a massive part of their culture, the people come up against the law. However, once it was general knowledge that not only was I not from the government (despite having government permission to do research) I was actually interested in hunting because I liked it, we were visited by a chap a few nights later bearing a leg of springbok to sell to us for the equivalent of about four euros. He was hazy about where it came from, and I was not about to ask questions. It was extremely tasty marinaded and fried with rice.

Seriously fantastic meat, that had woken up that morning.

Seriously fantastic meat, that had woken up that morning.

Yet despite my focus on hunting here, meat makes up a comparatively small part of the diet of the people I was working with. The staple food is maizemeal, which is made into a thick viscous porridge you eat with your hands, and which gets very very boring after a short period of time. To go with it, and to alleviate its blandness in the absence of meat, which is often, people often eat greens, referred to as “spinach” or ombidi in Oshikwanyama. One of my friends at the village took me out on a gathering trip, which, in contrast to the “gathering from the bush” archetype that is conjured in the minds when one things of hunter-gatherers, was gathered on a homestead owned by Kwanyama farmers. It grows bountifully there, and chokes the mahango (pearl millet, used to make a version of maizemeal in the absence of corn) crop. You stew up the ombidi with salt and cooking oil (if you have them) and it is advisable to wash off the sand if you wish to keep your teeth.
It cannot be eaten raw. I tried. She laughed.

It cannot be eaten raw. I tried. She laughed.

I’ll be honest: It wasn’t great, but it was food. It kind of tasted like the most bland spinach you’ve ever had, but made a contrast to the maizemeal and it has a lot of the nutrients that people (which includes me after a few months there) desperately need to stave off malnutrition, which I am pretty sure I was suffering from for a lot of my time there. I was grateful for the opportunity to get some, and to observe the process, and I think my contact LL was also grateful for the help. My translator would not pitch in, though. According to him Owambos have a very strict gendered distribution of labour, and it was unthinkable for him to engage in “womens’ work”, just as it would be unthinkable for his female friends and family members to engage in herding cattle. Interestingly, LL said that !Kung and Hai||om men will pitch in and help with gathering, if the opportunity arises.. While women do not hunt, there is often some food to be gathered when only men are around, and they have no such sqeamishness about picking it up. It is not common for men to go out specifically to gather food, however. I asked my translator what he thought of me beavering away with LL and picking the ombidi. Apparently as a foreigner and anthropologist I got a free pass to engage in “womens'” labour without garnering any disrespect. Not that I mind all that much, to be honest. My own sense of gendered labour is, I would hope, nonexistent. The strict definitions of gendered labour did, however, allow my translator to sit around while I worked, so I have a bit of skepticism about exactly how prescriptive these roles are. The women from the Kwanyama Owambo community seemed relatively unfazed by my gathering. All the more greens for me.

On independence day, the 21st March and the 25th anniversary of Namibia’s shedding of the shackles of apartheid and repression, we were invited by some of our friends in a nearby village to attend the annual independence day horse race, which was an incredible experience. Helga (my car) needed all of her offroad capabilites in order to get there, which requires drifting around corners in some of the thickest sand I’ve ever had to get through, dodging the lethal prongs of camelthorn and wacht-en-beetje (wait-a-bit) trees and bushes, to arrive at a place called Ekongola.

Helmets? What are they?

Helmets? What are they?

The atmosphere was thick with anticipation and excitement, every shebeen had music playing and a crowd outside, and lots of very important-looking and well-dressed Kwanyama elders were wandering around being bought beer by everyone. I could tell this was not only a village party, but a lot of money would be riding on the results of the yearly race, without even considering the prize money offered. The horses had slowly trickled in over the last few weeks, and were surrounded by crowds of admirers, protected by their proud owners and the jockeys. The racetrack would be the last bit of the road into Ekongola, out to a specified point, turning and coming back, and after a short meeting of the owners to decide the rules in advance (to prevent any post-race quibbles) we filed out to assume places around the start/finish line. The first of the race groups careered off into the dust.

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This happened a few more times, the shouting from the supporters of each rider drowned out only slightly by the shouting of the race organisers that we should step back to avoid being wiped out as they came back at full gallop. As nice as it was to be at the front, a riled-up horse is not the most predictable of beasts, so I had a few moments of panic.

Eventually a final was held and a winner chosen, the crowd muscling in to get a glimpse of the prize-giving ceremony, with it’s associate money-waving and smiles from the winning riders and owners.

Race arbiters are important people, but I think A, in the hat and leopard pattern, was milking it a bit...

Race arbiters are important people, but I think A, in the hat and leopard pattern, was taking the mick as we had the camera out.

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Winners! Horse with the hat is definitely looking stylish.

I had a little experience there of Kwanyama life which provided some interesting contrast and insight compared to the people I work with, whose culture, while different, has a long history of being intertwined with their neighbours through trade, work and a shared history. It also meant that I got to hone the small amount of Oshikwanyama I’ve been able to pick up, too, able as I am now to greet people (Walelepo Meme/Tate, Nawa?), say that everything is fine (Shili nawa), as well as ask for beer at a shebeen (Kwafalenge ombilla yatarara). You know, the important stuff. It’s only slightly worse than my abysmal German, anyway. We were even invited by the race organisers to share in a meal of oshikombo (goat. A goat, specifically. A whole one) and mahango porridge, which after a day cheering and standing around in the sun I was more than ready for. I then drove back to our camp, along that same sandy road, though this time in the dark. I think I did rather well, even if I do need to find something to clean thorn scratches from Aztec Gold Toyota paint.

So I did have fun, and I like to think I learned a lot, though I’ve still got to read through all my fieldnotes. So much more happened of course in the last two or three months, and in an effort to get some of it down I feel like I’ve missed so much. Hopefully what I’ve managed to do is provide something of a snapshot of some of the things, work and otherwise, that I get up to while on fieldwork. It has been an incredible experience, I think more so because I didn’t come here “for the experience” but to do work. These things happening by-the-by almost makes them more special. I just hope the data justifies the time I’ve spent out here. Only time (and how much I stammer at my next meeting with my supervisor) will tell.

Tschuß!

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!