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.

Trucks, mysterious animals and how I might be becoming a farmer.

I’m not quite sure whether I can really say I’ve been busy the past two weeks or so. I’ve had a lot to do, certainly, and I’ve definitely made sure I’ve done things quickly when I’ve had them to do, but there has been an awful lot of waiting. In the very recent past, this might have made me stressful, but the process of learning to follow African Time seems  to have begun. It’s been three weeks or so since I landed, and unfortunately I am still in Windhoek. However, things are slowly coming together.

As I mentioned in a previous post, my hosts kindly offered me the use of an old Mark One VW Golf while I waited to find the car I would buy, and this has had a number of side effects. Here is a photo of the aforementioned car on its first journey with me:

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You may notice that it is in fact stationary. This is not because I wanted to get out and take a picture, but because I was in fact waiting for rescue. This, by the way, is fantastic.

There is nothing like relying on a slightly temperamental car to get you to learn a lot about how they work. Previous to my trip here, I knew almost nothing about what sits under the bonnet, yet on my breakdowns in the Golf since, I’ve been able to fix the problem myself and continue on my way. I have got rather attached to it. Peter thinks it will be back under a tree for two years when I have finished with it, but I hope not. When it gets itself together to go, it’s quite enjoyable to drive.

Alas, I no longer need its services, for I have finally managed to buy myself a car. I picked it up this morning, and this is part of the reason I am still in Windhoek, waiting as I was on one of those international bank transfers. Based on the naming tradition I started with Gretel, I want to give her a good German name. Meet Helga:

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I took that just picture now, and while looking it over have already had a couple of offers to buy it from people here at the Legal Assistance Centre, where I sit in the daytime and poach the internet. I’ve given Peter first refusal, but even so I may well make my money back in a year’s time. Of course, if I got more than I bought it for, then I can always pocket the difference. We will see how good a dealer I am come next September.

I’m in for a bit of a stressful drive home, though; I am yet to nail down my insurance. I’ll be driving even more carefully than I usually do in a giant car. She’s got a bunch of extra features, too: An extra fuel tank, attachments for a roof tent, anti-theft film, and a water tank that I am wondering if I can fill with beer at the Windhoek brewery. It feels great to finally have some wheels of my own, and my trip into the North feels closer than ever. I’ll buy my camping equipment early next week, and I will hopefully be in Owamboland by next weekend.

On that subject, I also met up with a Namibian guy I first met in Cologne. He just completed his Masters there and wants to do a bit of translating work. He has even offered to have me stay with his family up in Ondangwa, which is fantastic. He’s one of those chilled-out guys for whom nothing is a big deal, so I reckon he will be a great influence on me. I’m definitely looking forward to travelling with him up North. The internet up there is going to be patchy at best. I’ll keep up with my blog as much as I can, though, and post when I can get enough bandwidth to upload anything. The pitfalls of being in Namibia, I guess. I’ve been pretty fortunate so far, able to log on at least once every day, and it has made me realise how much of my life I spend on the internet. I’m sure I remember a time when Mum and Dad limited me to an hour, after 6pm when the phoneline was cheaper, and even then I struggled to find enough to do on the internet to last all that time.

Normally, when I set myself up in the evening for browsing the internet, Skype and catching up with friends, I’ll put my computer in Peter and Michaela’s study. This works really well, but lately I’ve noticed one of their cats has been behaving very oddly. I was hearing scratching and shuffling from the draws inside the desk, and then I’d see the cat rush out from behind them and scarper when she saw me. I thought there must have been a hole in the back of the drawers, and paid no further heed.

However, one night, after the usual scarpering of the cat, I heard the scratching and shuffling again. Peter and Michaela had already gone to bed, and it’s the start of snake and spider season, so you can bet your life I left those drawers firmly shut. Curiosity was tough to resist, indeed for me it is usually impossible, but my lack of enthusiasm for a night-time trip to the hospital to get a dose of antivenin trumped any desire I had to see what creature lurked in the drawers. It happened for a couple of nights, and was one of those things I wondered about while I was there, but forgot when I was gone.

This changed when Peter went into the study one afternoon to get something. He must have opened the drawer, as I was called to have a look at what he found. Apprehensive, I approached the draw expecting some Lovecraftian denizen to attempt to eat my face, only to find not a creature lurking there, but creatures.

These creatures, to be exact:

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They’ve just opened their eyes, and their Mum has since absconded with them elsewhere, obviously not trusting humans to leave her brood alone. The plaintive mewing behind the unused range cooker in the kitchen is a dead giveaway as to where they’ve been moved, though. This brings the number of cats about on the homestead up to at least fifteen. They’re lovely of course, but I’ve been less well-disposed to the cats since one of them decided to use their daughter’s room, which I am temporarily occupying, as a toilet during the extremely hot day.

Lastly, I had an extremely interesting day yesterday. Not only did I witness the Namibian justice system at work by sitting in the public gallery of a court in session with one of the cases the Legal Assistance Centre was bringing, but I also visited the Windhoek Show, which I have now christened the Windhoek Highland Show as I was reminded so much of my childhood in Aberdeenshire as to make things extremely weird.

The court case concerned a man who had had his house and all his property demolished by the local government, without a court order, which is surprisingly common here. Apparently when you are out in the sticks the government simply function as the biggest, scariest gang, making Namibia more and more like I imagine the Wild West to be each day. The government lawyer was not the most likeable chap in the world, thanks to his smarmy grin and post-case gloating, and thanks to his bogging the court down in technicalities it looks like the client is going to have to come back with a whole lot more evidence than he thought. It’s a shame, but chatting to one of the advocates gives me hope that he will eventually get some justice. Fortunately he has somewhere else to live in the meantime. It was a great insight into the conflict between Namibian Common Law, mostly based upon South African Law (Roman Dutch Law and English Common Law being the ancestors of that), and Namibian Customary Law, which is more based upon the legal systems of the individual social groups and organisations that inhabit the country (you could describe it as “tribal law” if you like, but I and many of those that live here would really rather you didn’t). I do hope the Centre can bring the government to heel in this case.

The show was our attempt to cheer ourselves up after a rather disappointing morning in court. Apparently, it started as an agricultural show, and sort of developed from there, sprouting goods stalls, bars and funfair attractions as a prize bull cowpat does mushrooms, and has turned into a strange hybrid of what I remember from Banchory Show mixed with a trade expo for the government.

The winners were utterly magnificent:

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Having not eaten all day by that point, we were starting to think they looked a bit tasty, so we thought it was best to stop somewhere for a steak roll. While eating, we could here music coming from over by the funfair, and I could have sworn I recognised it. It was hard to pinpoint where I’d heard it before, as I was in the unfamiliar environment of Namibia and full of thoughts about Scotland and the Highland Shows, but then it hit me.

Karneval.

They were playing Schlager music at the funfair, thus completing the strange confluence of my experiences that day into a trifecta of Scotland, Germany and Namibia. I felt thoroughly confused, and was only made to feel more secure again by looking at how much the car dealers wanted for a bakkie (pickup truck) like mine (lots), nodding sagely at extremely large farming equipment and pretending we were in the market for a tractor.

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What has happened to me? Three weeks in a farming economy and I have an preoccupation with massive agricultural machinery. It doesn’t help that a a very proud Mum and Dad were showing off on Skype the first meat from their pigs they sent off to slaughter a week or so ago.

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Being reminded of all this farming stuff really do makes me miss the croft.

The show might have reminded me of home, but I did get a couple of reminders I was not in Scotland, but definitely in Namibia:

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Look! It comes with brakes! Bargain. Well, I think it means that the brakes are on the service plan, but Namlish (Namibian English) has some brilliant ambiguities, apparently.

So a lot has happened to me in the last two weeks. I had to actually write myself out a plan for this post, as much as there was to tell you all, but even then I’m sure there is some stuff I missed out. Hopefully next time I write I shall be in the North, further towards Angola and what is called “Africa Proper” than I have ever been before. Until then, Tschuß!