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!

Connections are everything.

With my visa documents handed in, and email assurances and reassurances that they have been sent to the Home Office from an increasingly careworn though not unkind agent in Windhoek, I have been able to start my second reconnaissance mission into the North, and my three field sites. I quite enjoy the long drives, really. I meticulously pack up my stuff from my recent home, tidy the back of the pickup, fast becoming something of a snail or tortoise shell to me, and plan the driving of the day ahead. It’s much nicer now I’ve made the executive decision to take my driving easy from now on in, having run two experiments that were both dismal failures last time I was in the North.

My first mistake was to take advantage of the lack of livestock on the road south of the veterinary cordon fence and blast my way from there all the way down to Tsumeb at 140kph. I thought that the reduced amount of time spent on the road would make up for increased fuel consumption while driving. This is not the case, and meant that my driving was both expensive and stressful. My second mistake was to drive from Tsumeb back to Windhoek for five hours on a Sunday, hungover from a party and with no shops open to sell me a morsel of food. I have officially redefined what “irritable” means after being cut up by a taxi after four hours of nothing but gas station energy drink for sustenance and thirty-five degree heat.

My drive back up, by comparison, was a dream. I cruised up, stopping every hour or so in one of the many rest stops under trees at the roadside to sip from the flask of coffee I had thoughtfully remembered to bring. It was hampered only by my slight anxiety about finding a room in Tsumeb. I wanted to stay in the same place I spent my birthday just a few weeks beforehand, but phoning in the morning I was told it was fully booked up. They said they’d keep an eye out for cancellations, and gave me the number of another hotel. They were also fully booked, but didn’t give me the numbers of anyone else. I’d run out of places I knew in Tsumeb, and resolved to head on up to see what on earth was causing the rush just as the tourist season is winding down.

It turns out that my being hungover on the drive down, or at least the reason for it, was incredibly helpful. I’d attended a party the Saturday night with the owner of the hotel in question, and bought him an awful lot of drinks. Upon arrival at the hotel (dropping in in person always seems to help) I of course asked for him by name, which got me a bit of an odd look from the receptionist, who asked how I knew him. I told the tale of our partying escapade, and she resolved to phone every booking that had not yet turned up to check in to see if they were turning up that night. I, meanwhile, found numbers for every place to stay in Tsumeb and rang most of them. All were booked out, with nary a room at any inn within ten kilometres. I appreciate a good historical reference as much as the next man, but this one was a good six weeks too early, and I am almost definitely not pregnant.

The last person she could have phoned, it turned out, was not coming that night, and I was saved from a night wild camping next to the road somewhere, the legality of which I am unsure of. Needless to say I left enough of a tip with the reception staff to buy all of them a drink or two.

Dropping names so I don’t have to sleep in my car.

The hotel, incidentally, is the Makalani, and I thoroughly recommend it for N$450 (€30) a night and the most helpful staff I have ever met. The owner also knows his way around Tsumeb’s nightlife, to which I can attest with enthusiasm.

Tsumeb, despite being an adventure in its own way, was simply a stopping point on the way up to the Hai||om settlement on a resettlement farm at a place called Mangetti, named after the Mangetti nuts (|Gom) that grow on the trees (|Gom hais) around there. I’d been there before. It was the field site of my supervisor when he studied his PhD, and everyone there knew him well. The last time I went, however, I looked incredibly different (curly mop, beard, and about twice as big) so I did not expect them to remember me. How wrong I turned out to be. Smiles of recognition all round from everyone there, and words to the effect that they were wondering when I would be back. It is as at home as I felt with my hosts in Brakwater, and I am looking forward immensely to doing research there. As before when I was at Ekoka, I wrote field notes, and what follows are some excepts of my impressions of the place.

Wednesday 12th November 2014

So it turns out that this is something of a flying visit. I lost, or forgot to write down, [The chap who owns a campsite  in a nearby town and who has offered to provide me with an employee of his to do translation]’s number, so on this trip I just had to turn up at [his site] and hope he was there. He wasn’t, but I had my second stroke of luck in two days in meeting the owner’s second-in-command, a !Kung guy who was the person he recommended for translation for me. We sat and had a chat, and it looks like he knows or is related to almost everyone on the farm. He was free the next day to head up there for a day and a night. I greeted him in Khoekhoe, which seemed to go down well. For last night, he gave me a spot on the site to camp, complete with flushing toilet and actual shower. I was pretty pleased with this.

Yes, that is a solar hot water tank. Luxury.

Incidentally, upon waking in the morning I also found the biggest millipede I have ever seen.

Less terrifying than the giant spiders I’ve been seeing, I’m sure you will agree.

My new translator was free at ten thirty and we proceeded on our way to the farm. I have no idea how, but I remembered the way completely, having been there only once. No pointers or map consultation needed. My translator was surprised, as was I, although I didn’t tell him that.

I’m sitting in the car writing this now because the rain is absolutely intense. I’ve never seen anything like it here. Sure, a shower of rain that comes down I can deal with here, but squalls coupled with tropical blattering is something else. I keep checking the tents through the steamy car window. Not much I can do about them right now, but I hope they will be alright. This sort of reminds me of home. It’s impossible to do a single thing outside right now without getting soaked to the skin. It seems to be slowing down just now and the wind might be dropping. I hope that’s the last of it. Let me go and check the tents. They seem okay. Wouldn’t want a night of it, though.

I didn’t expect anyone here to remember me, particularly as I’ve changed so much in the intervening time, but it turns out that either the people here have great memories for faces or hats. I was wearing the same leather wide-brimmed hat as I was last time, which is how I think the school principal here recognised me, anyway. So many people who I remember from last time have come up to me and asked how I have been. I’m honestly touched. Someone even said they’d heard rumours I was back in Namibia and was wondering when I’d turned up. I wish I was staying longer.

I managed to find the new headman (the old one passed away a few months ago, I was sorry to hear), and I was happy to see it was a chap I’d got friendly with last time. He took me for a walk around the farm in March, and stopped me from unthinkingly treading on a very poisonous snake. I may well owe this man my life. His smile was broad and warm as he shook my hand. He joined us at our camp for a cup of tea and a pinch of tobacco, and I asked him whether it would be alright to do my research here, and to conduct a task I had been set by the Legal Assistance Centre in Windhoek; a happy “yes” on both counts, which I now understand in Khoekhoe.

Headman on the left, my translator on the right, in the shade of a |Gom hais (Mangetti tree).

The task I had been set was to follow up a signature-gathering trip on a case the LAC are working on, to ask folk whether they signed it, and whether they knew what they were signing. I had a list of a few people of interest to talk to, and the headman agreed to help me locate them.

The third woman I spoke to was incredibly frustrated with the lack of progress that all outside institutions are making when they try to make life better for people at the farm. I asked what the problems are.

“We are under a lot of pressure. The Owambos fence us in from one side (she points) and the farm to the other. We cannot hunt. We are like goats in a kraal. Many cars come and they say “we can get you somewhere to stay”, but it is just empty promises. It is like they are playing a game.”

“This is really important information” I said “and thank you for sharing it, I will pass it on.”

She nodded.

“Sorry, that must sound like another empty promise”

She laughed at that. We’re taking one of her friends to the government office in Tsinsabis tomorrow so he can pick up his disability cheque. It’s some of the little money coming into this village.

We later talked to the headman, as afternoon turned to evening underneath that same Mangetti tree.

“Hunting stopped in 2008,” he said “everything [the woman] said was true.”

My translator lamented the situation; he misses hunting.

“It’s in my blood,” he points to the veins in his arm, “it’s part of me”

I said that in March I saw a man head off into the bush with a bow, and asked if hunting still went on after the ban. I didn’t get a straight answer, nor really did I expect to. It’s my job to ask, but I wouldn’t tell me either.

The last thing we talked about was the approaching storm clouds, a seemingly appropriate metaphor for the increasing problems the Hai||om seem to be facing here. We packed up, and the headman returned home. My translator left to visit a friend, and I sat in the car to start writing.

Burnt my thumb quite badly just now trying to light the stove. It must have got wet in the rain. No tea.

As for now, I sit in a B&B in the northern town of Ondangwa. I should be heading tomorrow for Ekoka and two weeks of camping at another San settlement. I can hear wind outside even now, and while I got more than my fair share of rain at Mangetti it seems not to have found its way here yet. Maybe we will get some tonight and it will be cooler tomorrow. I can but hope. The B&B is nice, and has intermittent Wi-Fi. I hope this will post alright. I’ll probably have a connection again in a fortnight or so.

For now, Tschuß!

First Forays into the Field

I spent the last two weeks on my first foray into the North, and thus begins the actual research that I will be basing this PhD on. When last I posted I was in a hotel in Tsumeb, a small mining town near the famous Etosha National Park, and I find myself here again two weeks later. It was my twenty-fourth birthday yesterday, and I took what I think was a fairly well-earned break and did very little, sheltering from the heat of the day, which here is climbing to the upper thirties as spring turns into summer, and joining Namibians in hoping that the promised rains start soon. I’m actually on my way back down to Windhoek again, as I need to extend my visa. The current one expires in a month, sadly, so I am back to dealing with bureaucracy, a trial best endured in person rather than on the phone, or god forbid via email, replying to which seems to be regarded as optional here. No matter. I am getting rather the hang of driving Helga, I think, having experienced some serious off-roading in the last few days, and I must say I’m really impressed. Having driven about two thousand kilometres in the last week, I am a little concerned with the amount I am spending on diesel, although I am reassured by the fact that this early part of research is bound to include a lot more back-and-forth than it will later. I hope this is the case, anyway. My daily allowance from the University of Cologne, already nowhere near enough to cover all my expenses, halves after sixty days. Let’s just say I am obsessively hoarding receipts.

The last two weeks began with a drive past what is known as the Red Line (the veterinary cordon marking the point North of which cattle cannot be sold to the EU) into Owamboland, accompanied by a local contact I met at university in Cologne, and his friend, who will be working with me as an English-Oshiwambo translator when I go to work with the Hai||om people there. Things are… different up there, and undoubtedly more what you might call “African”, in contrast to the European-friendly extension of South Africa that seems to be the prevailing feeling in most of Namibia. The marked absence of other white people was also definitely something I noticed. It seems there are not many that live up there. We arrived late at night, and my contact kindly offered a room in his house for me to sleep in for a few hours before we began the arduous trek of the next few days.

In order to conduct research among the Hai||om people in Owamboland, we needed permission to do so. Firstly, we needed to speak to the regional councillors of both the areas which we intend to study, as well as speaking to the Headmen of the two communities. We also needed to to this in two days, as my contact had meetings back in Windhoek shortly after. The two areas, unfortunately, are also hundreds of kilometers apart. In between, we earned a well-earned rest at one of Ondangwa’s many roadside bars, sitting on garden furniture on the sand beside the main road and sipping mercifully cold Windhoek lager.

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The first meeting with the officials and the headman of the area near the Angolan border went incredibly well. The councillor was pleasantly affable about our research, probably because of its incredibly vanilla and apolitical nature, and the headman (who I was much more concerned with impressing than the government) welcomed the research with enthusiasm. When I told him what I would be looking at (traditions, folk knowledge and skills) he even confessed that he thought my research needed to be done, and would be very interested in the results. We were welcome to camp at the clinic near the Hai||om community and talk to those he represents. His enthusiasm totally blew me away, and has opened lots of doors in that region. I did not expect such interest, but it gives me a huge amount of motivation and strength to know that I might not just be doing it for my own benefit after all. He sounded like he has dealt with anthropologists before, too, which makes it much easier when I reassure the people I will be working with that I am not from the government or an aid agency and I am not evaluating them.

Unfortunately, the second region, nearer to the border with Etosha, met with less success from some highly obstructive civil servants. I dare not speak to the Headman without government approval, as the idea of being turfed out by the Namibian Police Force is not one I relish. Hopefully we can get permission soon. I suspect it is because this region has not had anthropologists in it before.

I had aimed to spend two or three days with each community while up there, and since we had the green light for one of them, one of my contact’s appointed translators and I proceeded towards the border with Angola to conduct the first reconnaissance trip of this fieldwork excursion. I was excited to finally be on my way, and this was dampened only slightly by getting suck in the deep sand on the road to the community, known as Ekoka. Dug out, we continued, and eventually reached the health clinic whereupon we set up camp. It even has toilets, making it positively luxurious in contrast to other field sites I will be spending time.

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After a quick chat with some of Ekoka’s inhabitants, we discovered that thanks to the extremely long days working on the farms nearby, the best time to go and speak to people was in the early mornings. For three days, we went along at about half past seven to have a chat with people, and try to get a broad sketch of what life is like there, partly to see whether they can contribute to my PhD. I wrote lots, and what follows is a couple of small excerpts from my field notebook. I’ve left out people’s names, and heavily edited down the ten pages of biro scribbles, but here is an impression of my first time this trip among the Hai||om:

21st October 2014

The smell of goats. That seems to be the defining feature of the place so far. Never really liked goats, but I will get used to it. Ekoka is a big spread-out sort of settlement, but the Hai||om seem to all be squashed into little one-room brick dwellings that are all arranged in two long lines. I asked one of the inhabitants about them. He said they get more space inside the houses, but they were not meant to live in straight lines like this. I think it might be so they can all have electricity and water, but I’m not sure about that yet. Or, to be frank, whether the electricity and water works.

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That same man told us where to find a contact recommended by the headman the other day, who should be able to direct us to the right people to speak to about knowledge and skills, and we will meet him tomorrow. He even showed us a shortcut through the bush back to our camp, which shortened our journey back by some considerable amount. Very grateful. The sand is hard to walk in for any length of time.

Under a tree at the centre of the settlement, I interviewed an assembled group of six elders […] I learned that hunting does not go on at all any longer, and only the old ones have the knowledge, although they are no longer physically capable of doing it. They were emphatic about how much they would like to hunt again, though […] Apparently, the younger people don’t like bushfood (gathered fruits and roots) any more, either, since they started cultivating mahangu (millet) as a staple food […] This could all be accurate of course, or it could just be get-off-my-lawn griping of the old people about the younger generation. I will have to test this.

22nd October 2014

We decided to go back to the Hai||om settlement again early this morning, echoing our trip yesterday. This turned out to be the right thing to do, as the morning sees tolerable temperatures before midday brings highs of nearly forty degrees. In the shade, as I sit writing now, it is almost livable if you do not move much […] I thought the best thing to do in contrast to yesterday’s relatively well-organised group meeting was to wander informally around the settlement and speak to people individually.

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Speaking to an older woman of about sixty who was weaving a basket, I found out that she makes them to sell in town […] She takes fronds of the tough, palm-like Makalani plant and makes concentric rings, wrapping thicker, flatter stems around them and sewing them together with what looks like a stiff, blunt darning needle. She collects the Makalani herself, and has to go into the bush to gather ones that are just the right “texture”, wetting her hands while doing it to ensure the fronds remain firm and supple. I would also imagine that the contraction of the drying fibres will work to tighten the weave of the basket. She told me that she was taught to weave in that way by her mother, who had been making these baskets for some time. We thanked her for her time and gave her some pipe tobacco for her trouble, and sweets to the children.

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As we walked past the bakkie (pickup truck) on the way up the settlement, we noticed a gaggle of young boys sheltering from the developing heat in its shadow. One of them had with him a home-made slingshot, which looked as if he had made it from sticks and inner-tube. I asked for a demonstration of how good he was, and watched him hit an empty plastic bottle with a stone at about ten metres. I asked for a go myself and he obliged. I managed to repeat his feat on the second try, although my own misspent youth and former possession of a similar slingshot myself were undoubtedly on my side […] I’m sure he is a menace to the local avian population and his parents alike.

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[The chap who guided us back to camp on our first night] went into his house and emerged with his bow and arrow, complete with metal arrowhead and chicken-feather fletching. He was definitely proud to show me this, and had only yesterday enlightened me as to how important he thinks hunting is […] Thanks to the illegality of big game hunting for the Hai||om, however, he has not made a kill in four or five years.

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When hunting, the arrow would be poisoned using a particular tree known in Oshiwambo as Ombo and in Khoekhoegowab as |gou , which he still knows how to find and extract the poison from. I want to see if he can demonstrate this for me when I return […] The bow does not look like it has been much used, though. Whether this is due to lack of use or simply meticulous care is difficult to say […] I asked about range and power, and he indicated through reference points that we could both see that at six to seven metres the arrow would punch straight through most animals (he indicated his neck at this point) and the bow had a slightly less effective range of about fifteen metres, and at this point the hunter relies on the poison to slow the animal down so that it can be spoored (tracked). As such, the closer one gets to the quarry, the better […] He said he got his first kill when he was fifteen, and smiled when I said that must have been a great day.

So I got a huge amount of information in those short three days there. I’ve got a good idea of where I’d like to go from here, and in reassuringly familiar anthropological style my talking to the Hai||om has raised so many more questions than it has answered. This is good. I am looking forward to running these short impressions past other anthropologists when I return to Windhoek to sort out the visa, and to see whether I have the right end of the stick, or whether I am going in totally the wrong direction with my questioning.

As of now, I am sitting in a wonderfully air-conditioned hotel room on my way south. When I return, I hope to be armed with more questions and, more importantly, more confidence in my own abilities. I think this should go okay. I’m glad I have a bit of experience just there to prepare me for what is to come, and to get me accustomed to the role of leading an expedition for scientific data. We shall see how it goes, but thanks to the people I have met at Ekoka, I am looking forward to my return.

For now, Tschuß!

Roadtrips, Royalty and Rednecks

I’ve started my journey North, finally.

I’ve got my car in my possession, paid for and insured. I’ve bought camping equipment, most of what I need. I’m now in a hotel in the town of Tsumeb having just driven about six hours and 436km (270mi) up the country. I plan to buy provisions here before going the next 270km (168mi) to Ondangwa and my next destination. Driving was actually quite fun; I got to see how fast my bakkie can go fully-loaded with everything I own here (145kph/90mph, just) and I got to play lots of music through my mp3 player. Helga’s even got air conditioning. Piling everything in my car does make me feel a bit like a tortoise, though.

I’m staying for two nights, as I have a meeting with someone who will be doing some interview transcription for me. I’ve been here before, and I’ve even stayed in this hotel before, so it is something of a Last Homely House before I make a start into the part of Namibia called “Africa Proper”, where German and South African colonists never really managed to establish themselves. The present government of Namibia does hold sway up there, especially since Ovamboland (named after its majority Ovambo inhabitants) was the seeding-place for the anti-apartheid SWAPO rebellion (supported by the Soviet Union, the DDR and Cuba, against the British, American and Israeli-supported South Africa) that secured Namibian Independence in 1990. Ovamboland’s lack of submission to colonial rule, however, is evident in the fact that much of the land is still communally-owned in accordance with ancient Ovambo law and custom, and much authority is places in the kings of the eight Ovambo tribes.

I have only spent half a day there before, but much of the next year will be spent documenting the knowledge and skills of the Hai||om hunter-gatherers that live in some of the less-inhabited regions. My translator, fresh from getting his Masters from the University of Cologne, will be an invaluable asset in introducing me to the people that will make or break my ability to conduct research there.

A satellite image of Eastern Ovamboland. the white expanse is the Etosha Salt Pan, enclosed by the famous national park. Circled in red is my stopover in the mining town of Tsumeb, and where my translator and I think the Hai||om groups are.

A satellite image of Eastern Ovamboland. the white expanse is the Etosha Salt Pan, enclosed by the famous national park. Circled in red is my stopover in the mining town of Tsumeb, as well as the two places where my translator and I think the Hai||om groups are.

Incidentally, I met the king of the Aambalantu tribe recently during my days of poaching the internet at the office of my host in the Legal Assistance Centre in Windhoek. He was extremely nice, but any special customs I should have observed I did not as I had absolutely no idea who he was, and besuited Namibians are not exactly hard to find at a Windhoek legal office. After I was introduced as a colleague and greeted him with my usual “Hello, sir, how are you?”, he did however call me “sir” in return. I’m not sure how many people have been called “sir” by royalty without the customary knighthood, but he is thoroughly more approachable than Queen Liz at Braemar games, anyway, although to be fair we haven’t actually spoken.

My last days in Windhoek before heading North have also been punctuated with some anthropologically interesting interactions. On my quest to get insurance for Helga, I spent about three days attempting to open a Namibian bank account. This was a dismal failure, and I was left mystified as to why Namibian banks were so reluctant to let me bring a lot of money into their country, when I have learned that getting it out is a good deal easier than I thought. After a disastrous meeting in which I was told I did not have the right documentation (cue flashbacks to my eighteen months as a call centre employee at the Student Awards Agency for Scotland) I thought I would cheer myself up by following some friends’ advice and making a visit to the Windhoek gun shop.

I have, I must admit, an incredible fascination with rural culture. Reluctant urbanite of six years though I am, I am drawn to the facets of “redneck” culture that remind me of where my parents live (pickup trucks, farm equipment, self-sufficiency and home-made alcohol) as well as the bluegrass culture that spawned the banjo I am still terrible on. I want to go into Appalachia at some point for some post-doc research. Part of this culture is centred around guns, and in Namibia it is no different. I grew up in Britain, which has the good fortune to be a place in which guns are very unusual alien things, unless you happen to be part of either the landed gentry, the military or a club for enthusiasts. They hold a fascinating (for me) central position in the libertarian don’t-tread-on-me anti-government ethos, one which when held by outdoorspeople and frontier-dwellers is a goldmine for research, though admittedly when held by white twenty-something college men is a source of whiny self-righteousness and no end of annoyance for the rest of us (here’s looking at you, Robert Nozik. Smug git).

So I found myself browsing shelves and shelves of rifles, pistols and scary knives. I contented myself with buying a Leatherman multi-tool to help keep Helga in tip-top shape, but I’d be damned if I was leaving before getting talking to the guy who ran the place. Turns out he was really interesting. We had a long chat, in which I practised an interview technique I like to call “agreeing with everything they say so they tell you more stuff”. It worked fantastically. We bitched about the government regulations in Europe taking everyone’s guns away, and he was astonished when I told him that all of the rather imposing handguns he had on display were illegal to own in the UK. So much so, in fact, that our Olympic pistol-shooting team has to practice in Ireland. I neglected to go into why I thought that wasn’t too bad a thing, and such was his sympathy for me that he proceeded to get out most of the handguns he had on display, and enthusiastically go through their merits as to how easy they were to conceal vs how big a hole they would make in someone trying to mug you.

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I have to say, part of me really enjoyed it. I’ve long suspected that the popularity of firearms, particularly with men, has something to do with having personal power as well as their representations in entertainment media, though having never held a real gun in my life I had no personal evidence to back it up. Now, however, I’m pretty sure it’s true. It took a superhuman effort from me not to quote Dirty Harry upon being handed a revolver, but I managed to hold it together enough for him to hand me his card, and let me know that even though I’m not licensed in Namibia (or anywhere) I can come back any time I like when the range has been revamped to try out the ones he showed me for three hundred dollars (twenty euros) an hour. I will probably go back just to talk to him again.

So before leaving Windhoek I had an interesting taste of the Namibian culture that I would probably say most of the tourists that come here are a part of: Shooting. As well as that, I’ve been introduced to some Namibians that would definitely fit the American definition of “redneck”, and this has been backed up latterly by an interesting conversation with a fellow anthropologist here who has the same interests in pursuing research like this. As nice as the gun shop chap was, and as fun as it was to examine another gun breathlessly described by the shopkeeper as “straight out of the Bundeswehr”, I’m still not really comfortable around instruments of death, and am going to stick to the pickups, bluegrass and booze when it comes to rednecks for now. Also horses. Horses make excellent lawnmowers in the garden, apparently:

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I’ve even been told I can have a riding lesson when I get back from the North, which I am definitely looking forward to. I can’t look as much of a berk as I did the first time I got on a horse, but we shall see. There will be pictures.

My journey North, however, is me settling back into what I am more used to, not to mention trained for. I’ve probably got a few things still to sort, but at least if I have to come back to Windhoek the journey will be measured in hours rather than days as it is back to Europe from here, so I’m nowhere near as frantic with preparation as I was in the days before my coming to Namibia. I’m here in my hotel, having driven for six hours, and will shortly make a trip to the excellent hotel bar for a beer and a wind-down.

I was very reluctant to leave the previous house and my amazing hosts, but if they will have me again I will certainly be back. Tschuß!

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Namibia Part Two: Into the North

So when I last wrote my supervisor and I had packed up the car after a few days in Windhoek and begun our journey to meet the Hai||om hunter-gatherers, and see if things at the farm where he had done his PhD fieldwork still bore much resemblance to the one he had left. We drove for about six hours from Windhoek to Tsumeb, a small mining town up in the North of the country, where we stopped briefly to resupply. It would, ideally, have been a briefer stop, but meeting a local business owner in Namibia involves the previously detailed temporal phenomenon known as Standard African Time, and we spent far longer in a petrol station Wimpy with terrible coffee in front of us that I think anyone would consider reasonable.

Much to the bewilderment of everyone else, I insisted on taking this picture:

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So for those of you not familiar with the peculiarities of the highlands of Scotland, that there is a Spar. I thought they were pretty much exclusive up there, a relic of the British past consigned to the most rural of rural areas simply because no other store could possibly imagine the benefit of opening one when the local population consists of two old guys, a herd of sheep and a black and white dog. Apparently not. They do a roaring trade in Namibia, and along with a serious moment of incongruity the mystery of how in the world they actually make money is solved. Explaining why I wanted a picture of it was quite fun, but it sounded a lot better in my head. At least three Namibians think I’m some sort of supermarket-spotter, which I imagine is several rungs below trainspotting in the hierarchy of sad, sad hobbies. Either that or I was taking part in the lamest industrial espionage ever conceived.

Nonetheless, our meeting went well, and we proceeded once again North. I was warned of bad roads, but alas the tarred road just continued on and on, much to my supervisor’s surprise, but not disappointment. We arrived at Tsinsabis (You’re probably going to have to Google Map these at some point, I still do) a few hours before nightfall, and finally got to test the camping equipment the project paid for us to hire, at a locally-run campsite known as Tree-Sleepers.

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If the last two pictures didn’t make it clear, it was really, really wet. Namibia is supposed to be the most arid country in Southern Africa, some places regularly going without rain for most of the year, and while the wet season was finishing up while we were there, I did not expect to be rained on like clockwork every single day. I cast my mind back to see if I had offended a wizard or something in the past, as my camping trips seem cursed. Either than or I’m the reincarnation of Douglas Adams’ Rain God. It finally felt like we were actually out there doing fieldwork, though, and it was brilliant. So in the mood was I that I decided to attempt a campfire, waving away the firelighters in an attempt to prove my bushcraft skills, learned as they were from my intense study of all the Ray Mears progammes. My confidence in my own abilities, much to my supervisor’s amusement, was somewhat misplaced. We had peanut butter sandwiches and droewors for dinner, and not for the last time.

The night brought, to nobody’s surprise, more rain, but in the morning we set off from Tsinsabis into what is called “the land of the soft sand” to drive to the resettlement farm where the Hai||om group we were going to see make their home.

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We started to be quite glad we’d hired a four-wheel-drive, and we made swift progress towards the farm. It is worth explaining at this point why a group of people known as hunter-gatherers would live on a farm, rather than being mobile in the bush. It’s a big question, and probably the main subject of my PhD, but in short the ownership of most of Namibia by comparatively few farmers has pushed the Hai||om to the margins. Etosha National Park, once the land of the Hai||om, is now one of the most famous game parks in Africa. When the park was established originally, the Hai||om were allowed to stay on, mostly because they were thought to be part of the wildlife. However, South African rule, and an increasing demand by the park’s mostly European visitors for a fictional “untamed wilderness” free of people (which, incidentally, means that they actually started to recognise the Hai||om as human rather than shooting them on sight) led to them being unceremoniously evicted in 1954. Most of the Hai||om today inhabit the farms around Etosha, where they were “resettled”. It’s about as nice as it sounds.

Transitioning from one form of social organisation (mobility and relative freedom from external restraints) to another (sedentary living and piecemeal, low-paid work as proletarianised farm workers) is tough. It is especially tough when you are at the sharp end of discriminatory policies that have relatively recently stopped classifying you as a member of the animal kingdom. All this is essential to understand at least some of why the Hai||om currently live as they do. Things are not all bad, however, and I remain consistently amazed at the ability of people to make the best out of what, in the understatement of the year, is a bad situation.

Incidentally, while the change to sedentary living started happening a long time ago, things are still a bit different for the Hai||om than they are for their traditionally agro-pastoralist neighbours. As I would later discover, traditional knowledge has a fair amount of resilience and is not simply a product of current living conditions. People keep a lot of what they remember, even if it changes form. At least, I think so. Ask me in three years when my PhD is published.

History and structural conditions aside for a moment (sorry Marxists) I was running all of this through my head as we approached the farm settlement, and wondering what to expect. I was excited to finally be in the field, and hoping I’d make a good impression with those who would hopefully become my field subjects.

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These guys.

The quick amongst you will notice that the houses are not necessarily the best for mobile living (well done by the way, have you considered anthropology?). They are in fact a fairly recent adoption for those Hai||om who have settled down on farms. However, two older ladies who lived next to our campsite would not sleep under anything other than the traditional Hai||om style of house, and I wanted to find an excuse to post just because they’re cool:

ImageYou’ll also probably notice how green everything is. The grass is lush and thick at the end of the rainy season, the insects are utterly deafening and the livestock are all encouragingly fat.

An unfortunate part of the reason that the insects were deafening is because some of them looked like this:

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AAAAAAHH! KILL IT WITH FIRE!

Now. I come from Northern Europe. Insects are roughly one centimetre in length here. That is normal. The demon hellspawn you see above, however, is not. Pulling one of those off your tent, car, clothes or anything else is tough. They are strong, and they make a hissing noise when angry. They are also everywhere. One more of those things I just have to get used to as I’ll be camping there for much of the rest of the year. Another of them is a spider that apparently is very poisonous, so the guy I was with decided to poke it with a stick. Natürlich.

I haven’t seen a Baboon Spider yet, but I am emphatically not looking forward to it.

Despite my encounters with insects and the odd snake (my life was saved by Hai||om travelling companions at least once), I knew I could not research traditional knowledge without taking a few trips into the bush myself. It turns out that even though the Hai||om at this settlement have been in one place for some years, there are still regular trips of groups of kids into the surrounding scrubland to gather bush potatoes (wild root vegetables), black beetles and other foods in addition to the firewood they come back with each day. I accompanied some of the young girls and boys from the village (all between about 8 and 15) as they went on one of these trips. I traipsed along after them for a good few kilometres, hoping that it was plants we were after rather than animals, as I was not being particularly stealthy. Patiently, I was shown the leaves of the |harusa, or bush potato, and instructed to help in the search. Quite quickly I managed to point one out, and was promptly handed the digging stick and it was clear that if I wanted that one I needed to dig it out myself. I made a terrible hash of it, but eventually liberated it from the earth. This done, I pocketed my prize and we wandered further away from the settlement deeper into the grazing land.

This, by the way, is a bush potato, taken from a later trip with one of the two Hai||om in the village who could speak English.

If you listen really closely you can hear my attempts at Khoekhoegowab. They are not great.

What is also worth mentioning at this point is that by the end of the rainy season, the bush has grown up so thick in the pastures around the Hai||om settlement that visibility is barely ten metres, and I recognise absolutely none of the plants you can see in a given glance. I might as well be on an alien planet where every plant has inch-long thorns and all the animals are both capable and willing to kill you. Each block of a couple of metres looks absolutely the same as the last one, and I was completely and utterly in the hands of my young guides. I had my uses, however. Being twice the size of all the youngsters with me made me the perfect candidate for party pack-mule when it came to firewood. No complaints from me, however. I like to think I reimbursed them for having to put up with a wheezing white guy brandishing a camera.

Even with me in tow, that particular gathering trip was reasonably successful, the only truly paltry haul of |harusa coming from me, but at least I had most of a forest under my right arm.

Later, I was introduced to my English-speaking friend, and a few days afterwards he decided to take me on another walk through the bush, explaining to me all the plants and animals we saw, as well as their uses. I learned a lot from him, and hopefully will in the future, but the highlight of our walk was definitely this chameleon:

Awesome. I did discover, however, that I am not in fact that great at being a hunter-gatherer, as when I make up half the team, this is what we come back with:

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I can’t even claim credit for the MASSIVE bush potato either. Damn.

It was great fun, I must say, although without a lifetime of experience backing me up I know I couldn’t live on it. Hopefully I might get better at finding the stuff in the 12 months I’m around. I’ll be somewhat useful, then. All I can say is that I can’t wait to go back.

Stay tuned for part three, folks, that’s all for now. Tschuß!