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!

Safari, Sand and the Sea

I’ve taken something of a break over what would be considered in Europe the winter holidays. Here, of course, it was punishingly hot, but nonetheless I had a wonderful Christmas with my hosts here, who kindly offered to put me up for the duration. I have been staying here in Windhoek in a small cottage on their land, which means I essentially have my own house. This also means that I wake up each morning to a rather nice view of the bush, while I prepare for the next, and altogether longer, odyssey into the North.

In the intervening time, too, I went on a little tour, the occasion being a two-week visit from Edinburgh of my girlfriend. We did all the typical touristy things, and I actually feel now that I have seen a lot more of the country than I would have done without any time off at all. We visited the world-famous Etosha National Park, which is an area about the size of Scotland in which much of Namibia’s native wildlife exists free of encroachment from farming and poaching. This, rather happily, includes quite a number of elephants.

We went on an early morning game safari at one of our resorts, in which I nearly froze to death. Apparently I have got very used to the heat of Namibia in the daytime. Five in the morning is not one of those times. We actually saw very little on the drive, as the animals are all students or something. We saw most of the animals driving ourselves through the park from one hotel to the next, helpfully reminded by signs every few kilometres to “STAY IN YOUR CAR” lest we be eaten by lions. Alas, no lions were forthcoming, although I am happy about not being eaten. The insurance claim would have been a nightmare. Nonetheless, the absence of top predators meant that all the other wildlife seemed very relaxed around us, and we saw giraffes, wildebeest, jackals, the occasional hyena, hartebeest, zebra, ostrich, springbok and oryx. I have eaten an embarrassingly large number of the animals on the list, actually. Oryx is definitely the best. I loved Etosha, mainly for the fact that we could proceed entirely at our own pace throughout the journey, stopping when we wanted to, although getting out the car was strictly a rest-camp-only affair. Unless a really really good picture presented itself, at which point one of us would hang out the window.

From Etosha, we proceeded through the arid and dusty Damaraland down to the skeleton coast. A nice idea would be, I thought, to use the small roads, although what qualifies as a “big road” in that part of the world seems to be a gravel road wide enough for two cars to pass each other. We drove for about a hundred kilometres without seeing a soul, which was eerie, but upon seeing a sign advertising “rock art this way” we decided to take a quick break, and things got a bit eerier.

What you are looking at is one of the very common rock formations in the area, apparently surrounded by a strange shrine of empty beer bottles that looked like it had not been touched in a time measurable in decades. There was even a stall with rocks for sale, untouched in a similar time. There was not a soul to be seen. We did not stop for long, either: the temperature was climbing into the forties celsius and after a look around (I was thankfully prevented from attempting to climb the rock formation thanks to the sensibility of my travelling companion and the lack of help in the area) we saw no rock art. I was reminded forcefully of the old television show Jeopardy I used to watch as a teenager back in the UK. It seemed like a bit of a Close Encounters of the Third Kind venue, at any rate. The idea of spending a night camping there ignites the Fox Mulder in me (three UFO references in as many sentences, gold!), though I suspect that it’s an abandoned tourist site. I have, however, been told that some rock formations here hold cairn tributes to a Damara god, so it could be something to do with that. The mystery deepens.

We avoided abduction and experimentation by extraterrestrials, however, and proceeded further towards the Brandberg, our next formal stop and the highest mountain in Namibia. The map was less than clear however, and just when being lost became a real possibility, for the first time in quite some hours we were passed by a local in his truck, who guided us to the right road using the medium of drawn maps in the sand. Our day in the car was longer than expected, but without major incident, thankfully.

The Skeleton Coast was our next big adventure on the tour. The best way I can think of to characterise it would be to think of it as the world’s biggest beach, on which the sand simply doesn’t stop as you go inland. Much of the distances in such a featureless landscape blend into one another, so in an odd way the place seems smaller than it really is, although it is a massive vista to look at. The road is also made of compacted salt, and it speaks to where I grew up that my initial thought was of approval as it would mean there would definitely be no problem with snow and ice, which is true, although that has little to do with the salt. It was cold, though. By cold, of course I mean that it was about twenty degrees, but come evening that was enough for me to want to put on a jumper, and it was a welcome contrast from the fires of the sun inland.

We also had the good fortune to be staying very near to one of the largest colonies of anything I have ever seen, and in this case it happened to be the rather dopey, and extremely smelly, Cape Fur Seals that make their homes here. They are not shy, and some of the smaller ones are quite photogenic.

I’ll definitely say at this point that the Namibian coast is probably one of the strangest places I have ever been in my life. The desolation and lack of habitability mean that water has to be trucked in, yet small towns flourish here, trading seemingly on the tourists and visitors that flock during the summer (Dec-Feb) to escape the inland heat. But as far as I could see, and of course my impression as a tourist is flawed, these seem to be the only inhabitants. The place feels like a succession of British seaside towns, the colonial-ness of the Afrikaner and Sudwest Deutsch adding another strange flavour to the mix. Swakopmund, in particular, made me think of Exmouth, in which my father grew up, and which I long ago visited, yet an Exmouth that was invaded by the Second Reich under Bismarck and from which they never retreated. As a curiosity, it makes for interesting buildings and a fascinating museum, but a town where this is an acceptable shop window display needs some serious introspection:

Notice, if you will, that those are not antique postcards. These are recently manufactured bumper stickers, that I could, should I so choose, purchase and put upon Helga so that everyone in Namibia could be clear about the fact that I am totally fine with genocide. I learned upon my return to Windhoek that I should have looked closer at that shop window. They are usually displaying a copy of Mein Kampf as well.

Swakopmund was a lot beyond this, however. If you can get past the idea that the Reich never seemed to leave, you’ll see a town that is seeing a lot of new inhabitants, growth and diversity pushing out the old ways, leaving them as a curiosity for disbelieving tourists to photograph. We managed to find some great food and drink, even sushi at one point, which seems to be taking the urban areas of Namibia by storm, and cocktails. Outdoor adventure things are also pretty popular here, and it was difficult to resist a trip into the dunes quadbiking and sandboarding (sledging on dunes, basically) on our last day there.

All in all, a fantastic break, and aside from a short mishap and two-hour detour on the way home thanks to me dropping my wallet in the middle of absolutely nowhere when we stopped, a nice drive over a mountain pass on the way back to Windhoek, Alison’s return to Edinburgh, and my return to work.

For now, I am readying myself and my equipment for what I will call “the real research”, in which I will gather the bulk of my data on my field sites. I have three months, at which time I shall return to Germany for some meetings and Scotland for making sure the people I care about have not forgotten me, before I return for another three months of data gathering. At that point, I should have enough material for a PhD. We can hope.

I am very much at home here these days. So much so, in fact, that I am feeling less stressed about preparing for this trip like a military exercise. I have become something of an old hand now at “making do”, a perennial practice here that with a couple of exceptions I really quite like. You can also tell how normal life here has become for me, that I am finding less and less to post about when I am not actually on fieldwork. Namibian life is simply my life now. I’m okay with that. There’s still that voice at the back of my head telling me I’m not prepared enough, though. I think I will call him “Mein Kleiner Deutschmann”. I’m pretty sure he’s kept me alive more than once.

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!

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!

The Good, the Bad and the Bureaucratic.

We are still praying/hoping for more than a spot or two of rain. Peter described the weather at the moment as a “tease”: we get a rough cold downdraught of of air, and black clouds overhead, followed by thunder. We can all feel it coming when the wind gets up, but alas after a dribble of water the clouds move on. We think it might actually be raining, but the raindrops are evaporating before they hit the earth, and going back up to form clouds again. There is a meteorological name for this, however being but a mere social scientist I forgot it instantly when I was told.

It’s unsurprising the rain has never made it down, really. I found out upon my return to Windhoek that the temperatures I regarded as “unbearable” in Ondangwa were justifiable: Forty-two degrees in the shade. You cook meringues at that temperature (thanks, Mum!). You can also cook anthropologists as well. Such has been the heat that it got down to twenty degrees one evening and I had to go and find my jumper as I was shivering. It’s cooled down a tiny bit now; here in Windhoek I’d put it back down to the low thirties, which is fast becoming a comfortable temperature for me. The other thing the heat has driven me to is shaving my beard of five years completely off my face. As well as the fact that I am getting quite dark-skinned and my hair is fast becoming a foofy absurdity, I no longer recognise myself. Nor, apparently, do people who I last saw in March. I’m putting this down (at least with non-white Namibians) to the fact that I was told in Owamboland that all white people look the same. I wouldn’t know if that’s true or not, obviously being one. Answers on a postcard, please. I am also now sleeping under a net every night, besieged by beetles on every side, and hordes of mosquitoes intent on molesting me should I awake in the night and need to use the bathroom.

(No, you are not getting a picture. I eschew blog “selfies” because I am 24 years old now and officially a grumpy old man. Get off my lawn.)

I returned to Windhoek to renew my visa, and intended to stay only for a few days. We are into week number two now, mainly because getting hold of the necessary documents, which now need to be certified copies thanks to a recent rule-change, has proven somewhat difficult. My thanks to the good people at the Legal Assistance Centre (link in the sidebar) for providing me with a letter of association as well as some tasks to accomplish on their behalf when I return to fieldwork and the North. Nonetheless, it should be done and dealt with come the end of the week. I can then stay until February, when the process shall begin again. Joy of joys. The good news is that the LAC is also home to a number of people who can help me immeasurably with my research, in return for the odd bit of proofreading, which I am more than happy to do, as well as well-acquainted with  thanks to my position as one of the few native speakers in my English-medium graduate school in Germany. I’ve also been in contact with a number of researchers who have recently done work in some of my field sites, and have some reading to do of my own. All being well, I should be able to be published in a Namibian journal this year, provided I have something of value to say, which one would expect.

Windhoek has had some other advantages, too. I bought myself a guitar for camp entertainment, as I’ve been missing playing music enormously. It was a N$700 (€50) pawnshop prize, and I’m rather pleased with her. She needs a name, though.

I went into what I think is Windhoek’s only music shop in order to get spare strings and picks, and found two guys there not only incredibly happy to help, but who were also metalheads. We had a great time chatting about Opeth for a while before I reluctantly left behind a N$4000 Fender to go to Cash Crusaders and what eventually became my guitar. Some things I don’t think I can justify on expenses. Nonetheless, she seems to be holding together well, and I hope that people at the San communities I will be visiting like folk music, although it is more for my sanity than anything else.

On Saturday my hosts invited some of their relatives over for lunch. We had a great time, eating, chatting, then probably after not long enough a swim in the alarmingly green pool. However, the lack of fencing on the plot, as well as the large number of animals roaming around, developed into something of a horse-shaped problem.

At that point, the charming “Biggie” (not also known as “The Notorious H.O.R.S.E., although he really should be) had his head in the fruit bowl in the kitchen, and would not move for anyone. Eventually we took the hint and I charmed him and his cohort out of the house and garden with the promise of two bales of hay up at the stable. It’s quite hard to imagine that at one point I was quite scared of horses. This doesn’t fly here.

Lastly, I have booked myself a holiday. I’m staying in country, of course, but in between Christmas and New Year my girlfriend is coming out to visit me here in Namibia, all the way from Scotland. It will be amazing to see her after all this time, but also great to be able to do all the Namibian tourist-y stuff like visiting Etosha National Park and the Skeleton Coast without feeling guilty and like I should be working. I can’t wait to be honest, and it will be brilliant to have a two-week break just after Christmas. I might even finally get to see a big cat, although I’ve been reliably informed that this homestead here in Brakwater is home to a certain leopard, who may or may not have some cubs in the scrapheap next to the entrance. Rest assured, if I can think of a way to take pictures of them without having my arm ripped off by an irate mother, I will do so. Going and looking for them seems a prime way to get myself a Darwin Award, though.

I’m afraid that is pretty much what has been going on recently. It’s a short post, but hopefully soon I should have this visa business sorted, and be back up North doing research, as I am supposed to me. Ever it is bureaucracy that stands in the way of progress, but quite a lot of good has come of being here in Windhoek, and I’m planned out all the way through until January. Ideally next time I post I should have some more fieldnote extracts for you. We, as ever, shall see.

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!