Enkouji

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For about three or four years, I have known about, read about, and occasionally engaged in the Japanese practice of zazen, or “just sitting”. My discipline has varied, but originally inspired by the slightly more conversational tone of Soto Zen master (and former Zero Defects Bassist) Brad Warner in his book Sit Down and Shut Up, I have found something of an affinity for sitting and doing absolutely nothing, which is a lot harder than it sounds, and quite strange.

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Brad Warner’s books look like this.

My field informants in my second village in Namibia avoided me for days when I started sitting there as unfortunately the position in which you sit to sit zazen looks quite a lot like a witching trance used to curse people. After assuring people that I had no idea how magic worked and was instead doing my best to think of nothing, a few enquired about my “Japanese religious practice”, but none fancied trying it. I used to sit every day in the field, a hallmark of the increased attention span and more ready ability to concentrate that living without wifi and screens seems to conjure, but have been less disciplined when back in Europe.

Keen to keep up some sort of reading on the subject, which is fascinating, and doesn’t ask for you to believe anything, I had a go at getting stuck into Master Dogen’s Shobogenzoa foundational text in Soto-shu and quite readable in English with a decent translation, provided you try and picture yourself in a Japan circa 1200. I nevertheless have not necessarily got that far. It doesn’t help that in the UK and in Germany Zen Buddhism manages to not only be a fringe minority religion but also to be considered a mess of the sort of cheesy think-positive Facebook reposts that your orientalist hippie friend loves sharing. Worse, people interested in Zen inevitably end up being asked whether we are trying to find enlightenment, or connect with “the astral plane”, or whatever vaguely “Eastern Wisdom” pastiche nonsense has unfortunately been filtered down from the sadly misinformed “believe in yourself” credulous types busy trying to work out the healing power of crystals in between consulting mediums (media?).

I am an awkwardly resistant practitioner of zazen, it is safe to say, probably because of the connotations of being a white Brit into Buddhism. I am fascinated by it, particularly the benefits of a mind-body integrative practice upon mental health disorders (a cool literature review from an actual journal in evidence-based medicine is here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22700446), and I have found, anecdotally, that it seems to work for at least one person. I am also fascinated by the concept of an entirely materialistic spirituality. More correctly I suppose, my reading into Zen literature and my words with practitioners lead me to the conclusion that the question of whether Zen is materialistic is a little bit unimportant. They are concerned with the here and now, flesh and blood reality, or, as they would put it: mu, nothing.

Zazen is also very normal in Japan. I was invited some weeks ago to sit with one of my friends at the Enkouji Temple, a stunning 400-year-old complex to the North of the city of Kyoto, which contains the temple itself, an array of immaculate Zen gardens and a graveyard, notable for containing, among its Buddhist inhabitants, the grave of a Muslim exchange student from Malaysia, Syed Omar, who perished in the atomic bomb in Hiroshima in 1945.

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Enkouji Zazendo (room in which we sit) in the temple garden.

It is a beautiful place, although one upon my first visit I saw very little of, as it was still dark, and about half past five in the morning. Zen people seem like the consummate trolls (the fun kind, not the ones of 2017) in their tendency to mess with you. Morning meditation begins at 0600, which given the distance to the temple and the fact that I must travel there on a bicycle, means that my Sunday morning alarm goes off at 0445. Zazen is not, apparently, for the faint-hearted. Nor the cold-averse. It is inescapably February in Japan, a country known less for its forgiving winters than its avid snowsports scene, and not only is the Zazendo unheated but zazen is conducted with the doors and windows thrust wide open to take in the environment.At 0545, we take our seats on cushions designed to keep your bum a few centimetres from the ground, allowing one in theory to sit comfortably in the lotus position, which looks like this:

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This is not me at the Zazendo. This is me after a bath in the hot springs (hence the getup). I am not this warm, awake or relaxed at the Zazendo.

I still have trouble with my freakishly-long and bizarrely inflexible lower limbs over the whole Zazen period, but I am getting better. All set out in lines, the cushions allow for us to be close enough to others that we feel we are doing this together, but far enough away so we are not disturbed by one another. At 0600, Osho-san (the monk running the temple) rings the giant bell outside, comes inside, lights the incense, and so begins the first phase of the zazen. We sit for roughly 20 minutes, or as long as it takes for the incense to burn down to nothing.

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Zazendo in the light after meditation is done.

20 minutes is quite a long time just to sit still, and one finds the “monkey mind” (as the former president of the Buddhist society at Edinburgh University used to put it) swinging from tree to tree, chasing thoughts this way and that. In Zen, there are strategies to combat this. Breathe slowly, and count your breaths from one to ten. If you lose count, or your thoughts wander off, simply start again. With no distractions, the lights off and your eyes half closed and pointed to a spot two metres in front of you on the floor, it is incredibly hard to get to ten. This is no problem, though. All you have to do is return to counting your breaths. You might get to ten next time. If you do? Start again. If you breathe properly, you can also bypass your body’s shivering reflex. Zazen is very uncomfortable at times, and comfortable at others. It is boring at times, and interesting at others. Zazen is just like reality because that is all that it is. You’re sitting in a building with the windows open.

Here is the key point: Zazen has no objective. Osho-san, as well as all of the Zen people I have read, are very clear about this. If you think you have found enlightenment, you haven’t. If you come to the Zazendo wanting to find enlightenment, you might as well go home, because you will not find what you are looking for. The clue is in the name: Za-zen: Just sitting. The point is to sit, and you are sitting, so you are achieving your point. Just to be in the room, without disappearing off on some mental journey, is surprisingly hard. When I had the Rain-Man-like concentration of my fieldwork self, I could occasionally drift away from counting the breaths to just being there, but that is not something that comes very often to me. The slow counting of your breaths, in and out, is the anchor to come back to in the moment. It is something tangible, in which you can inhabit nothing more than the room that you are in. It sounds super mystical, but in reality is the polar opposite of mystical. There is nothing there that is not real. The mind will take you on flights of fancy (usually about firesides and hot baths, damn it was cold) but you must instead return your thoughts back to the breath, which is real. It is simultaneously very simple and very difficult to do.

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Pictured: Cold. This is normally where you wash your hands.

After 20 minutes, a small bell is rung, and we proceed to the walking meditation, a swift speed-walk around and around the Zazendo for roughly ten minutes, keeping eyes focused on the ground just in front of the feet, and hands held up at chest level, palms about five centimetres from the breast. My numb legs and freezing toes are more than grateful for the opportunity to move by this point, although forcing my feet into tiny Japanese sandals for the walk (I abandon my boatlike leather shoes at the door) is less than fun. Thankfully, nobody apart from my feet on the cold stone seem to mind me going barefoot. We then return to sitting as quickly as possible, and sit for a further 20 minutes (or one incense stick). Towards the end, Osho-san, as is tradition, walks slowly around the Zazendo holding a large wooden stick, which, if you bow to him as he passes, he will hit you four times with on the back, relatively hard. My friends tell me that the harder he hits you, the better he thinks you are doing, as he thinks you do not mind being hit harder. I still have no real idea why he does this, but as a method of keeping one “in the moment” I suppose it works.

Zazen done, we proceed to what I suppose is the equivalent of the”church hall” of the temple, a mercifully-heated room in which we prepare rice porridge along with preserved plums, greens and horseradish, and sit down to breakfast and to listen to Osho-san, who is much funnier than his stern demeanour within zazen would seem to indicate. We read the Heart Sutra aloud before eating, a difficult task for me as while I can read Hiragana (one of the three character systems and the one used for the syllable-pronounciation guide next to the complex symbolic Kanji characters) I do so very slowly at the moment. Osho-San was very interested in where I had come from, and why I was familiar with the basics of zazen, and he seems pleased that I was able to sit in the cold without fidgeting and complaints. Happily, I was invited back, and have been attending every week since. Attending so early also means we can explore the temple grounds before they open to the public (they are famously beautiful) and see the view of Kyoto.

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A really nice place to be on a Sunday morning.

In addition to being invited back for zazen, I was touched and very honoured this morning (Monday) to have been invited out of the blue to a tea ceremony hosted by Osho-san, along with his sensei (teacher of the tea ceremony. It takes months to learn), in the special tea room attached to his house within the temple grounds. This tea ceremony began at the relatively-late hour of 0830, and so it was a leisurely morning cycle ride up to Enkouji rather than a freezing, dark slog to attempt to wake and warm up as it is usually every Sunday.

Everything about the tea ceremony was ritualised. We must sit (or kneel really) on the floor after entering through a tiny hatch, designed so that everyone, rich or poor, no matter their status, would have to bow upon entry. This is by design. Also by design is that it is small enough that you cannot go through while wearing a katana, thus encouraging the ceremony’s ancient and more, well, violent practitioners to solve their differences with the tongue rather than the blade. Therefore, no matter my violation of protocol, I could at least be sure that I would not be cloven in two by any of my companions. It is not, incidentally, something I was particularly worried about, but the assurance is nice I guess.

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The kettle is in the middle and the pink and white things are delicious biscuits. Top right is an ungainly giant losing feeling in his lower limbs.

The tea room is warm thanks to the fire in a small pit in the centre, and I watched keenly for all the times that I was expected to bow, accept tea, admire the bowl, drink the tea, thank Osho-San for pouring it, and laughing along with him and the others when sensei admonished him for doing occasional things wrong. She intimated that it was impossible to stop learning how to do the tea ceremony, because you can always get better. She explained and we appreciated the fact that this was the only time when we would be having tea exactly in this way, which caused us to think of the time of year we were having it, how many times we had all had it, and the things that we would talk about. It was a very enjoyable experience, though painful, as sitting on my heels like that is not something that I have much practice in.

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Osho-san pours tea, I listen to Sensei talk about all the aspects of the ceremony.

It didn’t feel too formal, either, for a highly ritualised ceremony. This was the day after my third week sitting at the temple, and so I feel very welcome here. I think my persistence in the face of the icy mornings is noteworthy for those others attending, but I would hardly be much of a Scot if I was bothered by a little cold. We laughed and talked (through an endlessly-patient friend and translator) about where I came from, what I was doing in Japan, and when I would come back. To be invited to such an intimate gathering as this was a very great show of hospitality, and as they have managed to do every week, the people of Enkouji have made me feel not at all odd for turning up and joining in, however ham-fisted my attempts with my beginner-level Japanese can be.

This is a beautiful place to be, and to attend not only zazen but a tea ceremony, two of the things I was most keen to do while here in Japan, at the same temple with the same welcoming people, was an experience I shall not forget.

I will also not forget the feeling of my feet in tiny tiny shoes when trying to walk after kneeling for an hour.

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Life is suffering, I guess. Buddhism.

 

ありがとうございます, さようなら!

(Thank you very much, Goodbye!)

 

 

Settling in, and Exploring

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Pontocho-dori, Kyoto

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

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

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

Behold, a correctly-used kotatsu:

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I live here now.

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

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

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

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Pictured: A very big box on the roadside.

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

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

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

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Everything is immaculate here.

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

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This is exactly as peaceful as you think it is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This is what freedom looks like.

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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!