First Impressions of the Horrors I Did Expect

By Aglaja Kempinski (Staff Writer)

I just started fieldwork with the San (sometimes referred to as "Bushmen", known through the film “The Gods must be crazy”,countless other documentaries and my recent post) in Tsumkwe, Namibia. During Apartheid the area used to be the designated “Bushmanland”. After independence the Ju/’hoansi were granted authority over the area and the Nyae Nyae conservancy was established. Since the 50’s, Nyae Nyae has attracted anthropologists, film makers and tourists. My research is concerned with how external ideas about San-ness, brought in by outsiders and shaping relationships with stakeholders, are understood by the San themselves. But mostly I just seem to hang out and get sucked into events. Which is also nice.

As I am writing this I am locked in my car with a burnt left thumb. Why is my thumb burned? Well, on my hurried way between the camp fire and the car I attempted to improvise a weapon out of a burning piece of wood (for the record: the fashioning of the weapon was a resounding success, the burnt thumb, a product of my picking the log up more hurriedly than may have been advisable, was acceptable collateral damage). Now, why did I hurry from the fire to the car?

Before I explain I need to just quickly mention one thing that should be kept in mind. I am travelling with a baby. Fortunately it cannot walk yet so the 'issue' can be fairly well contained. It might not exactly be best anthropological practice to travel with a baby, but to everybody here it is normal and if there was only one positive thing to be said about the Ju/’hoansi (there are more, mind you) it’s that they are outstandingly accepting of children. The reasons I am travelling with this kid are a bit sensitive, but I will attempt to satisfyingly explain them in a future post. For now, just bear with me.

So we are in the middle of nowhere, a place 23 km north of Tsumkwe in Namibia called //Xa/oba. It’s a village of 40 to 50 San people – that’s when everyone is there and the vast majority of the camp is not, like they were in this instance, somewhere out in the Bush collecting Devils Claw – a traditional Veld Fruit used for healing in San culture which is now commercially gathered and sold to international traders. //Xa/oba is also one of the area’s “living museums”. This means that tourists go there and, for a small fee, are shown aspects of traditional Ju/’hoan culture such as dancing, hunting and gathering.  Roughly  20 tourists visit a month during tourism season. Because of this, //Xa/oba has a formidable campsite: Running water, toilets, one of the bush showers actually works, plus there is a lightning fast fire wood service.

Usually, when I stay in a village I prefer pitching my tent somewhere in or very close to the actual village. It was probably the promise of bathrooms that made me deviate from this. Perhaps I also liked the idea of possibly having a few minutes to just sit by myself. Either way, I decided to stay at the camp site, roughly a kilometer away from //Xa/oba. As I sit by the fire, surrounded by the thick blackness of night that is 6.30 pm, I point my torch towards the bush. Just far away enough to only be touched by the beam ever so slightly (maybe 40 meters away at most) two eyes reflect the light back at me. I take a brief moment to consider the implications. Yesterday morning a young man from the village, who is currently teaching me Ju/’hoan, told me that there were currently wild dogs in the area. At the time I was REALLY excited about the news. I love wild dogs. They are endangered, fluffy and have really big ears. However, while I pointing the torch back at whatever is in the bush - and now see two, no, three pairs of eyes - it occurs to me that they are also the most successful hunters out there, with an attack/success rate far surpassing that of any other carnivore. From my (very!) amateur assessment the height and movement pattern of the eyes, it could also be hyenas, but that's still not ideal. Basically, no carnivorous animal is great to run into at night, especially if you are alone with a 20 pound bundle of immobile helplessness. So I grab what needs to be grabbed from the fire site, take a burning log (burning my thumb but I don’t notice at that moment), move swiftly but not elegantly to the car (the kid is in the car), put the fire next to the car, climb inside and lock the door.


At first I try honking but there is zero reaction from the village (what exactly I expected I am not sure, but it’s what I did). I then try to text my friend in tsumkwe so he can either advise me on what the right sort of behaviour is or call someone in the village to send help. Long story short, the only advise I get is to take photos or film them. Absurdly, there is enough gprs reception for whatsapp to work. So while I am locked in my car in the absolute middle of nowhere hiding from dangerous animals who were circling my camp I am able to message my friend in Edinburgh (editor Kirsty Bailey) and obtain emotional support. So here I sit, only two months after leaving,  in a land cruiser, with a crying baby, unable to go outside and get my Ardbeg whisky for fear (be it irrational or rational) of being torn apart by the world’s most successful and yet somehow gravely endangered hunter.

Obviously not ideal. However, this is the sort of situation I expected to discove during my field work. Animals I expected. Driving myself into a paranoid frenzy while out in the bush was expected; flat tyres, thorns constantly everywhere in my shoes, my socks, my trousers, my shirt. As annoying as all this can be, it’s also sort of fun and they are all things I know I can deal with. I also expected that I would struggle in learning the language, and that I would feel socially disoriented. That also, to a degree has been true. But mostly I expected that I would not know what to do with myself and that I would spend hours sitting alone being bored and not knowing how to approach my research interests (admittedly I was generally not overly optimistic). However, it turns out that my last expectation was light years away from reality. Literally, since the moment I got here, I haven't had a free minute. Events have literally exploded around me. On one occasion, I attempted to get away for two days and on my way out I ran into a friend who was on his way to a meeting which was highly relevant to my research. So I left my car at the garage, jumped into a pickup truck, spent the night at a Romanian missionary post (most bizarre experience of my life) and in this fashion made my way to the meeting which was held in the bush on the outskirts of the conservancy where my research is situated. That’s an average day here. Also, literally everyone I meet, has something to say about the subjects of my research. The one night I spent in Windhoek, 800 km away from my field site, I start chatting to a young white, (originally Angolan) local Namibian in the hope of being able to talk about something other than the San. When I complimented him on his excellent German he said “It’s easy if you grow up with it. We spoke a lot of languages on our farm so I speak Afrikaans, English, German and Hai//om”. Hai//om is also a San language. He immediately, even without me mentioning my research, started talking about his experiences translating, about the tourists, about the stereotypes.  All of it solid fieldwork interview gold for what I am doing but the things I should be writing down are already, by far, beyond what I have the capacity to write down.

Things happen. They happen at an uncontrollable rate and they suck you in. As much as you want to and have to detach yourself sometimes, it is impossible to keep up with the racing developments and stories that seem to happen in this place. While you are trying to keep yourself sane and keep one thing/development/personal involvement at bay, another one is creeping up on you. But more about the creeping issues next time when I expand on the baby subject…

All images are the authors own.