All I get is that I don’t get it: Thoughts on Mobility and Sense of Place

Devil’s Claw drying in one of the temporary harvesting camps

Devil’s Claw drying in one of the temporary harvesting camps

In this update from the field, Aglaia shares reflections of her struggle to come to grips with one of the things the population she is researching is best known for—flexible mobility.  Additional writings from her fieldwork can be found here.

By Aglaia Kempinski (Staff Writer)

As an academically-inclined person I am driven to understand stuff. More precisely, as an anthropologist, I want to understand why people do certain things or how their actions are interwoven and related. Attempting to make sense of the actions of one particular community has left me wondering, “Can we ever fully grasp another culture’s rationale?”

My fieldwork is with the Ju/’hoansi San in Namibia. Broadly, the San are possibly the best known indigenous ethnic group in the world. You’ve likely seen them on the BBC or in Discovery Channel documentaries as stand-ins for the quintessential hunter-gatherers of the past. In addition to being known for their survival and hunting skills, they are also commonly said to have been originally nomadic.

To start, this label of nomadism is a misconception, albeit not a significant one. Formerly, the San had a land-allocation system called n!ore, which meant that specific groups would have jurisdiction over a certain area. The area could only be entered by other groups with the consent of the group who held the n!ore rights. Depending on the season and the availability of natural resources, groups would, however, temporarily migrate hundreds of miles in search of water and food.

It might be considered pedantic to stress this difference between the San’s flexible mobility and a truly nomadic lifestyle, particularly because in Namibia this mobile lifestyle is widely considered to be a thing of the past. There are several reasons for this change, for example children must go to school and one must be registered at a certain place to receive government support. But probably the most important reason for this change is the availability of water through government-supported, immobile pumps located within the villages.

Some San on a bush walk in traditional clothes, picture taken by Leon Tsamkxao

Some San on a bush walk in traditional clothes, picture taken by Leon Tsamkxao

A few weeks into my research I was talking to a representative of an organisation which helps the San harvest and sell ‘devil’s claw’ – a root found in the bush which has been used for medicinal purposes by the San for, presumably, hundreds of years. In order to harvest devil’s claw, the San venture out to the immediate surrounds of the village only, and put up camp close to where they find the root. However last year, when an aid organisation started to supply water canister, the people suddenly started venturing out much further from their village in order to harvest—in some cases several days journey away from their village.

When I started looking into this I thought to myself: “Oh, wow, so it only took a few water canisters and they are mobile again!” To me this was really big news. It took another few months before it dawned on me that I had somehow overlooked something much more important.

When I want to talk to a specific person, there are two options. If they have a phone I will try to call them. They may pick up and we arrange to meet or, more often than not, they do not pick up because they are somewhere in the bush where there is no reception and no way to charge their phone.  This provides for a fantastic excuse when people also don’t feel like telling other people where they went. “Sorry, I was in the bush, no reception” is not an uncommon refrain.

If they do not have a phone, then a fun game of hide and seek starts. You go to the place where you think they stay. On the odd occasion you may find them there. But normally you are informed that they are currently somewhere else.  Of course, the person telling you this does not know when they will be back.

People are moving constantly. They might normally stay at their uncle’s place and then, for seemingly no reason whatsoever, decide to go and stay with their sister for a while. They might have gone to another village. They might have gone to town (300km away), or ‘the farm’, or really wherever there is something going on.  They might go to the bush for gathering for a few days, with no estimation of when they might return. I once went to pick up my baby from the sitter only to find that they—both babysitter and baby!—had gone “to the bush.”

Believe me, it is something that initially was difficult to work with. Personally, I tend to find comfort in well organised travel plans.  I tend to tell people when I am leaving and if I say I will be back at a certain time I always am.  This seems to be a “Western” value that is not widely held here. I have witnessed people who are far more laid-back than I become quite irritated at this lack of knowing where to find people. And yet, even though this flexible mobility is near ubiquitous, it is still commonly accepted that the San have become ‘static’.

However you might describe the contemporary lifestyle of the Ju/’hoansi, it is certainly not static. Still it is incredibly hard to find ways of actually describing it. The movement patterns are not organised, there is no system you could use to predict where someone is. Sometimes people move alone and sometimes in groups. It happens by foot, on horseback or hitch hiking. Some motivations seem understandable, such as wanting to go shopping, wanting to visit somebody, going to the doctor, or wanting to attend an event.  Other movements seem to have no motivation at all, such as simply wanting to be somewhere else or just not wanting to be where one is at the moment.

It must be said however, that assimilation helps you see some advantages to this mobility. Everything becomes more flexible and relaxed. People are used to the notion that if everybody you need for a certain activity is there, you might as well do it here and now. People genuinely don’t care if you change your own plans. It’s “move and let move.” You go your way, I go mine, if we happen to meet its great, if not it is no big deal.

The amazing thing about the geographical flexibility is that sometimes you plan an event and think 20 people will turn up but you end up with 50

The amazing thing about the geographical flexibility is that sometimes you plan an event and think 20 people will turn up but you end up with 50

Even with this newfound appreciation for flexibility, however, I cannot figure it out. I can accept it. I can observe it. I can ask questions about it. I can try to conduct my plans regarding my geographical location in a similar manner. But I don’t think I can ever actually be part of that frame of mind where “being somewhere” is such a fluid, flexible concept. Maybe I am just a terrible anthropologist but I’m starting to believe that any attempt to recreate the indigenous perspective on the San’s mobility is ultimately flawed.  In fact, thinking that I could actually fully understand it might do my investigative efforts more harm than good.

Is understanding the reason why someone choses to move really equivalent to coming to grips with the worldview underlying that decision? As much as I can engage with people, ask questions, make friends and participate, it feels like there will forever be a wall that stops me from quite ‘getting it’.

But maybe anthropology is not about ‘getting’ another culture so much as it is about the creation of what happens in the process of trying to ‘get it’. Levi-Strauss, in his work on Totemism, concluded that while anthropology’s efforts of understanding Totemism have not been entirely cohesive, the ways that anthropology has tried to go about analysing it tells us a great deal more about the frame of mind and culture the anthropologists come from than about totemism itself[1]. Maybe the process of trying to understand a unique, particular part of the world on its own terms can never lead to that understanding but can, instead, create a lens for something else.

So maybe the point is not to fully grasp the geographical mobility of the Ju/’hoan. Whatever I do, I will never actually be Ju/’hoan myself.  I will never be able to experience decision making, value judgements, conceptual understandings of things exactly the way they are experiencing them. But my attempt of trying to get as close to it as possible will definitely lead to something. Whether that is an understanding of the Ju/’hoansi, the area, people involved with the San, humankind or just myself, I don’t know. All I know is that the other day I suddenly found myself packing my things on a whim and driving 800 km just because I felt like it. And when I finally switched my phone back on to find loads of messages from friends asking “Where the f*** are you?” I just replied “Sorry, I was out in the bush, no reception”.


[1] LÉVI-STRAUSS, C., & NEEDHAM, R. (1963). Totemism. Boston:  Beacon Press.