Fieldwork Impressions: Living with Letting Die

By Aglaja Kempinski (Staff Writer)

With my fieldwork diary coming to a close, I would like to reflect on an experience I had very early in my fieldwork. This is not going to be a long post. I will talk about death, or rather letting people die – and I think there is only so much that can be gracefully said about that.

How do we deal with the guilt that results from our inherent inability to adequately deal with someone’s death? What do we tell ourselves to lessen the pain of our failings? How can we grieve without being selfish?

The fieldwork experience: Before I started fieldwork in Namibia, I paid a brief visit to the Hadza in Tanzania. I went there because they are often likened to the San Bushmen in Namibia, despite being genetically as far removed as any two African gene pools could be. In my (admittedly not overly informed) opinion, they were so different that there would be little point in comparing them. And while the Hadza failed to see any similarity with the Namibian San when I showed them pictures and videos, they do share one important characteristic. Traditionally they are both mobile hunter-gatherers.  With this fact, however, comes a particularly problematic issue: sometimes the group has to move to where the water is, or follow the game in order to survive. If you are always on the move, what do you do with people who are too weak to come along?

For most of the San in Namibia, this is no longer so much of a problem. As I explained in another post, while far from having lost their sense of mobility, the San in Namibia have stationary settlements available to them. The state provides hospitals. No one needs to be left behind anymore. The situation of the Hadza is quite different.  Some of them are lucky enough to benefit from tourists, but one group I visited was not able to tap into that resource. To illustrate: with the money I gave them to let me stay, they went to buy a few gallons of water from some neighbouring pastoralists [1]. Boys as young as eight years old had to go hunt for birds and mice so the group would not starve. When the rainy season came, they would go into the mountains and find shelter from the rain in “caves”. To summarize: they live on the bare minimum, and in order to survive on this minimum they have to continuously be on the move. One evening I asked what happened to the dead people. The answer they gave me was the following children’s story[2]

Sometimes the family has to go somewhere else. But the old people, they are not always strong enough.  We will carry them as long as we can. But there comes the time when we know they can no longer go with us. So we build them a house and make a kraal [an enclosure for livestock] from bush around it. Then they will stay in that hut. We go and put water and food next to the hut everyday but we no longer go inside. And when the water and the food have not been taken for a few days we know that it is time. We collapse the hut and make the kraal stronger. Then we go. And we never come back to this spot.

This one time a man left his father to die. But a few days later he realized that he had left his bow in the hut. He knew he was not allowed to come back. He knew the place belonged to his dead father now. But he needed the bow so he came back to quickly get it. When he arrived at the hut he was attacked by a lion. He ran to a tree but the lion followed him. He took the bow away from him and in that moment the man knew that the lion was his dead father. The lion tried to jump up and kill the man but he quickly dodged away. He waited in the tree for several days until the lion fell asleep. Then he jumped off the tree and ran back to his family as quickly as possible.

There is a functional analysis of this story that needs to be mentioned. On one hand, you can interpret it literally: if you leave dead bodies behind, predators are likely to come and create and unsafe environment. But I think there is more to that story. If we remember that this is a story which children are told, it stands to reason that maybe it is there to engage with the guilt of leaving loved family members behind.  I would in fact suggest that because the relative-turned-lion attacks the man, the story acknowledges the lingering guilt of those who move on.

Of course, they do not have a choice. People are only left behind if it is the only way for the family to survive, if there is nothing they can do anymore but cut ties. However, all the effort they put in – waiting as long as possible, building a kraal to protect them, giving them water and food – cannot keep the person from leaving their lives.

A friend of mine in Namibia once told me that grief is the most selfish emotion one could feel. She argued that because we cannot actually empathise with what a dying person is going through, our pain is just about our loss. While I would hesitate to condemn grief in those terms, I do agree that there is no way we can actually put ourselves into the shoes of someone who is dying. If all of life is connected, every experience shared, then death is the one activity we cannot share with others – the only thing we invariably do by ourselves.

The Hadza know this. Once there is nothing left they can do, they do not attempt to share the deceasing person’s journey. They do not go into the hut, and they never come back. They just have to eternally live with the guilt of not being able to follow a loved one.

When loss strikes in our own lives, we experience a range of emotions. Many, I think, experience an overwhelming lack of power. But when all is said and done, when we come face to face with our inadequacy, when we know we are just cut off, what stories do we tell to make it easier for ourselves?

[1] (the relationship between the pastoralists and the Hadza is actually worthy of a completely separate post but we don’t have time for that)

[2] Shortened transcription of the recording of both the story and its translatio