Africana Votes & Views #20
At the tender age of five or six I was introduced to the delights of reading by a stern father who relied on unkind words and hard-handed corrections to steer me through the intricacies of pronouncing the words I could hardly see through the tears in my eyes. This I survived, and I was unexpectedly rewarded by receiving the keys to his library, figuratively speaking, together with the injunction that I was not permitted to eat while reading, and that my hands had to be clean. Further I was let loose on some eighty metres of bookshelves crammed with scientific works - on biology, geology, astronomy, as well as books on travel, exploration, ethnography, archaeology, art and suchlike.
The world was my oyster. I wasted no time in sampling its flavours across all the seven seas and all the continents. Among my favourites were three hefty volumes on the peoples of the world, entitled: ‘Die Grosse Völkerkunde’, (Bibliographisches Institut, Leipzig, 1939) edited by Dr H A Bernatzik. This was armchair travel at its best, and while I was too young to appreciate the racist attitudes in vogue in Germany during the years immediately preceding WWII, which marred such works, they still gave me an overview of the wonderful diversity of appearance, cultures, arts and economies of homo sapiens worldwide. Another earlier work I still treasure is a hefty leatherbound tome by a gentleman with a most ungermanic name, ie R Parkinson, who wrote of his thirty years’ sojourn in German Samoa in the book Dreissig Jahre in der Südsee (Strecker & Schröder, 1907). This book was filled with the most amazing detail and photos of the islanders, and featured engravings of the most fearsome naked warriors and their weapons, studded with sharks’ teeth, or stingray spines, that made my eyes water just to look at them.
That fascination with all things ethnographical and anthropological persisted. Once I started work, I even studied the subject part-time for a couple of years. Supposedly I picked up a few generalities of the science, and I have since read many of the earlier books on the evolving theories on the antiquity of man as well as much on the varied habits of the beast worldwide. In the field of palaeoanthropology we South Africans have been especially spoilt, as a number of doyens of the science worked here during the opening years of those earth-shaking prehistoric finds at Taung, Makapansgat, Hopefield and other locations. Robert Broom’s little book Finding the Missing Link (Watts & Co, 1950) and Raymond Dart’s work Adventures with the Missing Link (Hamish Hamilton, 1959) and the Leakeys, Louis, Mary and Richard in East Africa fired the imagination and thrilled in a similar vein to Hollywood’s adventurer archaeologists of more recent years. Men of the stature of Bob Brain, Philip Tobias and Lee Berger carried on the good work, to name but a few – and as the finds of fossil ape, man-ape or hominin ( the latest jargon for our lot ) swelled, so did the theories of our evolution and development vacillate. The age of mankind became counted in millions of years – until new methods of utilizing the tool of DNA in all its ramifications turned the whole science on its head. Bewilderingly, true homo sapiens has become a relatively recent export from Africa; we spread in recurrent waves over the entire world and some authorities would have us arrive at our destination almost before we left our continent of origin. It has become most confusing and technical and there are times when I find myself longing for the good old days when one could hold the fossilized skull of ‘Mrs Ples’ in one’s hands and just revel in the distinction that this conferred on a 20th century teenager.
So let us get back to social anthropology instead. Here we are on safer grounds. From the times of the great missionary era, those worthies as well as their exploring coevals vied with each other to record strange tribal organisation, rites of passage, laws and rituals, witchcraft and religion. They certainly adorned their books with painstakingly engraved depictions of everything from hairstyles and adornments, to agricultural tools and weapons. So we find in such works as Speke’s Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile (W Blackwood, 1864) and Grant’s A Walk Across Africa (William Blackwood & Sons, 1864) that about half of both books are devoted to matters ethnographical when they are not describing daily life in the kingdoms of Buganda, Bunyoro etc. Although the missionaries were mostly hell-bent on eradicating most of the aboriginal practices that they came up against, a goodly number thought fit to commit to print a catalogue of the abominations they found, which they often coloured with their Presbyterian mores and Victorian values. For instance, H H Johnston’s work on the missionary George Grenfell and the Congo (Hutchinson & Co, 1908) devotes one whole volume to the diaries that this worthy kept, dealing with the tribes of the region. So valuable stuff is to be gleaned from these sources as they were the only workers in the field of the period, and the theoreticians would only come onto the stage later.
Only during WWI were the seeds of systematic getting ‘the native's point of view’ through participant observation set as a standard of observation by one Bronislaw Malinowski in New Guinea, which he set down in his work Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922). A rash of other noted sociologists and anthropologists expanded on this theme and developed it. As this is not supposed to become a reading list of academic proportions on the subject, let us leave it at that and concentrate instead on the authors and ethnographers of the subcontinent.
One of the earliest works that have passed through my hands has been the book Das Volk der Xosa-Kaffern im Östlichen Südafrika by the missionary A Kropf (Berliner Evangelische Missions Gesellschaft, 1889). I will not pretend to have read this worthy, but I did glean the fact that he did much pioneering work on the language and spent many years working among them, which supplied much first-hand knowledge on customs and beliefs. At approximately the same time G W Stow, a geologist by profession, made the study of indigenous peoples his hobby, and he assembled voluminous notes on especially San and Khoi tribes, which are still valuable source documents since they had the benefit of at least second-hand contact via interpreters with the few remnants of these clans and tribes at the time. After his death in 1882, Theal assembled his writings and edited them in the book The Native Races of South Africa (Swan Sonnenschein, 1905). While the book is obviously dated in attitudes and interpretations, it is quite readable, filled with personal observation and anecdote as well as snippets of oral history. Yet another of the earlier missionary/ethnographers was A T Bryant, whose main work was among the Zulus. He was the author of a number of linguistic and historical books, but in addition he wrote The Zulu People, as they were before the White Man came (Shuter & Shooter, 1949) as a valedictory work and a tribute to ‘the Zulu people, my lifelong companions and friends’. A rather more obscure missionary was one R Wessman, who wrote an interesting, scarce little book entitled The Bawenda of the Spelonken (African World, 1908), which also includes an account of the Mpefu War in 1898, during which the Boers defeated the Bavenda comprehensively and divided the tribe into three factions. Two more missionaries writing on the tribes of the Eastern Cape, were G Callaway and Dudley Kidd; the latter being an adventurous soul – once a railway missionary and chaplain among soldiers, within a wide field of endeavour – he wrote a trio of books on tribal life, culminating with Kafir Socialism and the Dawn of Individualism (A & C Black, 1908), a pioneer work on the economic aspects of African life.
While not really scientific works, G R von Wielligh’s three books under the general title Boesman Stories… (Nasionale Pers, 1921) give a vivid insight into the existence of these desert dwelling nomads in the Kalahari for a general audience. The Rev S S Dornan also wrote an interesting volume, Pygmies and Bushmen of the Kalahari (Seeley Service, 1925), which is a must for anybody interested in this region and its people. Still a most respected work is The Life of a South African Tribe, 2 Vols (Macmillan, 1927) by H A Junod, which deals with the Shangana-Tsonga people in the Eastern Transvaal and Mozambique, and there are several reprints available of the work. Claimed as the first book in Afrikaans on the science, the descendant of a missionary family, W Eiselen, wrote the book Stamskole in Suid Afrika (Van Schaik, 1929), dealing with initiation rites in tribal societies. Then comes the seminal work by that noted Namaqualander from the little dorp of Garies, Isaac Schapera and his The Khoisan Peoples of South Africa (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1930) – to this day a standard work on the subject – which was followed by a dozen or more books on the tribes of the subcontinent, with especial emphasis on his favoured field of study among the Tswana people. None of his works can be described as easy reading for the layman, but the Khoisan book is probably the most accessible of the lot, and required reading for any student of this ancient population group.
Yet another missionary, but this time one of the remarkable sons of a Gaika cleric and a Scotswoman, one John Henderson Soga, who devoted a half century to labours in Bomvanaland, wrote two important works: The South-Eastern Bantu (Witwatersrand University Press, 1930) and Ama-Xosa: Life and Customs (Lovedale, 1931) before his retirement to Britain, where he and his wife and son were the unfortunate victims of a wartime bomb (SESA, 1970-6). These books are difficult to obtain, and hugely expensive to buy, but well-worth reading and one wishes that someone would reprint them. Professor of linguistics, J A Engelbrecht, wrote a valuable contributions not unlike Schapera’s on The Korana (Maskew Miller, 1936), which records that widespread, vanishing people’s customs and language from Namaqualand into the Western Transvaal.
Lest I be accused of sexism, let me hasten to state that the work done by W H and Dorothea Bleek, as well as L C Lloyd, in recording the myths and legends of the Cape San, have had a great resurgence in popularity of late, but these labours are more in the realm of oral literature than ethnography, and fascinating as they may be to aficionados of the genre, I must plead ignorance on this subject. Quite different then are the various contributions made by Winifred Hoernlé, a trained social anthropologist who spent lengthy periods among the Nama in the Richtersveld between 1910–1922. Her scientific findings were published only very recently as The Social Organization of the Nama (Witwatersrand University Press, 1985), but a much more readable book is the rendition of her field diaries entitled Trails in the Thirstland (UCT, 1987) which has been edited by Peter Carstens, among others, a man who wrote a notable, later book on the same region.
The anthropologist is supposedly a student; an impartial observer, who records and attempts to place his findings within a universal framework of social and other theories. Experiments are not usually conducted using people like lab-rats. Enter the abominable anthropologist. Some years back I obtained two copies of a book entitled Namkwa (Jonathan Cape, 1978) written by a South African-German parasitologist cum anthropologist, Hans Joachim Heinz. On paging through it, I gathered that he had ‘married’ into a tribe of !Ko, and though the only critique I could find stated that it was ‘a self-indulgent book by an otherwise prolific scientist’ (Khoisan Bibliography), my curiosity was sufficiently aroused to read the whole thing from cover to cover. Unfortunately I don’t have it to hand right now to give you chapter and verse of the contents, but let me say that I was aghast at what the man had written. For whatever reason he had decided to share the lives with this nomad band, he joined them while in his mid-forties, that is, old enough to experience a mid-life crisis during which he got a letch for one of the clan’s elders’ teenage daughter, Namkwa, and persuaded or bribed Pop to let him ‘marry’ her. He then described in quite graphic detail, as I recall, how he restrained himself for a night or two before forcing himself on the kid against her will. In these enlightened days, we call that marital rape at best, and paedophilia at worst, but hey, who could say exactly how old the kid was anyway – they don’t carry birth-certificates. In due course a baby arrived, and the general trend of the book suggested that there was a rift in relations and a parting of the ways. More recent enquiries via the net suggests that he spent some forty years living ‘with the local community’. But Namkwa was only the middle one of his three wives, and the Botswana University Library site makes no mention of his son by her. He subsequently married yet another local lady, and the chapter was closed when he was murdered at his house in Tsanokoha in 2000 at the ripe old age of 83. Perhaps it would have been better all around if he should have stuck to his other speciality instead.
So from the serious and scientific, from the historical and linguistic, let us proceed to some slightly lighter fare. Not for nothing did Boswell write ‘there is reason in roasting of eggs, for of necessity man must think to season a dish for his consumption’. I came across a slim volume entitled The Anthropologists Cookbook (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977) edited by Jessica Kuper, the other day. No stewed missionary in this, nor braised rats or sautéed snakes; no, this is a seriously absorbing round-the-world tour of man’s ingenuity in making the local fare more interesting and edible. From making a cokentrice in mediaeval England (half capon, half pig), via roast puffin, to a wealth of strange foods from Africa, which may include yams, plantains, Palaver Sauce or millet. From the Americas the recipe that caught my eye was that of ceviche, a Peruvian raw fish dish that I am partial to making. In the book they state the caveat ‘do not touch the eyes or genitals after handling the chilies – the reverse precaution is unnecessary’! Yes, well I would suppose the quantity of chilies used would kill any bacteria present. While most of the Asiatic cuisine no longer sounds outlandish to most Westerners owing to the ubiquitous presence of numerous variations of the theme in restaurants worldwide, there are nonetheless some mouthwatering delicacies on offer. It is only really in Australia that I feel the editor has admitted defeat, limiting her descriptions on how to make damper (semi-charred, half-cooked dough wrapped round a stick – much beloved by Boy Scouts of yore) and ‘whistling steak’, ie meat so green and putrid, that it had to be soaked in running water for two days before being roasted and eaten. According to the book, it was not only perfectly safe to eat – it was also beautifully tender and delicious. Talk of hanging your game!
Even anthropologists have been known to be humourists. Some time ago the title The Innocent Anthropologist (Penguin, 1983) by one N Barley enticed me into delving among the mores and habits of an obscure tribe of hinterland Cameroonians whose name I disremember. I don’t often chortle aloud as I read, but this book very funnily describes the blunderings of a new graduate in a completely alien situation, in the company of a tolerant, bawdy bunch of backwoods folk, who wear very little besides broad smiles. Presently in the vogue among the so-called ‘reality programmes’ on TV are those that depict stone-age Papuan tribesmen being taken on voyages of discovery among twenty-first century Britons or Frenchmen. As an extension of my interest in anthropology, I have watched one or two of these documentaries – and yes, putting yourself in the ‘other fellow’s shoes’ can be most enlightening – especially when you are made to evaluate some of our own, more exotic customs, habits, foodstuffs, clothing and diversions by the standards of people who have entirely different priorities as they strive towards their own goals in life. The question that arises from that is: aren’t all tourists anthropologists to some degree? Don’t we travel to distant countries at much expense and discomfort to meet with different cultures and peoples, as well as seeing the sights? So maybe anthropology has an almost universal appeal in some form.