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Article 4
Eating Christmas in
the Kalahari
Richard Borshay Lee
The !Kung Bushmen’s knowledge of
Christmas is thirdhand. The London
Missionary Society brought the holiday
to the southern Tswana tribes in the early
nineteenth century. Later, native catechists spread the idea far and wide
among the Bantu-speaking pastoralists,
even in the remotest corners of the Kalahari Desert. The Bushmen’s idea of the
Christmas story, stripped to its essentials, is “praise the birth of white man’s
god-chief”; what keeps their interest in
the holiday high is the Tswana-Herero
custom of slaughtering an ox for his
Bushmen neighbors as an annual goodwill gesture. Since the 1930’s, part of the
Bushmen’s annual round of activities
has included a December congregation
at the cattle posts for trading, marriage
brokering, and several days of trancedance feasting at which the local Tswana
headman is host.
As a social anthropologist working
with !Kung Bushmen, I found that the
Christmas ox custom suited my purposes. I had come to the Kalahari to
study the hunting and gathering subsistence economy of the !Kung, and to accomplish this it was essential not to
provide them with food, share my own
food, or interfere in any way with their
food-gathering activities. While liberal
handouts of tobacco and medical supplies were appreciated, they were
scarcely adequate to erase the glaring
disparity in wealth between the anthropologist, who maintained a two-month
inventory of canned goods, and the
Bushmen, who rarely had a day’s supply
of food on hand. My approach, while
paying off in terms of data, left me open
to frequent accusations of stinginess and
hard-heartedness. By their lights, I was a
miser.
The Christmas ox was to be my way
of saying thank you for the cooperation
of the past year; and since it was to be our
last Christmas in the field, I determined
to slaughter the largest, meatiest ox that
money could buy, insuring that the feast
and trance-dance would be a success.
Through December I kept my eyes
open at the wells as the cattle were
brought down for watering. Several animals were offered, but none had quite the
grossness that I had in mind. Then, ten
days before the holiday, a Herero friend
led an ox of astonishing size and mass up
to our camp. It was solid black, stood
five feet high at the shoulder, had a fivefoot span of horns, and must have
weighed 1,200 pounds on the hoof. Food
consumption calculations are my specialty, and I quickly figured that bones
and viscera aside, there was enough
meat—at least four pounds—for every
man, woman, and child of the 150 Bushmen in the vicinity of /ai/ai who were expected at the feast.
Having found the right animal at last,
I paid the Herero £20 ($56) and asked
him to keep the beast with his herd until
Christmas day. The next morning word
spread among the people that the big
solid black one was the ox chosen by /
ontah (my Bushman name; it means,
roughly, “whitey”) for the Christmas
feast. That afternoon I received the first
1
delegation. Ben!a, an outspoken sixtyyear-old mother of five, came to the
point slowly.
“Where were you planning to eat
Christmas?”
“Right here at /ai/ai,” I replied.
“Alone or with others?”
“I expect to invite all the people to eat
Christmas with me.”
“Eat what?”
“I have purchased Yehave’s black ox,
and I am going to slaughter and cook it.”
“That’s what we were told at the well
but refused to believe it until we heard it
from yourself.”
“Well, it’s the black one,” I replied
expansively, although wondering what
she was driving at.
“Oh, no!” Ben!a groaned, turning to
her group. “They were right.” Turning
back to me she asked, “Do you expect us
to eat that bag of bones?”
“Bag of bones! It’s the biggest ox at /
ai/ai.”
“Big, yes, but old. And thin. Everybody knows there’s no meat on that old
ox. What did you expect us to eat off it,
the horns?”
Everybody chuckled at Ben!a’s oneliner as they walked away, but all I could
manage was a weak grin.
That evening it was the turn of the
young men. They came to sit at our
evening fire. /gaugo, about my age,
spoke to me man-to-man.
“/ontah, you have always been square
with us,” he lied. “What has happened to
change your heart? That sack of guts and
bones of Yehave’s will hardly feed one
Article 4. Eating Christmas in the Kalahari
camp, let alone all the Bushmen around
ai/ai.” And he proceeded to enumerate
the seven camps in the /ai/ai vicinity,
family by family. “Perhaps you have forgotten that we are not few, but many. Or
are you too blind to tell the difference between a proper cow and an old wreck?
That ox is thin to the point of death.”
“Look, you guys,” I retorted, “that is
a beautiful animal, and I”m sure you will
eat it with pleasure at Christmas.”
“Of course we will eat it; it’s food.
But it won’t fill us up to the point where
we will have enough strength to dance.
We will eat and go home to bed with
stomachs rumbling.”
That night as we turned in, I asked my
wife, Nancy: “What did you think of the
black ox?”
“It looked enormous to me. Why?”
“Well, about eight different people
have told me I got gypped; that the ox is
nothing but bones.”
“What’s the angle?” Nancy asked.
“Did they have a better one to sell?”
“No, they just said that it was going to
be a grim Christmas because there won’t
be enough meat to go around. Maybe I’ll
get an independent judge to look at the
beast in the morning.”
Bright and early, Halingisi, a Tswana
cattle owner, appeared at our camp. But
before I could ask him to give me his
opinion on Yehave’s black ox, he gave
me the eye signal that indicated a confidential chat. We left the camp and sat
down.
“/ontah, I’m surprised at you: you’ve
lived here for three years and still haven’t learned anything about cattle.”
“But what else can a person do but
choose the biggest, strongest animal one
can find?” I retorted.
“Look, just because an animal is big
doesn’t mean that it has plenty of meat
on it. The black one was a beauty when it
was younger, but now it is thin to the
point of death.”
“Well I’ve already bought it. What
can I do at this stage?”
“Bought it already? I thought you
were just considering it. Well, you’ll
have to kill it and serve it, I suppose. But
don’t expect much of a dance to follow.”
My spirits dropped rapidly. I could
believe that Ben!a and /gaugo just might
be putting me on about the black ox, but
Halingisi seemed to be an impartial
critic. I went around that day feeling as
though I had bought a lemon of a used
car.
In the afternoon it was Tomazo’s turn.
Tomazo is a fine hunter, a top trance performer… and one of my most reliable informants. He approached the subject of
the Christmas cow as part of my continuing Bushman education.
“My friend, the way it is with us
Bushmen,” he began, “is that we love
meat. And even more than that, we love
fat. When we hunt we always search for
the fat ones, the ones dripping with layers of white fat: fat that turns into a clear,
thick oil in the cooking pot, fat that slides
down your gullet, fills your stomach and
gives you a roaring diarrhea,” he rhapsodized.
“So, feeling as we do,” he continued,
“it gives us pain to be served such a
scrawny thing as Yehave’s black ox. It is
big, yes, and no doubt its giant bones are
good for soup, but fat is what we really
crave and so we will eat Christmas this
year with a heavy heart.”
The prospect of a gloomy Christmas
now had me worried, so I asked Tomazo
what I could do about it.
“Look for a fat one, a young one…
smaller, but fat. Fat enough to make us /
/gom (‘evacuate the bowels’), then we
will be happy.”
My suspicions were aroused when
Tomazo said that he happened to know
of a young, fat, barren cow that the
owner was willing to part with. Was
Tomazo working on commission, I wondered? But I dispelled this unworthy
thought when we approached the Herero
owner of the cow in question and found
that he had decided not to sell.
The scrawny wreck of a Christmas ox
now became the talk of the /ai/ai water
hole and was the first news told to the
outlying groups as they began to come in
from the bush for the feast. What finally
convinced me that real trouble might be
brewing was the visit from u!au, an old
conservative with a reputation for fierceness. His nickname meant spear and referred to an incident thirty years ago in
which he had speared a man to death. He
had an intense manner; fixing me with
his eyes, he said in clipped tones:
2
“I have only just heard about the
black ox today, or else I would have
come here earlier. /ontah, do you honestly think you can serve meat like that to
people and avoid a fight?” He paused,
letting the implications sink in. “I don’t
mean fight you, /ontah; you are a white
man. I mean a fight between Bushmen.
There are many fierce ones here, and
with such a small quantity of meat to distribute, how can you give everybody a
fair share? Someone is sure to accuse another of taking too much or hogging all
the choice pieces. Then you will see
what happens when some go hungry
while others eat.”
The possibility of at least a serious argument struck me as all too real. I had
witnessed the tension that surrounds the
distribution of meat from a kudu or
gemsbok kill, and had documented many
arguments that sprang up from a real or
imagined slight in meat distribution. The
owners of a kill may spend up to two
hours arranging and rearranging the piles
of meat under the gaze of a circle of recipients before handing them out. And I
also knew that the Christmas feast at /ai/
ai would be bringing together groups that
had feuded in the past.
Convinced now of the gravity of the
situation, I went in earnest to search for a
second cow; but all my inquiries failed to
turn one up.
The Christmas feast was evidently
going to be a disaster, and the incessant
complaints about the meagerness of the
ox had already taken the fun out of it for
me. Moreover, I was getting bored with
the wisecracks, and after losing my temper a few times, I resolved to serve the
beast anyway. If the meat fell short, the
hell with it. In the Bushmen idiom, I announced to all who would listen:
“I am a poor man and blind. If I have
chosen one that is too old and too thin,
we will eat it anyway and see if there is
enough meat there to quiet the rumbling
of our stomachs.”
On hearing this speech, Ben!a offered
me a rare word of comfort. “It’s thin,”
she said philosophically, “but the bones
will make a good soup.”
At dawn Christmas morning, instinct
told me to turn over the butchering and
cooking to a friend and take off with
Nancy to spend Christmas alone in the
ANNUAL EDITIONS
bush. But curiosity kept me from retreating. I wanted to see what such a scrawny
ox looked like on butchering and if there
was going to be a fight, I wanted to catch
every word of it. Anthropologists are incurable that way.
The great beast was driven up to our
dancing ground, and a shot in the forehead dropped it in its tracks. Then,
freshly cut branches were heaped around
the fallen carcass to receive the meat.
Ten men volunteered to help with the
cutting. I asked /gaugo to make the
breast bone cut. This cut, which begins
the butchering process for most large
game, offers easy access for removal of
the viscera. But it also allows the hunter
to spot-check the amount of fat on the
animal. A fat game animal carries a
white layer up to an inch thick on the
chest, while in a thin one, the knife will
quickly cut to bone. All eyes fixed on his
hand as /gaugo, dwarfed by the great carcass, knelt to the breast. The first cut
opened a pool of solid white in the black
skin. The second and third cut widened
and deepened the creamy white. Still no
bone. It was pure fat; it must have been
two inches thick.
“Hey /gau,” I burst out, “that ox is
loaded with fat. What’s this about the ox
being too thin to bother eating? Are you
out of your mind?”
“Fat?” /gau shot back, “You call that
fat? This wreck is thin, sick, dead!” And
he broke out laughing. So did everyone
else. They rolled on the ground, paralyzed with laughter. Everybody laughed
except me; I was thinking.
I ran back to the tent and burst in just
as Nancy was getting up. “Hey, the black
ox. It’s fat as hell! They were kidding
about it being too thin to eat. It was a
joke or something. A put-on. Everyone is
really delighted with it!”
“Some joke,” my wife replied. “It was
so funny that you were ready to pack up
and leave /ai/ai.”
If it had indeed been a joke, it had
been an extraordinarily convincing one,
and tinged, I thought, with more than a
touch of malice as many jokes are. Nevertheless, that it was a joke lifted my
spirits considerably, and I returned to the
butchering site where the shape of the ox
was rapidly disappearing under the axes
and knives of the butchers. The atmo-
sphere had become festive. Grinning
broadly, their arms covered with blood
well past the elbow, men packed chunks
of meat into the big cast-iron cooking
pots, fifty pounds to the load, and muttered and chuckled all the while about
the thinness and worthlessness of the animal and /ontah’s poor judgment.
We danced and ate that ox two days
and two nights; we cooked and distributed fourteen potfuls of meat and no one
went home hungry and no fights broke
out.
But the “joke” stayed in my mind. I
had a growing feeling that something important had happened in my relationship
with the Bushmen and that the clue lay in
the meaning of the joke. Several days
later, when most of the people had dispersed back to the bush camps, I raised
the question with Hakekgose, a Tswana
man who had grown up among the
!Kung, married a !Kung girl, and who
probably knew their culture better than
any other non-Bushman.
“With us whites,” I began, “Christmas is supposed to be the day of friendship and brotherly love. What I can’t
figure out is why the Bushmen went to
such lengths to criticize and belittle the
ox I had bought for the feast. The animal
was perfectly good and their jokes and
wisecracks practically ruined the holiday
for me.”
“So it really did bother you,” said
Hakekgose. “Well, that’s the way they
always talk. When I take my rifle and go
hunting with them, if I miss, they laugh
at me for the rest of the day. But even if
I hit and bring one down, it’s no better.
To them, the kill is always too small or
too old or too thin; and as we sit down on
the kill site to cook and eat the liver, they
keep grumbling, even with their mouths
full of meat. They say things like, ‘Oh
this is awful! What a worthless animal!
Whatever made me think that this
Tswana rascal could hunt!’”
“Is this the way outsiders are
treated?” I asked.
“No, it is their custom; they talk that
way to each other too. Go and ask them.”
/gaugo had been one of the most enthusiastic in making me feel bad about
the merit of the Christmas ox. I sought
him out first.
3
“Why did you tell me the black ox
was worthless, when you could see that it
was loaded with fat and meat?”
“It is our way,” he said smiling. “We
always like to fool people about that. Say
there is a Bushman who has been hunting. He must not come home and announce like a braggard, ‘I have killed a
big one in the bush!’ He must first sit
down in silence until I or someone else
comes up to his fire and asks, ‘What did
you see today?’ He replies quietly, ‘Ah,
I’m no good for hunting. I saw nothing at
all [pause] just a little tiny one.’ Then I
smile to myself,” /gaugo continued, “because I know he has killed something
big.”
“In the morning we make up a party
of four or five people to cut up and carry
the meat back to the camp. When we arrive at the kill we examine it and cry out,
‘You mean to say you have dragged us
all the way out here in order to make us
cart home your pile of bones? Oh, if I
had known it was this thin I wouldn’t
have come.’ Another one pipes up, ‘People, to think I gave up a nice day in the
shade for this. At home we may be hungry but at least we have nice cool water
to drink.’ If the horns are big, someone
says, ‘Did you think that somehow you
were going to boil down the horns for
soup?’
“To all this you must respond in kind.
‘I agree,’ you say, ‘this one is not worth
the effort; let’s just cook the liver for
strength and leave the rest for the hyenas.
It is not too late to hunt today and even a
duiker or a steenbok would be better than
this mess.’
“Then you set to work nevertheless;
butcher the animal, carry the meat back
to the camp and everyone eats,” /gaugo
concluded.
Things were beginning to make
sense. Next, I went to Tomazo. He corroborated /gaugo’s story of the obligatory insults over a kill and added a few
details of his own.
“But,” I asked, “why insult a man after he has gone to all that trouble to track
and kill an animal and when he is going
to share the meat with you so that your
children will have something to eat?”
“Arrogance,” was his cryptic answer.
“Arrogance?”
Article 4. Eating Christmas in the Kalahari
“Yes, when a young man kills much
meat he comes to think of himself as a
chief or a big man, and he thinks of the
rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We
can’t accept this. We refuse one who
boasts, for someday his pride will make
him kill somebody. So we always speak
of his meat as worthless. This way we
cool his heart and make him gentle.”
“But why didn’t you tell me this before?” I asked Tomazo with some heat.
“Because you never asked me,” said
Tomazo, echoing the refrain that has
come to haunt every field ethnographer.
The pieces now fell into place. I had
known for a long time that in situations
of social conflict with Bushmen I held all
the cards. I was the only source of tobacco in a thousand square miles, and I
was not incapable of cutting an individual off for non-cooperation. Though my
boycott never lasted longer than a few
days, it was an indication of my strength.
People resented my presence at the water
hole, yet simultaneously dreaded my
leaving. In short I was a perfect target for
the charge of arrogance and for the Bushmen tactic of enforcing humility.
I had been taught an object lesson by
the Bushmen; it had come from an unexpected corner and had hurt me in a vulnerable area. For the big black ox was to
be the one totally generous, unstinting
act of my year at /ai/ai, and I was quite
unprepared for the reaction I received.
As I read it, their message was this:
There are no totally generous acts. All
“acts” have an element of calculation.
One black ox slaughtered at Christmas
does not wipe out a year of careful manipulation of gifts given to serve your
own ends. After all, to kill an animal and
share the meat with people is really no
more than Bushmen do for each other every day and with far less fanfare.
In the end, I had to admire how the
Bushmen had played out the farce—collectively straight-faced to the end. Curi-
ously, the episode reminded me of the
Good Soldier Schweik and his marvelous
encounters with authority. Like Schweik, the Bushmen had retained a
thorough-going skepticism of good
intentions. Was it this independence
of spirit, I wondered, that had kept
them culturally viable in the face of
generations of contact with more
powerful societies, both black and
white? The thought that the Bushmen
were alive and well in the Kalahari was
strangely comforting. Perhaps, armed
with that independence and with their superb knowledge of their environment,
they might yet survive the future.
Richard Borshay Lee is a full professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto. He
has done extensive fieldwork in southern Africa, is coeditor of Man the Hunter (1968)
and Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers (1976), and
author of The !Kung San: Men, Women, and
Work in a Foraging Society.
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