Christmas in the Kalahari

By Maarten Deprez

Now that the Christmas and New Year fuss and feasting are over, yet the events still lie fresh in our memory, it is a good time to look back and reflect. One fun and rewarding, though at times somewhat unsettling way to do so, is to take a look at what other people do and then I mean not merely your neighbour (unless he or she had a really interesting party), but people at a greater cultural distance. For maximal effect, I propose to go far beyond the usual “What did you do for Christmas/New Year?” question to friends and colleagues, to read a classical account from anthropologist Richard Borshay Lee, on how he celebrated Christmas with Kalahari Bushmen.

Lee’s article belongs squarely in the genre of “cross-cultural misunderstandings with happy ending and lessons learned”  a kind of story anthropologists like to tell. Probably because it makes them feel important, even if they come out as the clown, and allows them to say, as an identity-building wink to fellow anthropologists and an eye-opener to non-anthropological friends: “See, things are not always as they seem to be. Our everyday assumptions, however natural we might think they are, may not be valid for every human being.” These stories aim to show cultural variation, at the same time as they explain, make more comprehensible, what at first seems strange. Misunderstandings during anthropological fieldwork are thus a double blessing, for, properly resolved, they can bring deeper understanding, and back home, they make for especially fascinating and revealing stories, effective in bringing this understanding to others.

While I am not going to repeat Lee’s story here  - for the real thing, you should read the article – I will, partly as a teaser, partly for the sake of discussion, lift a tip of the veil. Lee, who was living among a group of !Kung (the exclamation mark represents a particular click sound) at Christmas time some forty years ago, decided to show his gratitude to the people who had been his informants for nearly one year, by buying an ox to make a big feast. The villagers, however, did not seem grateful at all, but instead laughed at him and ridiculed his gift.

As Lee came to understand, after a period of anxiety, the treatment he fell victim to, was by no means exclusively reserved for anthropologists or, even worse, for himself in person; it was, by contrast, the Bushmen’s usual way of dealing with someone who caught a big animal to be shared with the community. They do this to preserve unity and collaboration, by preventing a successful hunter from becoming too proud and self-confident. Lee says: “As I read it, their message was this: There are no totally generous acts. All “acts” have an element of calculation.”

How about your presents during the past holiday season? When you give, do you expect something – material or immaterial – in return? When you receive, do you feel obliged to do something back – perhaps, to begin with, to show gratitude?

Maarten Deprez is student Social and Cultural  Anthropology.  His last post was about the Afghan ritual game of ‘Egg Fighting’. For his earlier posts click on his name tagged below.

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