Essay

Strong food

On the hunt for abundance

THE ELEPHANT BREATHED its last some five miles from the sand track that snaked its way between the small Ju/’hoansi Bushmen villages of G/aqo!oma and Denu/ui in the Nyae-Nyae Conservancy. This area lies adjacent to Namibia’s border with Botswana, north-west of the vast, semi-arid Kalahari Desert that dominates much of central southern Africa.

When this particular hunt took place I had already been documenting the Ju/’hoansi’s often traumatic encounter with the rapidly expanding global economy for twenty-five years. Over this period, I had followed numerous hunts. But this time the hunters were not Ju/’hoansi. Nor did they use traditional poison-tipped reed-shafted arrows or small, stiff bows fashioned from grewia wood. This time the hunters were a middle-aged married couple from Austria: he a dentist and she the manager of their dental practice back in Vienna. They had paid in the region of US$80,000 to kill this elephant and had done so using custom-built large-calibre rifles.

The dentist later explained that he had chalked up plenty of big-game trophies across Africa already – including several elephants. This hunt was a gift for his beloved. She had fired the first of the volley of shots that brought this particular bull elephant down.

The sun was already high when I finally tracked the hunting party down at the carcass. By then a dozen or so Ju/’hoan men from De/nui and G/aqo!oma were methodically shearing the elephant’s hide from its flesh and the flesh from its bones. These they laid neatly on piles of green leaves while the hunting party – which comprised the professional hunter who led and organised the hunt, his no-nonsense dog, his Viennese clients and three uniformed Ju/’hoan trackers – stood downwind of the carcass in the shade and watched.

Butchering an elephant is heavy work. Six tons of skin, muscle, assorted organs, tusks and bone do not yield easily to small knives in human hands. By the late afternoon more than a dozen more Ju/’hoansi had shown up to help with the butchery. With hyenas and jackals already gathering just beyond the treeline and vultures soaring overhead in anticipation of tackling the leftovers, the carcass needed to be butchered by nightfall. And just as importantly the conservancy trucks had arrived to load up the meat to begin the task of distributing it among the ten or twelve villages who were due to get a share this time around. Driving at night on the rutted sand tracks of Nyae-Nyae is never easy and they had a lot of ground to cover.

The job of delivering elephant meat from hunts to the villages remains a task that Ju/’hoansi conservancy staff enjoy and dread in equal measure. They enjoy it because across the thirty-eight villages that make up the Nyae-Nyae Conservancy, few things put people in a more celebratory mood than the prospect of a substantial meaty feast. But they dread it because if there is one thing that might persuade the villagers to momentarily abandon the characteristic calmness, reserve and humility that is the organising principle of traditional Ju/’hoansi life, it is the process of distributing meat.

 

THE NYAE-NYAE CONSERVANCY covers an area just shy of a million hectares. It mainly comprises semi-arid acacia forest and grassland savannah interspersed by pans – circular depressions that, during the brief wet seasons, are transformed temporarily into shimmering shallow lakes. The conservancy is a mere fraction of the land that the 3,500 strong Ju/’hoansi claimed as their traditional territory a little more than half a century ago. Some of this land was lost after it was designated a national park; some was occupied by the Ju/’hoansis’ perennially land-hungry pastoralist and agriculturalist neighbours, the Herero and the Kavango. Even so, in this respect they are fortunate relative to the majority of Namibia’s 50,000 strong Indigenous San Bushman population, who no longer have any land and have no option but to eke out a living as farm labourers or in grim shanties where alcohol and, increasingly, drugs offer an escape from the miseries of day-to-day life.

Two generations ago Nyae-Nyae was largely inaccessible and the Ju/’hoansi still depended almost exclusively on hunting and gathering to sustain themselves. Then in the 1970s the South African army bulldozed a road into Nyae-Nyae, constructed a major military base and encouraged the Ju/’hoansi to abandon their hunting-and-gathering way of life in favour of earning wages as soldiers and learning how to farm. The base was abandoned by the military in 1990 when Namibia achieved its independence from South Africa and the Ju/’hoansi were left with the challenge of negotiating a future for themselves with a much diminished land base in a radically transformed country. 

Before the militarisation of Nyae-Nyae it was rare for the Ju/’hoansi to encounter elephants and rarer still for them to consume elephant meat. Since then, however, the local elephant population has ballooned and elephant meat has become the single most important source of protein for the Ju/’hoansi.

Forming part of what is now the largest free-ranging elephant population in the world, there are now thought to be as many elephants in Nyae-Nyae as there are people. And as the Ju/’hoansi know all too well, no matter how careful you are, elephants can be difficult neighbours. Since the conservancy was set up, protective elephant cows with their young have charged and killed Ju/’hoansi walking in the bush, and moody bulls have attacked both walkers and vehicles in what can only be described as acts of spontaneous aggression during seasonal periods of musth, when their testosterone levels can soar to some sixty times their normal level. But it is not the episodic tantrums of testosterone-crazed bulls or the fierce determination of cows to protect their calves that make elephants difficult neighbours – these incidents tend to be viewed as avoidable accidents. Rather, it is the calm intelligence that both thirsty and curious elephants display when they dismember the infrastructure around the solar water pumps that now provide year-round water to the remoter Nyae-Nyae villages. And as the villagers and conservancy staff have devised ever more elaborate ways to protect their wells, pumps and pipelines from curious elephants, so the elephants have developed ever more ingenious ways of accessing and dismantling them.

Beyond this the ballooning elephant population has had a number of obvious cascading ecological impacts, particularly in some of the more heavily forested areas. But on this issue the Ju/’hoansi are agnostic. Some of the changes they say are good, others less so.

Nevertheless, as troublesome as elephants can be as neighbours, Ju/’hoansi are happy to put up with them. And the principal reason for this is that the sustainability of their conservancy – and with it their freedom to maintain key aspects of their traditional way of life – depends on the annual visits of foreign hunters in pursuit of elephant trophies.

Namibian law incentivises rural communities such as the Ju/’hoansi, who hold land communally, to benefit from sustainably managing local wildlife and other natural resources by establishing ‘conservancies’. And within these conservancies they are entitled to establish tourism ventures in partnership with private safari lodge operators, sustainably harvest key botanical resources and, where sustainable, hunt for the pot as well as sell off a quota of wild animals to trophy hunters. A key rationale behind the Ju/’hoansi’s decision to establish their conservancy in 1998 was to enable them to continue to gather wild foods as well as to hunt using traditional bows, arrows, spears, traps and snares. Even so they recognise that there is now no practical way that they could all survive on hunting and gathering alone. For that to be possible they would need more land than they have.

And just as importantly there are far fewer good hunters around than there used to be. There are now simply too many distractions for most young boys and men to devote the time necessary to master the requisite skills, and the few accomplished hunters in Nyae-Nyae today all carry flecks of grey in their hair.

Each of the up to twenty elephants killed by trophy hunters in Nyae-Nyae each year generates approximately US$30,000 for the conservancy and collectively contributes up to 80 per cent of its operating budget. In addition to paying conservancy staff salaries, this money is used to maintain critical village water points and infrastructure, provide basic services and support conservation and environmental management initiatives across Nyae-Nyae. Just as importantly, it also yields a small annual cash dividend for every adult Ju/’hoansi living in the conservancy area. This in turn enables a significant proportion of a population with few marketable skills living in a region where there is little employment to avoid the indignities of searching for menial work outside of Nyae-Nyae, in a country where nearly half of all adults are unemployed anyway.

The elephant hunters also provide another important service. For while the hunters are entitled to take the tusks and tails for their trophy cabinets, all the meat remains the property of the conservancy.

Ju/’hoansi have no tradition of hunting elephants themselves. And while they are not remotely sentimental about consuming elephant meat, they concede that killing elephants is more morally troubling than killing other familiar species. Elephants, they remind me, have a stronger ‘life-force’ than most other animals and are also creatures that not only hold each other in great affection but that, like humans, take shared responsibility for their children and mourn their dead.

But their main reasons for not having hunted elephants in the past are somewhat more practical. As one of Nyae-Nyae’s most prolific and artful traditional hunters, /Ui N!a’a, who showed up to help with the butchery that afternoon, explains to me, the risks are too high and the rewards are too low. Elephants, he points out, are not just clever but dangerous and very tricky to kill. He acknowledges that even in the hands of the most formidable Ju/’hoan hunters, their light poisoned arrows could never penetrate an elephant’s thick hide. Even more importantly, he adds, gesturing to the carcass, if they managed to kill an elephant it would provide far more meat than even the largest traditional band could consume. Much of it would end up being left to spoil or for scavengers to consume, and this kind of wastefulness, he reminds me, would not be tolerated by the g//auasiˆ – the spirits of the dead.

Thus, as beholden as they may be to the trophy hunters, to many Ju/’hoansi in Nyae-Nyae, the motivations of these visitors remain a source of puzzlement and debate around evening campfires and at annual conservancy meetings. Ju/’hoansi understand all too well the sense of purpose and fulfilment hunting can bring. After all, it is not just physically, emotionally and intellectually demanding but deeply satisfying when successful. Yet they wonder: why would anyone pay such a huge amount of money simply to kill something that they were not interested in eating? 

 

UP UNTIL THE late 1970s, accessing Nyae-Nyae by vehicle from Grootfontein, the nearest small town, could take up to a week and could only be done in convoy. Now it only takes three or four bone-rattling hours in a LandCruiser on an erratically maintained but gloriously straight and wide gravel road. And in Tsumkwe, the administrative centre of Nyae-Nyae, besides the conservancy offices and the Tsumkwe Lodge that houses visiting officials and development workers, there is now reliable cell-phone reception, a clinic, two schools, two Pentecostal churches, several government offices and a busy little shop: the Tsumkwe General Dealer.

Many Ju/’hoansi in Nyae-Nyae still insist that wild fruits, tubers, fungi and vegetables gathered from the bush, as well as hunted meat, are their most important food sources. But recent nutritional surveys suggest that these now only make a modest contribution to their diets. Instead, highly refined white maize porridge, bottled sunflower oil, tea and refined white sugar, all purchased over the counter at the Tsumkwe General Dealer, account for the lion’s share of most Ju/’hoansis’ nutrition today.

It was very different before the gravel road from Grootfontein to Nyae-Nyae was cut by South African military engineers in 1978. Then, Ju/’hoansi in Nyae-Nyae had only infrequent contact with outsiders and few of them had routine access to foods such as maize porridge or sugar, or the cash to buy them. They were among the last populations anywhere in the world who still depended almost exclusively on hunting and gathering in the 1960s and 1970s, which led anthropologists to take the view that the Nyae-Nyae Ju/’hoansi were almost certainly the best contemporary exemplars of an economic way of life that ‘until 10,000 years ago was a human universal’. Research conducted with Ju/’hoansi in Nyae-Nyae beginning in the 1960s – most famously by Canadian anthropologist Richard Borshay Lee – was instrumental in torpedoing the well-established idea that hunter-gatherers lived nasty, brutish and short lives perpetually on the edge of starvation.

Over a period of several months in 1964, Lee carefully documented what every individual in the Ju/’hoan band ate. He also measured how much time the tribe spent foraging and hunting as well as working on other tasks, such as preparing food, shelters and fires, and making and mending hunting equipment.

‘Struck by the apparent lack of effort that went into the food quest,’ Lee revealed that despite living in a semi-arid environment, the Ju/’hoansi made routine use of over a hundred different edible plant species as well as many different animal species, from locusts and mopane worms through to lumbering eland and giraffe. He also revealed that they were not only well nourished but that healthy adults were usually able to satisfy all their and their dependents’ nutritional needs on the basis of around fifteen to seventeen hours of spontaneous effort over the course of any week. Pointing out that adults also spent a similar amount of time on domestic chores, Lee calculated that Ju/’hoansi typically enjoyed considerably more leisure time than most people in agricultural and industrial societies.

Lee presented his research at the now famous ‘Man the Hunter’ conference held in Chicago in 1966, where several other anthropologists also reported similar findings after spending time working among other small-scale hunter-gatherer societies, including the Hadzabe of East Africa and the Mbuti of the Central African rainforests. 

Another anthropologist attending the conference, Marshall Sahlins, was much taken by what he had heard in Chicago. He was particularly interested in the fact that hunter-gatherers appeared to be content – in fact, to thrive – on simply having just enough to meet their immediate needs. Their approach to wellbeing, he noted, seemed to be the opposite of that embraced in market economies, where scarcity was said to be a perpetual condition, affluence was measured in terms of surplus wealth and the majority of labour effort was focused on meeting future goals. The data from the Kalahari and elsewhere suggested that far from being preoccupied with scarcity, societies such as the Ju/’hoansi had modest material desires that they were able to satisfy without too much effort.

‘Wants may be easily satisfied by producing much or desiring little,’ Sahlins explained – and because hunter-gatherers appeared satisfied with little, they should be recognised as being affluent in their own terms. 

Subsequent research among the Ju/’hoansi and with other small-scale hunter-gatherer societies added further nuance to the concept of hunter-gatherer affluence. It suggested that the principal reason Ju/’hoansi didn’t seek to accumulate wealth or surpluses was because they were confident first in the inherent providence of their environment and second in their ability to exploit it – so they were content to focus their energies on meeting only their immediate material needs rather than on creating or controlling surpluses.

The research also indicated that this was only possible because the Ju/’hoansi were ‘fiercely egalitarian’; they had no formalised leadership institutions and disdained any kind of social hierarchy. This meant that resources such as food were widely shared and no one wasted time or energy seeking to pursue status or influence. Thus men and women enjoyed equivalent decision-making powers, children played largely non-competitive games in mixed age groups, and the elderly, while treated with great affection, were not afforded any special privileges.

But as fiercely egalitarian as foraging Ju/’hoansi were, they did not consider all foods to be equal. Those that were more nutritious and flavoursome they described as ‘strong’ and those that were less so as ‘weak’. And, reflecting the fact that in the Kalahari hunting was not always easy and that traditionally the majority of the Ju/’hoan diet was plant based, they were firmly of the view that honey, ostrich eggs and, above all, meat were the strongest of all foods.

This posed something of a problem. In the Ju/’hoan social universe, hunting was an exclusively male activity and, of course, some men were more enthusiastic and skilled hunters than others. This meant that good hunters monopolised the procurement and distribution of the most valuable of all foods – meat – in a society where people were intolerant of any form of inequality. 

Ju/’hoansi were all too aware of the potential moral hazards created by this imbalance. As one Ju/’hoan man put it to Richard Lee, ‘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.’

Smaller animals such as porcupines, tortoises and springhare were not much of a cause for concern because these were only substantial enough to provide supper for the immediate kin of the hunter. Moreover, the distribution of many smaller species’ meat was governed by strict prescriptions that generally benefited those who were least productive – such as children, the elderly and heavily pregnant women.

To manage any potential upset to the egalitarian order posed by successful hunters of larger animals such as kudu, oryx or eland, Ju/’hoansi deployed a number of strategies. The most important of these involved ‘cooling the hearts’ of successful hunters by ‘insulting their meat’ instead of offering them praise. Thus, no matter how impressive the kill, those due to share the meat would complain: the animal was scrawny and had probably been sickly; its meat was off colour; the carcass lacked enough fat; there wouldn’t be enough meat to go around. For his part, the hunter was expected to be almost apologetic when he presented the carcass and to be unfailingly humble about his achievements.

As seriously as the task of insulting the hunter’s meat was taken, there was always a certain pantomime quality to the process, as if both hunters and those about to partake in the meat were playing loosely scripted but nevertheless clear roles in a well-rehearsed sketch. Insults were often passed though broad grins while rich, tasty fat dribbled from mouths, and hunters rarely took the insults to heart.

Being insulted, even if only lightheartedly, was not the only social price good hunters had to pay for their effort and their skill.

Because meat provoked such strong emotions, those charged with its distribution also had to take extraordinary care even when there was more than enough meat for everybody to eat as much as they wanted. While meat was always distributed according to well-established protocols, it was inevitable that someone would always be disappointed with their share relative to others and complain long and loud about it. Unsurprisingly, hunters often considered the social pressures arising out of distributing meat to outweigh the pleasures of consuming it.

Fortunately, Ju/’hoansi had another way to ensure that good hunters were not discouraged too much from hunting by the insults or the pressures arising from the distribution of meat. They insisted that the actual owner of any hunted carcass – and so the individual charged with its distribution – was not the hunter who killed it but the person who owned the arrow that struck the animal. With keen hunters being the most enthusiastic borrowers of arrows, this meant that they could often sidestep the burden of responsibility for distributing the meat while simultaneously giving the elderly, the short-sighted, the club footed and the lazy an opportunity to bring home the bacon.

 

TODAY, THE CONSERVANCY staff charged with distributing elephant meat try their best to keep a careful record of which villages are delivered meat from each individual elephant killed to make sure that, over the course of a year, everyone living in the conservancy receives roughly equal shares. Even so they are often accused of favouring one or other village. Sharing rough-cut slabs of meat from the back of a truck in the dead of night is, after all, an inexact science, and one further complicated by the fact that conservancy staff also have no control over where the hunters will eventually bring down their elephant. This is important because among the villages due a share in the meat from any hunt, those that are closest to the kill site will always get to claim the choicest cuts. It also means that those villages that lie furthest from the single gravel road that bisects Nyae-Nyae on an east–west axis tend to have to make do with the leftovers far more frequently than those that are more easily accessible.

All meat may be ‘strong’ food as far as Ju/’hoansi are concerned. But some kinds or cuts of meat are stronger than others. No creature, for example, offers tastier fat than porcupines and none has a finer tasting liver than a kudu. Moreover, there is universal agreement that the least desirable parts of any carcass tend to be the fleshiest, meatiest parts – the fillets, sirloins, rumps and other lean cuts that tend to fetch a high premium in the fat-averse First World. Offal and marrow, by contrast, are much loved, as are the fattier and gristlier bits of meat. Counterintuitively, elephants don’t yield much in the way of marrow. Their bones are very hard to crack open and too heavy to transport, so they are usually abandoned for the hyenas to do battle with. And while elephants do have very large and tasty livers, hearts and kidneys, their bodies are mostly bone, skin and lean muscle. 

In an echo of the traditional response to a successful hunter showing up at the camp with an impressive kill to share, the first villages visited by the conservancy trucks loaded up with elephant meat don’t hold back with complaints as they ferret around for the fattiest cuts and tastiest offal. But there is no mistaking the cheerful mood and excitable chatter as wood is hastily added to fires in preparation for an unplanned late evening meal.

But there is a distinctly different tenor to the complaints made by the residents of the last few villages to receive elephant meat deliveries when they realise that all they have to choose from are a few chunks of conspicuously lean red meat. There is no sense of pantomime when they protest that they are being offered ‘the wrong kind of meat’, that there is not enough fat or that the meat is ‘too grainy for the toothless old people to chew’. There is also an angry edge to accusations implying that conservancy staff always keep some of the best cuts for themselves and their individual families and villages.

The frustrations felt by these communities receiving last shares in elephant meat are amplified by the fact that people in Nyae-Nyae are ‘hungrier than they used to be’. Courtesy of the shift to store-bought foods, average adult weights in Nyae-Nyae are some 10 per cent lower than they were when people still depended primarily on hunting and gathering to feed themselves, and up to half their daily caloric intake now comes in the form of refined sugar, which is consumed in the form of sickly sweet black tea.

When I ask /Ui N!a’a, the hunter, whether he still gets insulted when he comes back to the village with hunted meat, he laughs.

‘In these new times it is very different,’ he tells me. ‘Everyone is happy to see my meat in the village when I kill something. No one worries that old hunters like me are going to start thinking of themselves as big men.’

I ask him why the conservancy staff get such a hard time when delivering the elephant meat then.

‘It is because now the people who think they are most important are those with jobs in the conservancy or with the government – those with money paid to them every month,’ he explains. ‘And in all Namibia, even in Nyae-Nyae, money is now the strongest food.’

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