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Eating Christmas in the Kalahari

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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 trance dance 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 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 … read more.

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