Ethnography can be full of surprises My first fieldwork was in the northern Kalahari with Bushmen, foragers living hand-to-mouth lives. Their ecology was certainly unfamiliar but otherwise their ways were as comfortable as those of my neighbors at home in the northern Appalachians. There were durable pair-bonds who cooperated in provisioning of children, families all seemed to like each other, and no one was concerned with larger scale politics and government.
Their new (by a few decades) neighbors were the edge of the still ongoing Bantu expansion, self-consciously ethnic folks who called themselves Ovaherero. Those in Botswana were descendants of refugees from the German genocide in Southwest Africa early in the twentieth century. I had many interactions with Herero but I never paid much attention to their ways. Twenty years later I went back to the Kalahari intending to learn more about the Herero. I was able to waltz right in to the community with no difficulty at all since I had known and interacted with the same people for twenty years. I was welcomed as an old friend.
My interests were demography, family histories, family organization, and reproductive strategies. I soon discovered that, in contrast to Bushmen, Herero were full of a lot of interesting surprises. I intend to describe several of these surprises on this blog since anthropology in general seems to have lost much of its old keen sense of cultural diversity. Time to try to resurrect some of it.
We initially set up a camp, several tents surrounded by a thorn-bush fence, about half a kilometer from the village of a male named Katjambandje, a prosperous rancher in his late sixties. He had two wives: a senior wife who was his age and who had never had children and a junior wife who was hardly ever present in his village, although a number of her children lived there.
One day Katjambandje stopped by our camp and mentioned that his new wife had arrived and that we should drop by to see her. I wandered over and met his new wife, a giggly young girl about 11 years old. Since his senior wife had never had children, her family (i.e. matrilineage) was obligated to provide him a replacement senior wife: the 11 year old was indeed a niece of his current senior wife.
I sat down with him to find out more about all this. I felt comfortable teasing him just a little bit since he was an old friend. “You are old, not very good looking, and you only have three teeth,” I said, “don’t you think taking a new 11 year old wife is somewhat extreme?” He was completely puzzled by my question, with no idea what I was talking about. I gently persisted but without any connection at all in the conversation until, finally, he got it. He looked at me with surprise and disgust: “you Europeans must have really bizarre customs” he said.
The idea that he would have sexual access to his new wife never occurred to him. I was hinting around thinking bad thoughts about my old friend, “was he a dirty old man?” He caught on and told me that I was a dirty old man. He then explained that it didn’t matter whom she invited into her hut at night, the children would still belong to him.
A few days later I was sitting around drinking tea with his original senior wife, a lovely lady named Musuona. She looked at her niece and replacement with love and pride and said “Look at her, isn’t she beautiful? See how her breasts are growing.” She was an ok looking girl but her chest was just as flat as a pine board. Nevertheless I agreed.
As I became familiar with Herero culture I understood more and more of what was going on. Herero men are from the sociology department and Herero women are from the biology department. Men strive for followers, which means people sharing the same (patrilineally inherited) surname. By all the evidence they are indifferent to paternity certainty. No matter the biological fathers of the new senior wife’s children, the children would “belong” to Katjambandje and bear his surname, Mbakeya.
Musuona, on the other hand, was focused on biological kinship, meaning her matrilineage. Her niece would have children who would have claims to inherit cattle from Katjambandje, and these cattle would bring prosperity to her own family. Again read “matrilineage” for “family.” There were three centers of power in the village, Musuona was one, Katjambandje’s sister and her daughter and grandchildren were another, and the junior wife and her children were a third. They all had their eyes firmly on Katjambandje’s cattle and were encouraging the fertility of young women of each group to validade claims to his wealth. The new senior wife and several of the other giggling pre-adolescent girls in the village were pawns in a dynastic struggle.
Following custom in anthropology all the names in this post are pseudonyms.