Eating Christmas in the Kalahari

Eating Christmas in the Kalahari (1969) is an article by Richard Borshay Lee, a renowned anthropologist. The article exposes the stark differences in culture between the west and the people of Africa. It is an exposition of Lee’s ethnographic study on the Kalahari Bushmen culture.  It discusses how the Bushmen’s independent spirit has held together their culture of living in Kalahari amidst the growing influence of other powerful cultures. Although Lee had lived with his subjects for three years, he had not come to learn some of their distinct characteristics.

Learning it the hard way

He had to learn it the hard way. This is an indication that communities have their own substantive way of communicating, enforcing and passing down their culture to incoming generations. Any person who wants to understand another group’s culture cannot do so from an outside look but through active participation.

Lee only learns the real Bushmen culture only after being subjected to the brute of enforcing humility. He learns that interpreting Bushmen culture from the realm of White man’s perspective is not only wrong but subjective. When Lee buys a fat, huge black ox as a way of expressing his generosity to the Bushmen, he is accosted with all manner of sarcasm. Every other Bushmen who come to inspect the bull to be slaughtered for Christmas had no kind words for Lee, not even those he thought were impartial judges. They describe the bull as deathly thin, scrawny, old and not fit for a Christmas occasion.

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A different kind of Christmas in Kalahari 

The idea of a Christmas feast is not known to the Kalahari Bushmen, but luckily it coincides with their custom of “trance dance feasting” held every December. While Lee thought that his choice would make the Bushmen happy and fill up their stomachs, Bushmen complained that the offer was below their expectations. This leaves Lee depressed and helpless.

Unknown to Lee, irony speaking is part of Bushmen’s culture. It is Bushmen “tactic of enforcing humility”. It is only after the Christmas that Lee comes to understand Bushmen’s ironical speech. Consistent with Lee’s estimation, the ox turns out to be fat and enough for everyone. But why then did the Bushmen describe it as deathly thin, scrawny and old? It is their way of life. They “always like to fool people”. It is their “tactic of enforcing humility”.

As hunters and gatherers, as Lee later comes to understand, the Bushmen have their way of enforcing humility. Attacking the hunters catch in all negative manners is a way of checking their pride and preventing their ego from going over the roof. A hunter must not come home bragging that he has “killed a big one in the bush” (Lee 1969: 4). Similarly, when Lee decided to surprise the locals with his big business offer, it was Bushmen turn of cutting him into shape.

The real meaning of humility in Kalahari 

Lee had assumed a larger than life character with his frequent offer of tobacco and other goodies but when the time of the feast came, bushmen had to teach him what they meant by humility. In addition, Bushmen had to teach Lee that sharing is a year around exercise and not restricted to Christmas festivals only. Unlike the stingy and hard-heartedness character of the white people of keeping a large reserve for themselves, Bushmen are used to sharing whatever they get on a daily basis.

The humiliation brings Lee to a significant conclusion: that among the Bushmen, “there are no totally generous acts” –“All acts have an element of calculation”. This gesture reinforces the theory of psychological egoism, which retorts that each individual is selfish.

Psychological hedonism

The Bushmen also understand “psychological hedonism” –the view that each individual seeks his own pleasure. They know that if they don’t ridicule a young man’s catch, he will “think of himself as a chief or big man, and will come to think the rest of us as his servant” (Lee, 1969:4).

The turn of event brings Lee to a realization that as an ethnographer, you cannot claim to understand a community’s culture simply by observing, you must also seek an explanation of certain action. For instance, when Lee asks Tomazo, ‘but why didn’t you tell me this before”. Tomazo replies, “Because you never asked me”. This shows that ethnographers must go beyond studying to seeking interpretation from local people what certain action really means.

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