reading-EatingChristmas

reading-EatingChristmas - Article 4 Eating Christmas in the...

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1 Article 4 Eating Christmas in the Kalahari 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 cate- chists spread the idea far and wide among the Bantu-speaking pastoralists, even in the remotest corners of the Kala- hari Desert. The Bushmen’s idea of the Christmas story, stripped to its essen- tials, 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 good- will 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 pur- poses. I had come to the Kalahari to study the hunting and gathering subsis- tence economy of the !Kung, and to ac- complish 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 sup- plies were appreciated, they were scarcely adequate to erase the glaring disparity in wealth between the anthro- pologist, 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 ani- mals 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 five- foot span of horns, and must have weighed 1,200 pounds on the hoof. Food consumption calculations are my spe- cialty, 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 Bush- men in the vicinity of /ai/ai who were ex- pected 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
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reading-EatingChristmas - Article 4 Eating Christmas in the...

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