In his article “Eating Christmas in the Kalahari” (1969), Richard Borshay Lee tells of his three years spent living with the !Kung San Bushmen, of some of their customs, of how they celebrated Christmas and of how they dealt with ‘gifts’ or rather his gift to them in particular.
Lee explains that the local people thought him a miser because he “maintained a two-month inventory of canned goods” (p 111) which was in direct contrast to the Bushmen “who rarely had a day’s supply of food on hand”(p 111), and it appeared he was determined to correct this view.
Lee writes that it “is the Tswana-Herero custom of slaughtering an ox for his Bushmen neighbours as an annual goodwill gesture” (p 111) at Christmas. By purchasing the Christmas ox for the Bushmen’s annual feast himself, Lee hoped that it would be seen as a generous (parting) gesture, a ‘thank you’ for their cooperation – as in Western culture – and perhaps also the catalyst for dispelling their view of him as a miser.
Lee appears to want the reader to believe that he was confused about his failure to gain the (expected) appreciation from the Bushmen for his generosity but was instead ridiculed for his choice of ox with sarcastic descriptions such as; “scrawny” (p 112), “old wreck”(p 111), “sack of guts and bones”(p 111), “old”(p 111), “thin”(p 111) and “sick”(p 113). Lee further leads us to believe that his confusion became more profound on Christmas Day when the ox was slaughtered and was found to have a thick layer of fat covering the meat. Although Lee indicates that he felt vindicated in his choice of ox, the derision and sarcasm continued throughout the slaughtering process.
Lee writes that he later sought clarification and explanation from several of the local people and was eventually told that the Bushmen’s sarcasm or “obligatory insults over a kill”(p 114), was their ‘custom’ and was a mechanism used to prevent hunters from getting an inflated ego and/or seeing themselves as better than anyone else.
I have a problem with Lee’s account inasmuch as I find it extremely difficult if not impossible to believe that after spending three years living with and studying the lives, activities and customs of the Bushmen, Lee had never once seen, heard nor heard of this ‘custom’ and I would be loathe to place more than a token amount of faith in the honesty and correctness of this or any other of his writings or observations as a result.
That the Bushmen included Lee in their customs and constructed a joke around him at his expense are inclusionary actions that would normally indicate an acceptance into a group and I believe that Lee’s writings were self-serving in that he wanted the reader to believe the Bushmen had thought highly enough of him to include him and treat him as they would one of their own.
I also believe that Lee has taken liberties with the translations of a number of conversations with various individuals in order for the reader to have no doubt about what it was that Lee himself wanted to convey. I do not believe that words and terms such as; “arrogance”(p 114), “hogging”(p 112), “nevertheless”(p 114), “scrawny” (p 112), “rascal”(p 113), “braggart”(p 113), “you have always been square with us” (p 111), “sack of guts and bones”(p 111), “old wreck”(p 111), “I suppose”(p 112), “feeling as we do”(p 112), “another one pipes up”(p 113), “you must respond in kind”(p 114), are part of the native language as Lee would allege in his quotes of conversations with the natives. These quotes are peppered with language that is more attributable to a certain class of native of the UK, not one of the Kalahari.
From my reading of Lee’s article, I believe it is nothing more than a poorly veiled attempt to elevate his own importance in the mind of the reader and perhaps even his peers. I feel that Lee has done a huge disservice to not only himself and his own credibility but also to that of the profession of anthropology. What does Lee’s article say about his observational strengths in the field if after three years he fails to note what appears to be a very
powerful and meaningful hunting custom?
In closing, I admit to agreeing with Lee’s statement “there are no totally generous acts”(p 114). Every act of gift giving is inextricably attached to an expected or preconceived return or reciprocity either in manner or kind and this may be nothing more than ‘feeling good’.
Lee, Richard Borshay
1969 “Eating Christmas in the Kalahari” reprinted in A. Podolefsky and P. Brown (eds.), Applying Cultural Anthropology: an introduction. (1991), Mountainview: Mayfield, pp. 110-114.