Eating Christmas in the Kalahari
Richard Borshay Lee’s ethnography tells us about how the !Kung Bushmen react to an
anthropologist’s act of kindness by sharing a huge ox for the Christmas feast. The Christmas ox
is Lee’s way of saying thank you for the bushmen’s cooperation over the past year. The !Kung
Bushmen’s knowledge of Christmas is thirdhand, introduced by the London Missionary Society
to the southern Tswana tribes in the early nineteenth century, and later spread far and wide by
Bantu-speaking pastoralists. Since the 1930’s, part of the Bushmen’s annual activities has
included the Tswana-Herero slaughtering an ox for his neighbors as a goodwill gesture.
The Bushmen frequently thought of Lee as stingy and hard-hearted. As he was there to study
the hunting and gathering subsistence economy of the !Kung, in order to not sabotage his
studies, it was essential to not share his own food or in any way interfere with their regular
food gathering activities. Although they did find him a miser, Lee had developed a relationship
with the Bushmen over the years he was there and provided them with medical supplies and
It was their last Christmas in the field and in order to show his appreciation, Lee intended
on purchasing the largest, meatiest ox around to ensure the feast and trance-dance be a success.
Lee kept his eyes open the whole month of December, but had yet to find an animal with the
grossness he had in mind. Finally, ten days before the holiday, a Herero friend came leading an
ox of astonishing mass. It was solid black and must have weighed 1200 pounds.
Lee had found the right animal and paid the Herero $56 and asked him to keep the beast with
his herd until Christmas day. Word spread around the camp that the big black ox was chosen by
/ontah (Lee’s Bushman name meaning “whitey”) for the Christmas feast. Ben!a was the first to
inquire about Lee’s choice of the old bag of bones that he had chosen. After that, it was the
turn of the young men. They came to sit by the fire, and /gaugo spoke to Lee man-to-man. He
said that sack of guts and bones will barely feed one camp, let alone all the Bushmen around
ai/ai. Lee retorts “that is a beautiful animal and, I’m sure you will eat it with pleasure at
Christmas”. The /gaugo comes back and says of course, we will eat it, but it sure won’t fill us
up. He goes on to ask Lee if he is too blind to tell the difference between a proper cow and an
old wreck. Lee can’t figure out why everyone thinks the ox is so bad. He asks his wife that
night before they go to bed what she thinks about the ox. She thinks maybe they want to sell
him another ox. All the bushmen seem to think the ox is nothing but a bag of bones. When they
find out he’s bought it, they say he might as well kill it and serve it, but there won’t be a dance to
follow. After Tomazo, a fine hunter, also gave his opinion of Lee’s scrawny black ox as nothing
but a bag of bones, Lee was worried about the prospect of a gloomy Christmas. Tomazo took
him to a young fat cow and Lee had suspicions of Tomazo working on commission, but
dispelled this unworthy thought when the cow was not for sale. Lee was finally convinced there
was real trouble when u!au, an old conservative with a reputation for fierceness, approached him
and asked “/ontah, do you really think you can serve meat like that to people and avoid a fight?”
He did not mean to fight Lee, but a fight between the Bushmen because there wasn’t enough
food to go around. U!au told him he will find out what happens when some go hungry while
others eat, and had Lee very worried. He was convinced the Christmas feast was going to be a
total disaster. Lee decided the only thing to do was to serve the beast anyway, and if it fell short
then to hell with it. Lee announced to all who would listen, “I am a poor man and blind. If I have
chosen one that is too old and too thin, we will eat it anyway and see if there is enough meat
there to quiet the rumbling of our stomachs.” Ben!a offered words of comfort that it would
make a good soup.
It’s Christmas morning and Lee’s instinct tells him to turn the butchering and cooking
over to a friend and take off with his wife to spend Christmas in the Bush, but curiosity got the
better of him. He wanted to see what such a scrawny ox looked like on butchering. The huge
ox was driven to the dancing ground and shot in the forehead and dropped in its tracks. Lee
asked /gaugo to make the breast bone cut. This cut allows the hunter to spot check the amount of
fat on an animal. This animal was pure fat, at least two inches thick. Still all the Bushmen rolled
on the ground with laughter that this animal was nothing but skin and bones, and not worth
eating. Lee realized they were joking, but couldn’t figure out why. They danced and ate ox for
two days straight. No fights broke out and no one went home hungry. The joke had Lee worried
and he realized there was some kind of meaning behind it. He asked Hakekgose, a Tswana man
who had grown up among the !Kung, married a !Kung girl, and who probably knew their culture
better than any other non-Bushman, who explained to Lee that no matter if he gets a huge animal
that can feed everybody for two days or if he misses, the Bushmen still tease him and act like it’s
awful, or a worthless animal. Hakekgose explained to Lee that he was being treated the same as
they treat each other as it is their custom.
Lee sought out /gaugo first and asked him why he told Lee that the ox was worthless
when obviously it was loaded with meat and fat? /gaugo explained, “it is our way. We always
like to fool people like that”. Hakekgose goes on to explain how a Bushman must not be a
braggard. He must sit there and wait until someone asks what he seen in the bush. When
replying, he must say he saw nothing, just a tiny one. It is their way to harass the others when
they have made a kill and say “how could you drag us out here to cart home your pile of
bones?” Lee still doesn’t understand and asks, why insult a man after he has gone to all that
trouble and is then going to share the meat with everyone. Tomazo goes on to explain that
they do this in order to maintain equality among themselves, so no one man can think of himself
as chief or better than anyone else. They refuse one who boasts in order to cool his heart and
make him gentle. Lee had been the perfect target for the Bushmen tactic of forcing humility.
He had much power as he was the only source of tobacco for a thousand square miles.
Because of this, they resented his presence, but hated for him to leave.
The Kalari Bushmen taught Lee a valuable lesson. There are no totally generous acts. All
“acts” have an element of calculation. One black ox slaughtered at Christmas does not wipe out
a year of careful manipulation of gifts given to serve your own ends. After all, to kill an animal
and share the meat with people is really no more than Bushmen do for each other every day and
with far less fanfare.
This is the way they keep their society equal. No one can gloat that they
brought home the best kill. This is the Bushmen’s way of keeping peace in their society.
Everyone that lives there is equal and even though they can kill or buy an ox for a feast, they
aren’t superior to anyone else that lives there with them. These Bushmen wanted to maintain
humility in their culture and that is their purpose of insulting one’s kill, Lee would have never
understood this practice if he did not get involved and been a “victim” himself.