Before I started reading The Place of Stunted Ironwood Trees I knew almost nothing about the Himba people of southwestern Africa. I could not have told you how many Himba there are today, their territorial boundaries, or the name of their primary language (though I have learned that it is closely related to Herero). The little that I did know (that they are a patrilineal, hunter-gatherer tribe) turned out, upon reading, to be incorrect.
Now that I have finished a full-length book, which is, ostensibly, about the Himba (the subtitle is, A year in the Lives of the Cattle-Herding Himba of Namibia), I still cannot answer the above questions. I cannot tell you their fertility or mortality rate or their median household income (though it would surely be very low). That is because this book is not really about the Himba people of Namibia, at least not taken as a singular unit. It is actually about twenty or so individuals in a small settlement half an earth away from me, who just so happen to call themselves "Himba". It is their story.
On the surface, the book is a chronicle of a year the author spent with the people in the village of Otutati. Look deeper, however, and David P Crandall reveals the underlying question and paradox at the heart of this delicate and well-crafted book: How is it possible for humans living in such antipodal geographies and lifeways as the author and the people of Ovamboland, Namibia--and in fact, any two people separated by culture and distance--to possibly connect in such a deep and genuine way? The author wrote this book to show the Himba of Otutati as neither practitioners of a bygone method nor perfect reflections of a tribe as whole. Rather they are individuals just like you and I, driven by the same motivations--love, hate, family, friends--that drive the reader and the author.
In order to show the similarities and differences of the characters--twenty or so Himba living with their families and friends--as starkly as possible, Crandall virtually removes himself from his own story and allow the Himba to speak for themselves--translated from their native tongue into English by the author. He mentions this intention in the reader's introduction, but I did not gather the scope of this strategy until much later. It was not until I had reached page one hundred and realized that the author had "spoken" (either quoted himself or made it clear in other ways that he was speaking at a given moment of the story) only one time since the start of the book that I began to question this approach as being so far removed that the story that it becomes ambiguous.
By using both first-hand experiences (when he was actually "there") and second- (and perhaps third-) hand accounts to describe and/or reconstruct the experiences of himself and the people he lived with in his year in Namibia, Crandall is able to give incredibly rich and vivid details about people, places, and things. At some points in the story it is clear that Crandall is in a scene because he alludes to himself seeing something or reacting. Other times, however, the reader is left to guess whether they are reading an intimate conversation between two villagers (with precise and accurate dialogue) with Crandall receiving the story from one of the participants based on an interview at a later time, or if Crandall (or his wife and young daughter) is present and recording the events himself. An example of a time when I would have appreciated greater clarity and perspective is the description of a birth, which includes a graphic emergency pre-natal surgery. Crandall spends pages in his descriptions and dialogues, but fails to mention whether the soon-to-be mother was alone with a midwife or whether he had a front row seat. Due to his methods of recreating events based on interviews with participants (which he claims is "stock-in-trade" for people in his field) the dynamics of given situations were, at times, needlessly ambiguous.
In this book, Crandall never settles into statements like, "the Himba are a patrilocal, matrilineal group of cattle-herders living in the southwest corner of Africa". Though it is very tempting to paraphrase and clarify in this way, the author seems to prefer to be subtle rather than indiscreet. In fiction (if not in non-fiction), a good writer will show what a poor one will tell. Many times the author could have chosen concise, to-the-point statements about the Himba, but chose on almost all occasions nuance, by giving the reader clear images of real-life events. These events show how these particular Himba live, make decisions, and participate in other day-to-day concerns. Because of how Crandall recreates a scene with dialogue that he was not party to, he blurs the lines of fiction and non-fiction; I feel that in this book, the author's stylistic choices are appropriate.
Instead of continuous narrative, each chapter of the book is a semi-autonomous vignette centering on two or three villagers. The theme of the chapter is paraphrased in a paragraph telling what will happen in the following pages. This was very reminiscent of The Adventures of Huckeberry Finn, By Mark Twain, where the skeleton of the action of a chapter is given in advance.
Another technique Crandall falls back on throughout this book is to give the reader from between several paragraphs to a page of italicized print signifying the thoughts and words of the Himba about a seemingly confusing issue. These sections give the reader a direct line into the worldview and thought processes of this group of individuals. Once again, by providing the Himba in their own words, seemingly strange actions or decisions become clear when given their own historical and metaphysical contexts.
By watching them resolve their conflict, sort through a situation, or accomplish their goals, Crandall shows these Himba to be much more than simple automatons, responding to external stimuli based on some ancient code of cultural norms writ in their genes. The people profiled are not simply saying, "We must act in this way because that is how our ancestors have acted". By writing in their own words, they stand out on the page, becoming real people to the reader. Decisions make sense when they are talked through, with the past, present, and future discussed, and a path chosen based on their own truths. Anthropologists--and so many other people in our own culture--are too often given a wide-angle lens to observe others that we forget what we will see when given a microscope. Crandall gives us one to look through, and we see a group of living, breathing, rational people who are more like us than they are different.
I would highly recommend this book to anybody interested in reading about a group of individuals who lived and are living very interesting lives in southwest Africa, or to somebody who appreciates engaging prose in which you really do enjoy yourself as your read. It was very disturbing, however, to read the author's final postscript, written in 1999, nine years after his visit to Otutati. He discusses how much has changed since his experiences there. When he describes in the first 260 pages of the book a very stable tribe of people--incredibly rich in their own way--and basically free of external threat, his update becomes particularly heartbreaking. Many of the leaders have died or moved. The close-knit, communal living groups have been shattered by a tsunami of Western products and ideas. This trend is not surprising when judged with other such cases around the world, but the speed of this cultural loss is frightening. Ways that sustained people in relative harmony form millennia are being demolished at epic pace. When looking at the year Crandall spends with the Namibia in this light, the importance of his work is not easy to overstate.
To say one will not learn anything about the Himba by reading this book--as may have been assumed by my statement in the first paragraph--would be quite inaccurate. To be clear: you will not learn any broad generalizations about the Himba or any easily regurgitated statistics. What David P Crandall wants you to take from this book is iterated in his conclusion, one of the few places in the book where he speaks candidly about his life and experiences: "It must then follow that something deep within us--a species of human soul, for want of a better term--is not only present but perhaps even more influential than culture." Overall, Crandall wants the reader to understand how superficial the seemingly great cultural divides between us actually are. We are all human beings living in our own environments and making choices and decisions based on the information we have at hand. People act basically the same wherever you are, Crandall argues, but acknowledges that he had to travel to a tiny village in the middle of nowhere to understand this fact.
And when I think about Crandall's message, he is absolutely correct. I mean, if you have a cauldron of buttermilk over the fire that needs straining into your goat bladder so that your kids can get dinner on time, but all you have around is a discarded bird's nest, what would you do?