I listened to an interview with the French Author Michel Houellebecq transmitted by the Swiss Radio.
He said two things about the book of his that won France's most prestigious Prix Goncourt:
1. He saw Conservatism as a source of progress because it only changes something when it is unavoidable. Conservatism, so Michel, stays with that which deserves being protected. It is not reactionary but appreciative of what is valuable.
2. More relevant here, he ventured into the topic of sexuality. He saw it as always bound to love, and as such, he took it to be one of the few joys in life. He can be quite lyrical about the real togetherness of man and woman.
He is controversial. -- Now back to my book.
Chapter 5 from My Apprenticeship: An Intellectual Journey by Karla Poewe (2018:65-78).
Calgary: Vogelstein Press. It is about love, breakthrough, doubt, insight, knowledge. _______________________________________________________________
A LETTER ABOUT LOVE FROM THE FIELD
"I was born inside the rain on a day of wonder. Deep inside my brain memories of thunder. I grew up a refugee, my life not fixed or free. I know the world’s not to blame. Cos’ everybody carries my name"
The need to find accommodation kept me moving among people and villages. That was important. It’s too easy to withdraw. I now lived part of the time with Banachile and her children in her hut, the rest of it in the government rest house. A multiple residential pattern was maintained throughout field work. As I became interested in housebuilding, I organized a team to build me a third hut. What I learned in the process was invaluable.
Mingling with people was important. Too many researchers escaped by reading novels, hitting the bars, or quarreling with their spouses. My friend Peter, whom I met at the Institute back in Lusaka, would later start his research in Lenda. He remained one week, became ill, and never returned.
Sometimes for weeks at an end, I’d forget my own existence so absorbed was I in the puzzles with which Lenda presented me. The need to understand drove me. Then I’d grow restless, pack my bags, and drive off. There were moments when it seemed that everything I was doing was right, but with those precious moments gone I had grave doubts.
Upon arrival in Zambia, and for a considerable while, most of my associations were with expatriates. Their stories about malnutrition, family problems, conflicts and crimes among locals made me feel uneasy. I was always suspicious of people’s illusions, including my own. All along, therefore, I knew that only more contact with Zambians themselves would alleviate suspicions and fears. After all, research based on fear results in a different sort of understanding and knowledge than that based on direct contact.
On Tuesday, March 17th, I decided to check with the local magistrate to enquire about the possibility of studying local court cases. Having collected archived cases, recent conflicts would allow important comparisons. Cases point to areas of life where conflicts are inevitable. And contradictions in the social fabric, to which conflicts point, are the essence of social dynamics.
The court clerk gave his permission to look at notes of recent cases. As I sat down and opened the first page, the magistrate entered. He queried my curiosity, checked my letter of introduction then suggested that I watch court proceedings to give me a better idea of what to expect from written records. I did.
I was quite taken by the formalities and amazed at the continuation of procedures from colonial times. It was a connection to a familiar part of civilization.
During recess, the magistrate asked me into his office for a chat. I looked at him for a long time. His gestures fascinated me. He smoked a pipe and my eyes followed his fingers pack the tobacco. He stood there leaning against a desk; his shoulders sagged a little and his belly was softly rounded. A big forehead graced his face and encased a lucid brain. I watched his eyelids lift and felt his eyes sink into mine. And they stayed there. A soft breeze embraced my body. He crossed one leg over the other and slowly extracted his glance.
As from a distance, I heard the clerk of court blaming the assault on the woman. “She took his beer and that gesture promised him company,” he was saying. “But she swaggered over to another man and nuzzled up to him. So, he followed her home and beat her up.”
“But she wanted a divorce,” I said, “and you didn’t give it to her.”
“She only wanted a dress,” he replied, “You don’t know our women.”
“You see then that I must live in a village,” I said.
“Try chief Catote’s village,” the magistrate suggested. “I’ll introduce you. Catote is my friend.” I watched the sparkle from his large dark eyes blend with a ray of sunlight that had just slipped past a moving curtain. “Tomorrow I hold court in Zongwe,” he continued, “drive down with me, we’ll pass and stop in Catote’s village.”
I spent the evening with CUSO friends, Tom and Judy, when the magistrate came by to say that he couldn’t go because there was no transportation. Government Lorries were always in short supply. I suggested we use my car. He agreed.
Tom and I were outside sucking sugarcane when Paul Kupeta, for that was his name, arrived. The sun set quickly across the lake. Judy came home from the hospital just then, and Tom invited Kupeta in. We had cokes, chatted and agreed to leave after lunch tomorrow.
Wednesday April 18th, I filled the car with petrol and took along tinned food. At three the magistrate arrived. His houseboy carried his luggage. I put it into the trunk. We said good-bye to Tom and Judy and took off. I felt nervous somehow as if something glorious were to happen.
It was the 21st, two days following our return. I sat by candlelight, sipped Zangavan beer, and dreamt the hours away. I glanced impatiently at Catote’s unruly chicken in the kitchen and turned to stare at a ghostly sort of grasshopper sitting on melted candle wax. Reluctantly I hammered on my typewriter. The letter grew pages in length, the longest letter I’d ever write. My mother, as always, would understand.
March 21, 1973
I’ve spent nine years among academics, as student or wife. Nine years. I’ll spend many more among them as their colleague. But now, I have an overwhelming desire to live, just to live ...
I reflected for a long, long moment. Have I gone crazy, I thought? Then I continued to write.
... The man’s name is Paul Kupeta. I know you are smiling, Mam. I know, that you know, when I’m screaming for life, I’m announcing an outrageous act. Outrageous to the general mind, not yours, Mam. To live, to love, to express emotions, it’s all the same to you, am I right?
But let me tell it. The telling will clear my brain. We took off for Zongwe by way of Catote. I drove first, that is important. I honked the horn to caution a cyclist of our presence, but he kept on cycling erratically and I had to slam on the brakes and steer the car into a sandbank, missing the cyclist and the lagoon by a few inches. The car stalled, wheels buried in sand. Kupeta got out and ran toward the boy, grabbed him by the collar and slapped him across the face, from relief more than anger.
The boy cried, of course, and a mob gathered and Paul gestured and explained. He had them all organized in minutes and they pushed the car out of the sand. I turned and leaned against the car, my knees were shaking. My God, Mam, had something happened there would have been instant vengeance! The D.S. was recently violently beaten when his driver hit a villager. I held out the keys to Paul and he took the wheel. Nestled in the corner of my seat, I watched him as he drove. You understand the role reversal.
Catote’s palace was built of fired brick. A dense palisade blocked it from view. We sat silently under a shelter until the kapaso invited us in. Three chairs stood ready in the shade. I watched Catote’s jerky movements and reflected that it lent him grandeur. Everything about him spoke of distance and grace. His cheeks were flushed and the tip of his nose held tiny pearls of perspiration. His hands and arms trembled from abuse of alcohol, but you know Mam, it enhanced his charisma. Kupeta kneeled and slowly clapped three times, and so did I.
Catote didn’t like the letter from the A.D.S. in Katumba. It should have come, he argued, from the Minister of State in Mboua or from the Permanent Secretary. But these, I felt, were minor irritations. What really bothered him was research being done in his area. Worse still, the A.D. S. wrote that I would do historical research, which, of course, was not the case. I should have checked. I didn’t know then the meaning historical research and history itself had for the Lunda. History and ethnopolitics are one and the same. The past is the present and in the same way is subject to manipulation. You don’t want it on paper, permanent and static. Then, Mam, Catote claimed that Cunnison got people drunk to extract information. I knew that to be slander. Nevertheless, he insisted that Cunnison’s book is banned in his kingdom. He still referred to the valley as his kingdom, and has not accepted, at least not willingly, the new hegemony. I explained that my primary interest was in the economic activities of the people.
The conversation ended. He would make enquiries about me, he said, and left abruptly. I thought the meeting was over and prepared to leave. Paul held me down. Wait, he said. We waited a long time, Mam, until Mwata Catote returned as abruptly as he had disappeared. His kapaso followed him with a live chicken which he, following a gesture from Mwata Catote, handed to me. Not that I knew what to do with it, or how to hold the damn thing. But to be given a chicken was to be honored. Kneeling and clapping, somehow, we left.
Paul assured me that everything was alright, that Catote likes me. At the car, he covered the trunk with paper. The chicken would relieve itself, Paul pointed out. Catote’s pearls of perspiration, his tremors, the kapaso’s sinewy legs; their communion through gesture as much as words. It’s this contact with nature, Mam. Everything cerebral becomes flesh and blood. It’s intoxicating.
Walking through Catote village, visiting its bars, I got the impression that this area had reached the height of its civilization and was now experiencing its decline. Everything looked proud and everything was decaying. And you know, even the decay held me enthralled. We are surely wrong to assume that “civilizations” of this part of Africa did not also rise and decline. I am reminded of Muggeridge who loves to flagellate himself and the West which he argues has become a society no better than a pigsty. He thrashes the West for its disintegration into a morally appalling and spiritually impoverished affluent society “with its accent everlastingly on consumption and sensual indulgence of every kind” (1969, p.145). But what is sensual indulgence? It’s hardly what we have in the West, we who preach “die in the flesh in order to be reborn?” Why are we such despisers of the body? Have we forgotten that our virtues grow out of our passions? Finally, the West is hardly sensual in comparison to this.
Well, we arrived in Zongwe’s rural development rest house and were shown around by an animated manager. The rest house was attractive, almost plush. One brings one’s own food, and cooks prepare and serve it. The lounge and dining room were spacious and breezy. There was an uneasy moment when Paul and the manager teased me about rooms. Signed in, we took food to the cook and Kupeta made arrangements for dinner. You know, Mam, he thought I would have brought more and better food. The expectations this man has. But I forgot, decent food signifies respect and acknowledges high status. While he took a bath, I rested. Dinner was pleasant, though the food came from tins.
After dinner, Paul suggested that we seek out a bar. We drove along the dirt road under a full moon. Before today, I couldn’t have told you whether a moon shone over Zambia, but it shone tonight. I had to shake myself to confirm that I was indeed in Zambia and not at some marvelous resort. The bar was magical with its lit candles, dark customers, and long shadows. We had Simba and were absorbed in one another. We talked, though I couldn’t tell you about what, and the bar closed and we moved to a side room and continued. And then we noticed that people were listening to our conversation and we finished the beer and left.
I opened the door to my room and entered. He leaned against the frame. I looked at us, looking at one another, and I experienced a deep sense of peace. It enveloped us like a soft blanket. In Lenda nothing is ever purely cerebral, it is always mingled with flesh.
He told of his childhood. How his father would take him to the Industrial Belt and how he would roam the streets and rummage through refuse cans of Europeans. And I watched the skin around his large, mellow eyes crinkle with laughter. I could see him bent over a garbage can and look up surprised upon being reprimanded by a stern European. He would stand and look steadfastly into the pale man’s eyes. “Your garbage are our riches,” he would say.
He told me about his peculiar European friend who always took his cocktail to the verandah where he sat for the longest time watching the sunset. How peculiar, he said, to watch the sun for hours when I want to see smoke stacks. And in the process of talking to me, he made me watch our own culture. We despoil the earth and then prize the bit that is left to view. But earth and sky, life and death that is the essence of Lenda.
“Why should anyone sit and watch the sunset?” he said. I became the observer of our attitude toward nature. We worship it. The Lenda know its danger.
I was up first and had the cook prepare tea. Paul got up around eight. Seeing him made me feel warm all over. The same and continuing ease on his part caused me to marvel. He discussed food with the cook and while he gave his instructions he leaned sideways against the counter and slowly turned the end of a match in his ear. We soon ate beans, porridge, and drank tea.
He went to the court but returned quickly, for the prosecutor had not arrived. We collected our things and drove around Zongwe. I was unbelievably aware of his presence, so I put on my rational voice and told him that I enjoyed our stay in Zongwe. He put his hand between my breasts and asked me whether what I said came from there or from my mouth only. And I shoved rationality aside and answered from there and burst into laughter, laughter of sheer joy. And I stood there and my arms enveloped the earth. My cocoon has burst for good. I’ve been rattling at my cage, Mam. But I’m in Zambia now and something is breaking out.
He had to inspect the prison and took me along. I watched him as he talked to the officer in charge, with that relaxed sense of authority, all along slowly cleaning his ear with the back end of a match. We entered the prison. Guards did not wear guns, and Kupeta shook hands with the prisoners. He asked them if they had any complaints; they said no. The prison was simple but very clean. No furniture, just a set of blankets on a cement floor. Women’s cells were empty.
We walked toward the garden, which was well looked after though in need of fertilizer. Back in the officer’s building Paul recorded his observations in a book. In the meantime, two prisoners, upon instruction from the officer in charge, washed the car. When all was ready, we left, and I looked at him as he drove.
Authority makes Paul generous. In Zambia, Mam, I can read a person’s status in his face. Facial lines are different, and eyes hold a different message. The poor wear hostile, defiant, tired, and dull expressions. Their bodies move without pride.
I mentioned already my first meeting with Catote, and how he kept repeating that he didn’t want historical research done in his area. History was sacred and part of official philosophy and not public knowledge. You remember, we had left with the hen.
Thursday the 19th of March, we made our way back to Nzubuka, again stopping at Catote’s. He had intended to radio the D.C. and/or D.S. in Katumba to enquire about me. I wanted to know the result.
Around noon, we collected the hen from the cook of the rural development rest house where we had left it, and once again put it into the trunk. We drove further around Zongwe meeting some of P.K.’s friends. Several were sitting on low benches or turned over buckets, drinking Simba. We sat down with them and were offered beer which we gratefully accepted. Bopas, a friend of Paul, was a prominent businessman. The business, he told us, was started by his sister who sold fish and with this capital started a store. Two brothers then joined in and expanded it—perhaps too much. The family, a group of siblings, now ran several different businesses; bars, hotels, bus services, and stores, in Nanyuki, Lusaka, and Zongwe. They owned stores in other towns which have, however, gone out of business. Bopas, who looked as if he had never left the valley had traveled across Europe—England, Scotland, Germany, and France. He didn’t like England—too impersonal he said. He liked Scotland, people invited him for beer there; and he liked Germany where people told their children to call him “Onkel.” France, he didn’t care for at all. He went to these countries on some sort of business-training program.
We moved to the bar and had another beer. Bopas complained of “eyes.” He and his family were suffering from eye inflammations, which occur, as I said, frequently. A person who has eye, leg, or stomach pains, for example, simply says he has “eyes,” “legs,” or “stomach,” as if the pain made one aware of only that part of the body.
Before leaving Zongwe, we met one of Paul’s many female friends. She was a middle-aged woman of mixed GreekLenda parentage. Her house was the usual mud-brick structure, with her mother’s house next to hers. Her father was dead. She was a striking woman, divorced from her husband who resided in Zangava. My Lenda allowed me to follow only part of the conversation, so I looked around. Looking, as you know, gives me the greatest pleasure. Why do we need to talk at all? The living room contained three simple well-used chairs, one table, and a homemade cabinet with a cloth. And that was it but for colorful curtains that danced in the wind. The bedroom was separated by a wall and the entrance was open. I saw a bed. The latrine was outside, a hole in the ground, surrounded by wattle-and-daub walls with roof and an open entrance. And then we talked about mixed marriages and white men who impregnate black women and run.
Paul insisted that I meet several other women on the way to Catote, some were young, some were older, and they were all women whom he openly admired. Which Western man, mother, would drive through a town and show his female guest its prominent women? To begin with, he wouldn’t even know such existed. And if they did, they would be a different kind, young and fit to be revealed only to a male friend suffering from sexual deprivation. These women were admired for their capability and personal strength. They are admired for their power and their independence. Lenda call it “amaka.”
As we drove on, I smelled the air and the charcoal fires and felt the dust and the heat. He held my hand. The magic of it. The only thing I dreaded was seeing Catote again. We arrived at his palace and the kapaso left to announce us and to ready the chairs. And we waited and then were escorted in. We knelt, and slowly clapped three times and Catote saw my eyes flicker with mischief. He cocked his head sideways and his hand jerked and he sat there staring at me. The silence of it.
Generous shadow cooled us. And it felt as if Catote’s tremors set waves in the air and it enhanced his grandeur. Ten feet away his kapaso remained standing throughout the meeting. Our conversation stayed light and did not touch upon my request to conduct research here. For the most part no one talked at all, as if words were unnecessary. I saw that his attitude had mellowed, and he was satisfied.
He got up suddenly, as he did yesterday, without saying a word and walked off. We sat. Feeling very tired I asked P.K. whether we needed to wait for the chief to touch on my research. He didn’t answer. We sat and the chief returned. He had changed into a pale brown suit and donned a colorful headdress, which enhanced his grandeur. He wanted a short ride with us, and I directed him to the front seat. I saw Paul glance at me but it was too late. Prominent persons sit in the back.
But we drove him to the bar and he steered us into a room which contained worn-out easy chairs with a fantastic assortment of cushions. They all had different shapes, sizes, and color and I was reminded of a bordello in ancient Rome. The atmosphere was unspeakably romantic. We sat down, and the chief disappeared. The waiter brought two beers and we paid, and I thought that one beer was meant for P.K. and the other for Mwata Catote, and none for me. I asked for a coke. Paul looked surprised and pointed out that one bottle was mine. Then he remembered that I was unfamiliar with customs here and explained that Mwata Catote drank in his private room. There was dignity in that and all understood it but me.
Nevertheless, I gave my beer to a primary school headmaster, whose face carried the expression of a poor man. We sat, both very tired. The chief came in, and his hand jerked, and his head was cocked, and his cheeks were aglow. He checked that we were alright.
But I was very tired, and told Paul that we must leave and he told the chief. So, we said good-bye, and I heard the chief tell Paul to take good care of me. I saw him raise his arm and silence the chatter and he told the guests my name and said that I would do research here. I was confused and asked P.K. whether he understood this man. He said if I get the letter from the Cabinet Minister or Permanent Secretary in Lusaka and bring it to Catote things will be OK.
We drove off. The heat was unbearable, and I was tired. On arrival in Nzubuka, Ephraim sat on my doorstep. All felt somewhat uneasy, so I suggested to P.K. that he not feel constrained and go about his routine. He stayed, trying halfheartedly to fix my Tilley lamps. I grew irritable, as I always do when behavior becomes irrelevant. Paul noticed and left. Ephraim, a biologist here, who also helped with the lamps, followed Paul’s example and left too. I took a bath and went to bed.
And so it was, Mam. As if everything took place in slow motion. I sat and sensed it all. Sensed it, because body and brain were one. Remind me of this description when I’m home.
Even now I can still hear the Lenda as they “touch” rather than discuss a topic, or “move” rather than walk with someone, and so on. The Lenda lifestyle reminded me of Gauguin’s style of painting—colorful, sensuous, simple, and yet filled with mystery. Too much of my time was spent surveying villages and fields. I looked, measured, and counted everything that was somehow related to the problem I had come to study. Sometimes I wondered how I was trained to be so arduous an empiricist. And then I would sit back and ask myself what of Lenda life I understood. To my surprise, the word “understand” brought out a totally different attitude and mood. Why, for example, did I think that I understood the Lenda better when I took in their gestures—even the mere gesture of greeting the chief—than when I calculated their earnings and counted their divorces?
And then there is the intimacy. Usually, for anthropologists, it is bar talk. Men tell risqué stories; women do not. I mention it because it is inevitable that some ethnographers in certain settings should experience such an encounter. Even more important, I would argue that the love for a particular individual of a people among whom one conducts research aims at laying hold of the culture in its entirety through that particular individual (Sartre, 1956, p.719). To lay hold of a culture through one’s love of one individual may be an illusion, but there can be no doubt that love became a fundamental relation of my thoughts about, and perceptions of, the Lenda world and myself. It engendered an attitude that allowed me to move freely in this society. Fear turned into compassion. “The German thing” that I had become in North America broke, and the attitude of love for these people helped this research forward to its conclusion.
It is more than forty years since I left the field, and I still wonder about this letter? Should it be there at all? Has not maturity disqualified its presence. I think not. For only now do I understand how easy it is to confuse the love of friendship, or of charity with one another and worse, with the instrumentalization of sexuality. It is stories about such instrumentalization that we hear daily in the news. What did happen was a surprise meeting of kindred souls. What we shared was a common vision of a flourishing valley in a just world. Our origin from different societies played no
role at all. Need played no role either; meeting of the mind did. And though the voice is solely mine, we both valued the unexpected consequence of an opening of the door from lab to life and from valley to world. This was its fruit.
Although we were man and woman, and the love of friendship merged with that of Eros, we experienced what Lewis calls “the kingliness of Friendship” where friends “meet like sovereign princes of independent states, abroad, on neutral ground, freed from all contexts” (2012:70 [originally published 1960]). Here I must also quote Susan Neiman and not because I seek an excuse. It is good to remember that “We are finite and fallible and struggling, and we are nonetheless the source of moral reasoning” (2008: 424). To the onerous task of finding food was added that of contingency, choice, and moral struggle.
The people I here call Lenda have a long history. Once a dynamic center of a dynasty with a history of battles and intrigues, they later traded with Greeks in Zangava and have now become a backwater of capitalism. What reminded me of post-war Germany on first arrival is simply seeing human beings struggling to make a fresh start in a world of which they are a part but which has nothing in place to provide solid and sustained economic growth.