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A community of Kalahari hunter-gatherers struggles to find their way in a changing world

Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen

James Suzman
Bloomsbury USA
2017
320 pp.
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In 1966, the Chicago-based anthropologist Marshall Sahlins challenged the widely held assumption that hunter-gatherers lived a life of hard work and constant struggle. On the contrary, he argued, Bushmen and other traditional hunter-gatherers are affluent because their needs are easily satisfied. James Suzman’s new book, Affluence Without Abundance, is a well-written narrative and personal reflection on this assertion, viewed through the lens of his own experiences with the Kalahari people known as the Ju/’hoansi (the “/” indicates a dental click made by moving the tongue downward from behind the front teeth, “as a mother might in scolding a child with ‘tsk, tsk, tsk’”).

The Ju/’hoansi are very well known to students of anthropology, but, until now, relatively few others knew of the hardships that they endure in spite of their “affluence” (defined in terms of their copious amounts of free time). Suzman begins at Skoonheid Resettlement Camp in Namibia, where the once-nomadic Ju/’hoansi have recently been relegated and where quarrels with Afrikaner farmers, with other Ju/’hoansi, and with the Herero, their pastoralist neighbors, are common.

Affluence Without Abundance describes the same group that was famously studied during the mid-20th century by Lorna Marshall and Richard Lee. Suzman’s observations, however, are starkly different.

The Ju/’hoansi have all but abandoned the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that they lived just a few decades ago. Encouraged by the governments that now oversee their native territory, many have settled into permanent dwellings and work as agricultural laborers. Those who would prefer to hunt are confronted with reduced vegetation and polluted watering holes: The Herero people, long exiled in Botswana, have returned to Namibia with their cattle, depleting the resources available to the Bushmen and their game.

JORGE FERNÁNDEZ/LIGHTROCKET VIA GETTY IMAGES

Many of the once-nomadic Ju/’hoansi now work as agricultural laborers.

The book is full of illuminating observations from the Bushmen themselves. In one passage, for example, Suzman relates an encounter with ≠Oma, one of the resettlement community’s most established residents, who once served as a foreman when Skoonheid was still a working farm: “If you are foreman,” ≠Oma tells Suzman, “then you are the eyes and the ears of the baas [boss] on the farm. You are the chief of the workers and are in charge when the baas is away.” Despite better pay and greater social standing among the white farm owners, ≠Oma never entirely succeeded in securing the respect and deference he demanded from his fellow Ju/’hoansi. Today’s Bushmen are part of two worlds, one guided by the group’s traditional commitment to egalitarianism and the other based on subjugation.

In general, anthropological commentary is kept to a minimum, but Suzman’s descriptions are full of insight. “To them everything in the world is natural and everything cultural in the human world is also cultural in the animal world, and ‘wild’ space is also domestic space,” he writes, for example, in chapter 7. “So while Ju/’hoansi consider the litter to be an irritation, few see it as pollution—at least in the way the tourists do.”

Suzman’s frequent reflexivity (e.g., “I never hunted with /I!ae. I was too clumsy, loud, and slow.”) makes the book far more interesting than typical accounts full of statistical detail, academic references, and the like. The book offers few references, and details are limited to those that make for good reading. There are, however, several useful (albeit simple) maps of the areas described and a brief explanation of how to pronounce clicks.

The book jumps from topic to topic, one minute discussing egalitarianism among hunter-gatherers, the next the symbolic value of lions to the Ju/’hoansi. However, this liveliness does enhance the readability. Go along with the author’s intention, which is to create a feeling for the landscape, the difficulties encountered by the Bushmen, and the pleasures of their simple, if rapidly changing, way of life.

Modern hunter-gatherers, even part-time ones like the Bushmen, may be very different from australopithecines or early humans. Yet their search for meat, vegetables, and firewood; their quest for religious explanation; their sexual jealousies; and their other interactions are probably much the same. In all, this is a delightful book, full of perceptiveness and understanding.

About the author

The reviewer is at the School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh EH8 9LD, UK.