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Combining biography, poetry, and anthropology, Wilmsen vividly portrays the intense realities of life in the Kalahari and carries the reader across space and time as events in the present trigger emotions and memories. Images of apartheid, for example, evoke memories of Wilmsen's childhood in the segregated South. Poems, journal entries, and moving accounts of deepening personal relationships all intertwine as Wilmsen conveys the experiences he shares with his "subjects" in spite of vast differences in their backgrounds—extreme thirst under the desert sun, grief over the death of a child, and the constant irritation of ubiquitous flies.
"Our understanding of other peoples," he writes, "lies not in themselves or in anything that they do but in our experience of them. Experience that is lived partly in their world and partly in a shell of our world that we wear when we meet them."
Sophisticated, lyrical, and passionately written, Journeys with Flies will inspire all those who travel to places far from home.
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Journeys with Flies
By Edwin N. Wilmsen
University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2003
University of Chicago
All right reserved.
The track is never the same no matter how often I drive it. The sun shines
differently every day and the wind moves sand from east to west or west to
east or from some other compass point that is predictable on a seasonal
basis for the subcontinent as a whole but unknowable even from minute to
minute down in the dunes and thornscrub. Aardvarks, pangolins, porcupines,
mice, even ants and termites constantly change the contours of the tire
tracks that constitute the road; the first two destroying the
constructions of the last-all moving dirt, digging for food. In the dry
heat centered around September-October some of that dirt, flour
fine-called dust in English but more expressively in Zhu the separated
part, the same word applied to divorce-turns to mud on the eyelids, each
blink serving not to clean eyeballs but to renew the thin film which forms
a fifth superfluous refracting surface (the other four being the powdered
insides and outsides of windshield and eyeglasses) through which one
learns to navigate much as a spearfisherman does not throw at an image
under water, knowing not to look at a Namaqua dove flyingparallel to the
window and to glance quickly at a clutch of yearling ostrich easily
staying ahead at 50 kph or a warthog tusker tiring after only a couple
minutes at 40. A landscape of glances, monotonous, with compelling
I can cover the 320 kilometers between CaeCae and Maun in under seven
hours when conditions are right; usually it takes longer. Once as long as
four days-three of them stuck in mud, the rainy season state of the
separated part accumulated in crotches of dunes ...
January 76: returning alone to CaeCae; truck loaded with everything needed
for the next five months-100 gallons of gas, cases of wine, some
food-mainly coffee plus beans and flour for bread to break the monotony of
bush meals and sour milk-100 kilos of tobacco to be distributed along with
laundry and bath soap, 200 tins of bully-beef and 75 bags of mealie meal
for the Strasburg Supplementary Stuffing (to be fed in enormous breakfasts
at my camp each morning for two weeks to a dozen volunteers, controls to
insure that the results of glucose tolerance tests would not be skewed by
undernourishment), the name in honor of generations of geese stuffed for
their livers two tins of which are in my stock to be saved for lonesome
Sundays. I had gotten through some treacherous places; more than once
black muddy water had surged over the hood. The little puddle looked easy;
didn't even gear down to first, two-wheel drive, riding on confidence:
dead still, only a few hours left to the day, no use to try digging out
now-time to celebrate the arrival of Sid's new tape and Nancy's Christmas
package which I had received in Maun her fruit cake along with a bottle of
sherry dug out of the supplies. During the night, thunderstorms, half a
foot of water added to the mud, in the morning only the tops of tires seen
above the slush ...
The way to extricate a vehicle from such a mess is to find a place near a
wheel next to which a jack set on a plank carried against such a
contingency can be forced under the axle, ratchet the submerged jack as
high as it will go-the plank will be pressed into the mud farther than the
truck is raised-stuff branches into the space created under the wheel,
release the jack, watch everything sink into the mud (maybe two or three
centimeters will have been gained), dig out the plank and fill its hole
with sticks; repeat until you become convinced that more progress can be
made at another wheel and begin on it; do not think of the fact that this
one will have to be returned to. In practice, it doesn't matter which
wheel is attempted first; each must be attended-again and again and again
and again-working underwater, stripped to underwear. The idea is to build
a column of logs beneath each wheel so that the truck sits above mud level
and then to pave a path with branches through the remaining muck ...
Hours of work showed me that alone it would take a week to get out so I
walked the 28 km back to Kowrie, arriving with another storm and dusk. The
three men who returned worked with me for two days jacking, digging,
chopping until the unloaded truck, engine roaring at full power, shot out
onto firm ground. Most of the case of sherry brought to hoard over five
months was gone-gave the men the last two bottles for their road home, and
there was a noticeable dent in the bully beef ...
But the duration of the journey bears no relation to elapsed time, and
like the wind is not predictable on the spot. Portents for today's drive
were not promising: wine finished in the first four months fois gras down
with the final bottles, five months is a long time on boiled meat mealie
meal medila a few lentils thrown in for variety, ready for Maun but
reluctant to leave. Had three-and-a-half hours sleep last night, then drew
blood from five to ten this morning-easy enough in itself, but a 6 km walk
around the circuit of camps. My legs ache from squatting with right thigh
horizontal to make a rest for the arms of subjects presenting their veins
to be tapped. Then off immediately for Maun hoping to arrive before 6 p.m.
in order to centrifuge the samples and take off the serum, the yellowish
separated fraction containing cholesterol which Zhu recognize as the
blood's fat. No time for coffee.
Everyone in good humor this morning, joking; saying I was stealing their
chance to see who had the most fat this time. Too many samples today, hand
cranking would take too long. As I was preparing to stick Tina, someone
began to tell of the time in 1975 when she had said I couldn't get blood
from her because her veins are so small and I had said yes, you are thin
but you have a big vagina, realizing the slip as I spoke it-Zhu words for
vein and vagina being similar-and turning uncertain whether or not to
panic to her husband who looked at me deadpan and said Twi you know you
shouldn't say things like that. I remember being very glad it is well
known that I don't mess with women here; the decision not to enter into
this aspect of community life made for policy reasons long before I
arrived so as not to become enmeshed in factious jealousies. Not that the
decision has been easy to carry out, more difficult as I became more
thoroughly accepted here ...
the other day old Tsaa, a solid citizen we
would call him, told me he wanted to
speak a secret-if I liked his young niece,
he would lend me to her. Lend me to her!
Luckily, I was well braced when reminded of that slip; Tina could have
gotten the needle right through her elbow with my burst of memoried
* * *
A card with landscapes
Returned to camp towards noon, a morning of walking begun before sunrise:
inspecting snarelines of one of the few men who still hunts here, counting
animal spoor along a transect established in 1973. Dealing with death, and
the arrangement of it, as an unremarkable routine in everyday life. Snares
set for steenbok and duiker, for ostrich, and for birds of the pheasant
family. Bucks eluded the snares; ostrich had not been attracted. Only one
bird caught, a korhaan. The bird, too tall for the spring-stick, was not
lifted off the ground; struggling, it had torn its skin loose at the
gullet. The skin rolled up the length of the long, thin neck. Before
dying, the bird had wrapped itself around a fallen dead branch.
The four women whom I employ to monitor menstrual cycles were waiting to
make their daily reports. Also waiting, a small bundle of mail, the first
in six weeks. A truck had arrived in the night, bringing diesel fuel for
the well-pump; it had also brought the mail. The bundle put aside in
deference to matters of higher priority: reports of the monitors;
transferring the morning's data to permanent record books so that the
meanings of shorthand jottings made while walking, looking, measuring
would not be lost; a man arrived, arm at his side, index finger extended
as if pointing accusingly at the earth-pouring blood transformed the
finger into a foot-long tapered red candle dripping in the heat, a section
of bone exposed in the fleshy pad-I had to put it back together; a request
for advance payment for next month's spoor count on a distant
transect-the money needed to drink beer and whisky delivered in the same
service truck-it would have been hypocritical to refuse.
A postcard and a letter bearing the same return address were in the bundle
of mail. Reading the letter, I may have murmured: Which Jane? Perhaps it
was only an expression on my face. Ssao, who had come into the hut to get
sugar for the tea he was brewing, asked: what's wrong. I told him.
I have been saving this card for a month,
hoping for a post 4 June address
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Eating pastries every day; running to take them off. A huge indoor
picnic today; raining. I love being back in Ann Arbor, but hide out to
A color reproduction of Emil Nolde's Frisian Landscape. Jane knew how
attracted I am to the marshes of upper Michigan, knew too that this
attraction grows from an ancestral attachment to the somber Baltic
coastline, stories from childhood; knew that I am irrevocably drawn to
those places where planes of boreal ocean, land, and sky intersect-the
blues, greens, greys of weathers there-that for me, gorgeous desert
sunsets are no substitute for pale northern twilight.
Dated 30 June. Received 31 July.
Jane had been dead eleven days.
Killed by a speeding drunk careening out of control from Ypsilanti: Bomber
City, where the Second had been manufactured for Boll on the Rhein. When I
read that she had been buried next to Leslie White, I could no longer
avoid knowing which Jane.
Ssao told Damo and John. They brought their tea, coffee for me. Asked what
sort of person Jane had been, how she had looked, I told them about her
work on Cyprus, that it was similar to mine here, that we often spoke of
our respective places, that I had told her about them. Did she have
children: no. A husband: yes, it was his letter that told me of Jane's
death. Had we been lovers: no ...
two years ago, crossed legs on the floor of my apartment one midnight,
knees touching over some morsel Jane had brought, taking a break from
work; talking of sexual fidelity, how it is merely part of the larger
fidelity to oneself, that in this as in other important things ad hoc
decisions betray an unfinished integrity ...
let's go to the Mbanderu camp to drink
Only four beers remained, one for each of us-but a whole bottle of whisky,
killed buying capfuls for each other. Drinking in a very large hut still
under construction: all browns-ochers of skinned roof-poles and thatch;
damp umber of drying cowshit on the walls; ash tan of sand where the floor
had not been laid; chocolate-black Mbanderu; bronze Zhu; even the white
man burnt siena. A stash of grass had been included in the cargo.
Why did the sun shine through the unfinished thatch onto the only blue cap
in the place?
We slept the afternoon into evening-I in the open bed of the Toyota into
which I crawled in a futile attempt to escape the flies and the vision of
Jane's lifeless body hurtling through the air. Reliving the scene I did
not see: the re-creation made imperative by distance and the delay in
knowing. Without some kind of experience of it, the scene could not be
The letter bearing reality said: it would be
better if we were together.
Two days before I had made cheese-not unlike the soft white cheeses of
the Mediterranean; sliced that night with garlic in olive oil, bread baked
in an iron cooking pot, red wine
in memory of Jane Sallade.
Excerpted from Journeys with Flies
by Edwin N. Wilmsen
Copyright © 2003
by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of ContentsGeographies (on Kgali Hill)
A photograph of Heinrich Böll
Songs my mother taught me
Let us go then
Return to beginnings
I can not put aside childish ways
A card with landscapes
And these shall be the signs
A conversation with Kahai
The gospel according to Mark
Reading the ground
A single spring
News of the human race
Buy me this