The paper of Hxaro
The paper of Hxaro
A paper on the Dobe Ju/'hoansi
If asked to compare their lives to people leaving in the rural areas of Africa, most Americans would quickly comment on how their lives were far superior. Whether it be technology, security of food, or medical facilities, they would see it as a hands down situation within which America surpasses its rural contemporaries in almost every area. The problem with these statements, though, lies in the general ignorance of most Westerners about what the lifestyle of other cultures are truly like. In the case of the Dobe Ju/'hoansi tribe of Africa, while they are not nearly as technologically advanced as their Western neighbors, they manage to live enjoyable and fulfilling lives without the advent of many modern devices. It is the American ethnocentric measuring stick of happiness that leads people to see themselves as having a better life. Upon taking a cross-cultural view, it can be seen that perhaps technology and modern society aren't nearly as grand as Westerners believe it to be. By examining the Dobe society, an individual can quickly do away with several of their misconceptions.
The first thing to note of the Dobe tribe would be the social society that they have built around themselves. In contrast to the disassociation most people have with their neighbors in Western societies, the Dobe have put in place a system by which the vast majority of their population are related. By naming children after their grandparents, the Dobe society basically consists of about 11 common names for males and 12 for females. This works to create a relationship by name between most of the individuals in a society. Unlike in most modern societies where sharing a name is seen as a coincidence, in the Dobe mind set sharing a name is the same as sharing a family. Anyone who shares your biological brother's name is your brother, anyone who shares your biological father's name is referred to as father, and so forth.
While this naming system works to create relations between individuals, it is also a way of breaking down relations as well. Due to the way in which the names are viewed, approximately 50% of a given population are barred from marriage to each other due to the fact that they are “related” as brother or sister by name. Due to the limited naming and frequent occurrences of common names within the society, certain barriers are constructed in order to have something of a hierarchal balance in place. Every other generation from an individuals is seen as a joking (casual) relationship, and the generation before and after the individuals own are seen as avoidance (respectful) generations where a certain air of formality must always be present. This works well to reinforce authoritative familial ties. It reinforces the teacher-student relationship one has with their parents while growing up and their own children during their upbringing.
Going along with this concept of creating strong ties between individuals in the Dobe society is the sharing system that is in place with the people. Given the few personal possessions that the individuals within the society have, they maintain a system wherein all food is divided up amongst those within the society (ala redistribution). By doing this, all the members of the group are secured a fair share of the food by which to sustain themselves on. In their traditional society no form of market economy was necessary due to the fact that all possessions were shared.
While on the topic of food distribution, it is important to note that the Dobe are historically a foraging society and it is only recently that agriculture or pastoralism have been introduced into the society. Many people see this gradual change from the old way of doing things to the new “modern” ways as an advancement in society. What most people tend to over look, though, is the fact that through their foraging ways, the typical member of the Dobe society could attain approximately 2,300 calories a day by doing as little as 20 hours of work.
Aside from the sharing of food, the Dobe participate in a ritual referred to as hxaro, a form of delayed non-equivalent gift exchange. By maintaining relationships with each other based upon the continuous exchange of gifts that are not necessarily equal, those who commit hxaro strengthen ties and relations to others in their own and neighboring tribes. The importance of hxaro does not lie within the gift, but within the act. A Dobe clan member named !Xoma best summarized the trade by stating “We don't trade with things, we trade with people.” (119).
Religion offers another point of divergence between Westerners and the Dobe. Similar to many religions, the Dobe have two main deities; that of the high god and that of the lesser god. Through these two entities, a universal balance is maintained. The interesting thing about these two forces, however, is that neither is specifically mentioned as the “good” guy or “bad” guy. Often times, the Dobe will curse to both Gods when something goes either well or bad.
One of the most interesting aspect of the spiritual side of Dobe life lies with the //gangwasi. These recently deceased humans are seen as negative forces that hover around the living and often attempt to place peril in the Dobe people's lives. Many have pondered upon why exactly the recently dead would wish to take the lives of those they were close to in life and several theories have arisen. One of the easiest to understand theories is that the //gangwasi are lonely on their trip to the afterlife and wish for those they were close to in life to accompany them. In order to battle this threat, the Dobe have several healers within their tribes.
The healers of the Dobe are similar to what many would identify as traditional oracles. By entering into a trance through various means they are able to see the dead and attempt to take the evil (sickness) out of individuals. The physical representation of their powers are seen through their sweat which they refer to as n/um. By transferring the healers n/um to the sick, pulling out invisible arrowheads and snakes that they can see in their trance, and attempting to convince the //gangwasi to leave the sick alone they manage to heal individuals maladies. The healer is the highest form of social status that anyone could hope for in the Dobe tribe.
With a somewhat firm background knowledge of the Dobe tribe, I will now endeavor to point out several advantages and disadvantages with the Dobe tribe in comparison to modern western society.
The first thing that should be noted is the obvious difference in food gathering methods. Unlike the Dobe society, Americans do not have a redistribution of wealth within communities so that no one goes hungry. It is necessary for most Americans to work approximately 40 hours a week at a job while the Dobe need only work 20 hours for their food gathering needs. By examining this at surface level, it becomes evident that the Dobe would most certainly be seen as having the more advantageous system. The problem in this is that the economies of both the Dobe and America's are completely different. While the Dobe need only produce enough food for the week, Americans have a “high cost of living.” Due to certain luxurious such as electricity, running water, gas, etc. Americans must obviously work more. It is due to their society that Americans must work a 40 hour work day compared to the 20 hours of work of the Dobe. If an individual only needed to work to purchase food and was willing to give up the luxurious of American excess, they too could more than likely live off of 20 hours work. It is the lack of these luxurious that give the Dobe the advantage in the conservation of work hours related to production of food and services.
One of the things that modern Americans could take away from the Dobe and benefit from would be their extended kinship system. In modern America, people's ties to others rarely extend past their first cousins or close friends. Aside from these few people, most Americans are not willing to take care of many others. Similarly, the capitalist system of government is highly individualistic, with people looking out for their personal interests over that of those around them. Due to these conditions, Americans quickly and effectively cut themselves off from the communities which they inhabit and do not work at furthering social capital.
In contrast, the Dobe work at sharing wealth and maintaining strong relationships with all around them. By staying away from such things as money or personal goods, they are able to maintain a peaceful social atmosphere during most (not quite all) of the time. The main problem with putting a system like the Dobe's into effect in America is based upon general population of Dobe tribes and America. While Dobe tribes may consist of a few hundred people at most, America has millions of people. In an ideal society, the close bonds of the Dobe would work to lower crime and increase the safety of individuals (nurture wise), however, it is an overly complicated manner when one realizes the relative difficultly to remember millions of peoples names.
Another key point to touch upon would be both medicine and religion. While it is impossible for one to give one religion to all of America, I will make a few generalizations for the sake of this argument. In regards to religion, the Dobe and Christianity seem to follow a similar basis. Both play to the facts of higher powers, and in times of need, it is faith that gives people the strength to persevere. Religion should not be seen as some all encompassing explainer of the unknown, but rather, as a tool for making sense of the everyday occurrences that occur to most people. The psychosomatic benefits of both work to make people believe that certain diseases are cured and allow people to act better than they might physically be by sheer force of will. Through their practice both religions seem to work at reaching equally beneficial effects.
Connected to the debate on religion, though, is the use of medicine. While it can be seen that modern western medical practices are far more advanced then those of the Dobe, the fact of the matter is that the Dobe did not need the major medical breakthrough's that most Westerners need. A good way to look at this argument is to examine expansionism in Western history. While people would continually find cures for diseases that had plagued their society, due to interaction with other cultures or foreign substances, new diseases would arise and the medical field would have to theoretically advance. Conversely, the Dobe never had this problem. By remaining in one location for a long period of time, new diseases could not be introduced into the communities. It is only now with the tampering of other societies and inter mingling that the Dobe are being exposed to diseases that they never even had to worry about before. In this context, it would be seen that the “limited” Dobe medical practices of the faith healers worked incredibly well compared to the larger picture of western society which is plagued by far more evolved diseases.
It is impossible to compare both the Dobe and Western society in terms of better and worse. The truth of the matter is that both have flourished within the area where they were cultivated. While the close knit bonds with an entire community is possible with the Dobe, to remember all the members of a town of 10,000 people would be rather arduous. Similarly, while the medical practices of the West may be more technical and advance than the traditional Dobe, it would have served little purpose due to the general good health of the Dobe population had it been available there. So, while all the aspects of each individual society have certain highs and lows, it would be impossible to ask a person in either situation to switch with another. People are the products of their society for better or for worse, and as the society adapts, so will the people. Keeping this in mind, many Westerners may desire to live in a kinship system like the Dobe's, however, they would have incredible difficulty implementing it. People must accept their situation, whether they be Dobe or American. As far as society goes, there is no comparative better or worse, there simply is what you have.