Journeys with Flies


"Journeys with Flies attacks, with extraordinary concentration, some of the central peculiarities and dilemmas of anthropology as a contemporary vocation, as practiced in one of the strangest and most grueling settings on the face of the earth. Wilmsen's work has been controversial, and this unusual meditation, put together with such boldness, will deepen the appreciation of what he has done and of what he is. I found Journeys with Flies utterly absorbing."—Norman Rush, author of Mating

"Wilmsen's account is so up close and engaged that the traditional vantages of the discipline collapse. We are there with him, moving over actual ground, finding our way into the real, non-exotic world of the Zhu. Wilmsen immerses us in the particular and when we emerge our sense of place-ours, his, and theirs—is altered. An utterly distinct work."—Sven Birkerts

An excerpt from
Journeys with Flies
by Edwin N. Wilmsen

Separate parts

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 flying parallel 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 details.

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 laughter.

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.

    Dear Ed,

    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 work.

    More later,

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 Böll 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 real.

    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.

Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 31-34 and 64-66 of Journeys with Flies by Edwin N. Wilmsen, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©1999 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Edwin N. Wilmsen
Journeys with Flies
Cloth $22.00 ISBN: 0-226-90018-5
©1999, 174 pages

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