Monday, February 11, 2013

Cultural Encounters at the Perilous Frontiers of Linguistics

“I flunked my Spanish examination,” I confessed to George Foster, one of the senior professors in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. Not just any test, this examination was a requirement for the Ph.D. “That’s okay,” Foster replied,“Robert Lowie flunked me the first time I took it too,” referring to one of the founders of the department and a well-known figure in the history of anthropology. Thus reassured, I redoubled my efforts and the next time, confronted with the translation of an essay in Spanish on Tzotzil Maya linguistics, passed, whether with flying colors or not I shall never know.

Languages and linguistics are disciplines of the humanities. To earn a degree in anthropology, I had to take classes in linguistics, the study of languages in their historical and comparative dimensions. I lack facility in foreign languages. In high school I studied Latin and in college Spanish and a little German. I well remember professor Hibben saying one day to the class, “You struggle with French and German. Wait until you have to learn a Bantu language or Chinese.” As if he foretold my future, I later spent seven years in Bantu-speaking communities in East Africa and worked in minority nationalities areas of Yunnan, Southwest China.

Chinese and the great majority of Bantu languages are tonal, which means that inflection of pronunciation gives words different meanings. Tonal languages are notoriously difficult to learn for those whose native languages are not tonal. My first job out of graduate school was Lecturer (Assistant Professor in the British tradition) in the Department of History at the University of Nairobi, in Kenya, East Africa. In addition to teaching classes on African archaeology, my job was to help set up an archaeology program. Fieldwork is a critical element of an archaeology curriculum, and what better place to conduct excavations than the homeland of humankind, eastern Africa. I took students on safari (a word whose root is Arabic, but well-known from Swahili, from which it passed into English) to the Great Rift Valley, across the Serengeti Plain, around Mt. Kilimanjaro and into Ngorongoro Crater.

 At Olduvai Gorge, Mary Leakey showed us the early hominid sites that she and her husband Lewis discovered, excavated and made famous. East Africa is a great crossroads of incredible linguistic diversity. Each of the four great language families of Africa is represented in East Africa, and three occur in Kenya. Bantu languages are spoken in the central highlands of Kenya, in the southeast and a sprinkling in the west. Three of the major Bantu languages are Kikuyu, Kamba and Swahili. Cushitic languages are spoken in the northeast, including Somali, Rendille and Oromo. Nilotic languages occur in the west, including Luo, Kalenjin, Turkana and Maasai. President Obama’s relatives are Luo, from the Lake Victoria area. Over 60 languages are traditionally spoken in Kenya. Khoisan speakers in northeastern Tanzania, particularly the Sandawe and Hadza, may be survivals from when Khoisan-speaking peoples were more widely distributed along the highland savanna belt from eastern to southern Africa, during the Late Stone Age.

One summer, David Phillipson, then deputy director of the British Institute in Eastern Africa, invited a team from the University of Nairobi to form a joint expedition in search of the origins of the pastoral Neolithic in the arid areas of northern Kenya. From Nairobi we headed north to Isiolo, Archer’s Post, and Marsabit, thence northwest to The Chalbi Desert and our destination, the rock outcrops of Ele Bor. Site A was under a large rock overhang with dense vegetation around the front. We mapped the rock shelter, set out excavation trenches and began our search for evidence of the transition from Late Stone Age hunter and gatherers to the beginnings of animal pastoralism. On our day off  a few weeks into the dig, we went to the site to look around. Suddenly out of the vegetation around the front of the area came a half dozen men armed with rifles. We were defenseless. These were raiders from Ethiopia, probably Oromo speakers, in Kenya looking for 

camels and weapons. Luckily, we possessed neither. They eyed our excavations, and no one spoke. They knew no Swahili, and we spoke no Cushitic language. After a few minutes, they turned and left through the bush without a word. After waiting a respectable time, we ascended the rocks and looked after them. Several dozen armed bandits, with camels, were heading back to Ethiopia, only a few miles distant. They could have shot us and no one would have been the wiser for weeks. We were scores of miles from any assistance.

On our next trip for water, we alerted the authorities, and two truckloads of the Kenya military arrived, by that time to no avail. The Kenya Army and Kenya Police considered the Northern Frontier District an “operational area,” which to me meant shoot-to-kill. Later we heard that raiders killed a number of persons at Moyale to the northeast, and I always wondered if the perpetrators were the same bandits that visited us. Apparently some in Arizona today think you are only safe if you are armed. Had we possessed weapons at Ele Bor, likely we would be dead.

About a year later, Richard Leakey hired me to be Coast Archaeologist for the Kenya National Museums, and I was posted to the north Kenya coast at Lamu, now a World Heritage Site. You always remember where you were when dramatic events unfold. My team was excavating at Kiunga, just below the Somalia frontier on the Indian Ocean, when the Voice of Kenya announced that Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Kenya, was dead. There was a special unit within the Kenya Police whose job it was to make sure the vice president, Daniel arap Moi, did not succeed the late president. Moi happened to be in Mombasa at the time, and the provincial commissioner at the coast, who was the same ethnic group as many of the conspirators, nevertheless protected the vice president and he became president. But things were not over.

After seven years in Kenya, including five years with the National Museums of Kenya, it was time for me to return home. Just before I was to leave, elements of the Kenya Air Force attempted a coup. The main action was in Nairobi, and the coast remained calm. I had to go to Nairobi to make final preparations to depart. I stayed at the national museum, which is on a hill near downtown. One evening for dinner I walked the short distance to the Norfolk Hotel, which a few years later was the site of a major terrorist bombing. After dinner, while it was still light, I started to walk back to the museum. I had to pass the Voice of Kenya, the government radio station, which had been a prime target of the rebels and was now secured by the military. “Simama!” Someone shouted at me. A young, nervous private in the Kenya Army guarding the radio station pointed his rifle at me and commanded me to stop. No other soldiers were around. He wanted to know what I was doing, but he spoke no English and my Swahili was best at discussing ruins, tombs and potsherds. I did not possess, at least in the heat of the moment, the language skills in Swahili to explain why I was not a threat to him or the government of Kenya. He was clearly edgy, and we reached an impasse. Finally I took a deep breath, turned my back and walked away. I could hear him shoulder his gun, but I did not look back. He decided not to shoot, and I kept going.

My disarmingly simple take away from these encounters: don’t discuss matters of life and death in a language in which you are less than fluent. Sometimes, silence is truly golden.

Thomas H. Wilson is Chair of the Arizona Humanities Council

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