Critical Thoughts on “Loyalty and Treachery in the Kalahari” by Renée Sylvain

Sylvain, Renée. (2005). “Chapter 1: Loyalty and Treachery in the Kalahari.” In Anne Meneley and Donna J. Young (Eds.), Auto- Ethnographies: The Anthropology of Academic Practices (25-38). Toronto, Ontario: Broadview Press.

In Sylvain’s chapter, the author explores the multiple subjectivities of identity and ethics (and by extension morals) and how these were strategically negotiated and dealt with within her fieldwork as an anthropologist studying the Ju/’hoansi (a San Tribe) of Omaheke Region of Eastern Zambia. In doing so, the author focuses on her position and agency within a cultural context in which her “whiteness” was socially constructed as a source of privilege and power, compared to that of her informants, who held a diminished social status based on their “blackness”. This social inequality existed before she entered the field, where the Ju/’hoansi were “one of the most stigmatized and marginalized ethnic groups in southern Africa” (Meneley & Young 2005, 25). Sylvain goes to some lengths to overcome these inequalities in her attempt to conduct her research agenda, whilst not exasperating, nor undermining the state of social inequality. The question posed at the end of this summary is: was Sylvain reflective and careful enough in her treatment of these inequalities? And, what may have been done differently?

The situation which existed when Sylvain entered the field was one in which the Ju/’hoansi were laborers on farms of rich Afrikaners. Poorly treated and summarily beaten for their insubordination, the laborers were placed on the diminutive side of the scale of power relations; they lived in constant struggle to “make ends meet” (Meneley & Young 2005, 25), in fear of their employers and the repercussions of anything less than complete obedience. The Afrikaner farmers controlled much of the Ju/’hoansi’s lives and intended to maintain the status quo of this unequal social relationship of exploitation of labor at a minimal cost, even if having to shoot anyone who interfered. In this situation, material wealth and social services were not evenly distributed and led to severe inequalities of living standards and power relations. In sum, the white farmers were very much cast as overseers and the San laborers as slaves.

To gain social entrée into the culture of the Ju/’hoansi, Sylvain had to tactfully deceive the white farmers she persuaded to allow her to work with their laborers. Sylvain employed subterfuge tactics that effectively obscured her real intentions in mistranslation. In this way, Sylvain was able to protect herself and her informants from any violent repercussions. Here, Sylvain’s end game is evident in her purchasing an opportunity for building rapport with her informants at the expense of their vulnerability. This rapport needed to be intentionally established due to the volatility of the situation and because within the groups of laborers existed “witvoet (white foot)” (Meneley & Young 2005, 28), who would reveal to the farmers the true nature of her work.

Sylvain also engages in manipulating her white privilege to help the Ju/’hoansi procure firewood, receive medical treatment and escape ensuing physical confrontation. The first instance is the most problematic, because it involves stealing firewood from the same white farmers who have warned Sylvain that any interference with their workers would result in them shooting her. Though having acknowledged this in the beginning of the chapter, when speaking of the firewood excursions the author simply states that if caught the farmers’ punishment of her informants would be lessened due to her presence. This may not be a clear contradiction of her earlier statement, but it begs the question that if apprehended would she not have been simply dealt with in this fashion? It also makes one wonder if at a later time (when she had departed, having completed her fieldwork), that the parties involved in these endeavors would not simply be notified of their guilt and summarily punished in her absence.

Sylvain describes two other incidences that demonstrate how her white privilege is used to gain access to medical care for her informants and to protect them from violent confrontation with other tribe members, both of which are far less contentious than stealing firewood because they take place in a moment where bodily harm was inevitable had she not interfered and may have  resulted in grievous injury or even death. The firewood may have been a necessary item for the continued subsistence of her informants, but it was not out of reach, it was simply easier to do with a truck. The established tradition of stealing firewood from farmers may not have been an ideal one, but it had worked before she had arrived, unlike the lack of medical services (this is presumed, for the author never speaks explicitly to this situation). It also lacks the same sense of gravity.

Power and privilege are common themes brought to the fore in this chapter. Sylvain explores how whether one agrees with their constructed identity or not, power relations can be enacted and conferred upon them by others. Therefore, it was not just that Sylvain had to deal with (de)constructing her white privilege, but she also had to contend with others’ negotiation of it. Though she may have tried to use her identity in dynamic and fluid ways, many around her were squeezing into an uncomfortably rigid mold, with little room for leeway. These presumptions were based on historical precedence and contemporary social constructions, which made them hard to overcome. The author (and her husband) do a exemplary job in not being enticed by the likes of Ju/’hoansi servitude, while simultaneously allowing for some moral flexibility in allowing one informant to wash their car (a practice described as futile) to earn some extra money. But, they also reinforce the same unfavorable power relations they are trying to overcome when Sylvain’s husband pretends to be an Afrikaner to scare away a group of threatening Damaras.

As Sylvain clearly states, fieldwork is understood to be a rite of passage in anthropology and lessons learned from the field in these initial endeavors can be quite shocking, such as those impressions made upon a fieldworker being thrust into an atmosphere of social inequality in which a delicate balance must necessarily be maintained between anthropologist, their participants and those who surround the field. Sylvain does an admirable job in trying to negotiate the social context in which she undertakes this endeavor, in the face of these moral and ethical obstacles, while simultaneously maintaining her agenda of “social and economic justice” (Meneley & Young 2005, 25). In addition, she also remains constantly aware of her position within this context and employs a fluid and reflexive perspective while engaging with its many particularities and social strata. This is important because “if we do not own up to our authoritative voice, someone else will gladly invoke it for us” (Meneley & Young 2005, 63) and in a situation such as that in Eastern Zambia, this can result in the reification of unequal power relations, severely compromising fieldwork.

Ultimately, I find it difficult to completely believe that Sylvain’s actions were not somewhat opportunistic and that much of her actions were not guided by the need to gain social entrée into the groups of Ju/’hoansi laborers. She puts both herself and the Ju/’hoansi in danger on multiple occasions, many of which could have resulted in severe punishment, injury or death. It should be acknowledged that these risks may have equally existed had she not been present. Sylvain does not however confront the unequal distribution of power openly and instead prefers to manipulate her position within the socially constructed hierarchy to achieve her goals. This may be considered as compliance with these norms to achieve her goal as an anthropologist, or as a way of not interfering and/or disturbing the culture in which she was a guest. And, perhaps that is my biggest contention; that her white privilege was not enacted to achieve substantial and lasting change within the uneven social distribution of power, but was used to sidestep authority which would have barred her research, entice and maintain participation of the Ju/’hoansi and to attain minimal and temporary benefits to her informants. Having never partaken in such a venture myself, I can only admire Sylvain’s account and appreciate what I have learned through reading it. It may be considered flawed, or exceptional, or even by some critics as exceptionally flawed, but it is an account of morality and ethics in the field which is of great importance in conveying reflexivity “on the ground”. I can only hope that when I am in the field, that if I encounter such a situation, that I am as adept at dealing with the nuances of power and privilege such as Sylvain does with the Ju/’hoansi.


Cummings, Maggie. (2005). “Chapter 3: Who Wears the Trousers in Vanuatu?” In Anne Meneley and Donna J. Young (Eds.), Auto-Ethnographies: The Anthropology of Academic Practices (51-66). Toronto, Ontario: Broadview Press.


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