Palabras Errantes Latin American Literature in Translation

Palabras Errantes
Diary of an anthropologist

Diary of an anthropologist


Written by Carolina Massola. Translated by Lucy Greaves.


Dr. Joaquín Fernández de la Rivera

Madrid, 21st April 1998

As colleagues of Professor Alfonso Cibert and active members of the anthropological community, we believe the publication of this material to be of great scientific value. We recognise his inexhaustible work, to which he dedicated his whole life.

What has been for many of you just another module you were obliged to take was for Cibert a way of life, in which scientific observation formed the backbone of his travels and research as an ethnologist.

Many of his research projects that he later presented in his course, “Symbolism and Social Structure”, did not fail to surprise us. Nonetheless, this unfinished work of which the field of study was highly controversial, gives us a first-hand image of his experience with the Bushmen. This notebook was found exactly as you will read it, among other papers on the desk in his study. As you will know, Professor Cibert’s unexpected death has left an irreparable silence both within our community and internationally. For this reason, after much discussion, we decided to edit the notebook as a means of paying our respects, and to bring his research to a close. It will be for us to comment on and interpret these words in future work.

Our task was to publish this material, without allowing ourselves the liberty of correcting or retouching anything. You will find that it makes little use of academic formalisms, nor of systematisations or categorisations. Our primary and ultimate objective in publishing this diary is to generate comments and questions. We hope that the reader will enjoy savouring each anecdote narrated in its pure and natural state, as the events take place, in a kind of simultaneous dissecting and reconstruction of the time and space represented by another culture. Perhaps this diary will have the good fortune to reach out not only to researchers in the field of anthropology.

We would like to name this publication according to what it means and represents for us, without using proper nouns: Diary of an Anthropologist. This diary is the intellectual footprint of a scientist whose research, for some reason, has not been widely read. Personally, I believe that the reason is to be found right here, before our eyes. Herein lies the basis of this publication, which coincides, almost by chance, with the basis of his work. Let us give voice to those who have been silenced.


Speech given in the Aula Magna of the Faulty of Philosophy and Literature at Madrid’s Autonomous University to and staff and undergraduate students of Anthropology, in order to present the text that follows and in homage to its author, the Professor of Anthropology Alfonso Cibert (1942-1997).




Editor’s Note

 We must emphasise to the reader the arduous task of reproducing a text from an original manuscript. This tripled the time needed to work on and correct the information presented. Many crossings-out and corrections as well as reference marks and annotations on separate sheets increased the confusion. A certain amount of illegibility has not been resolved and this has been marked with ellipsis. It is worth noting the state in which the diary was found, with some pages torn out from the middle and then an inconclusive ending where someone, perhaps Cibert himself, has torn out the last pages. We can only speculate. Almost at the end of the diary, hidden between blank pages, we found a legend that for some reason or oversight was left intact, and we reproduce this too by way of an ending.

Despite these practical difficulties, we have attempted to faithfully maintain and recreate the original diary that Alfonso Cibert wrote during his stay with the Bushmen between 10.7.85 and 18.9.85.


Botswana. Kalahari Desert. Wednesday 10th July 1985.

My research in all areas of anthropological science, together with my passion for travel, has taken me to explore isolated areas. This diary may perhaps bear witness to some aspects which I do not present in my papers.

Through participatory observation, a method still much debated today by my contemporary colleagues, I have had the fortune to research several African tribes. All have been unforgettable experiences that each line of my body retains, although I must admit that my encounter with the |xam Bushmen, their spirit and gaze, is running right through me. I have only just arrived, yet I am like a child explorer. The first time I heard and read about the |xam bushmen was when I had access to the Bleek Collection, very near the start of my career. I became obsessed with and delighted by that people. Everything I read led me to seek out an encounter, and it took me many years to plan and achieve it. The following phrase comes to mind… ‘An act of curiosity precedes every scientific fact’.

Today, despite my happiness, I unfortunately find myself facing a people that, like many others that have been studied, has been expelled from its lands. Sadly, this is nothing new, quite the contrary. Some colleagues, such as D.L.,[1] think that we go to research what is left of a culture, and I feel that I am exploring the result of a culture that has been marginalised, but which continues to exist as a culture and as a people, despite external influences. The motivation for this is surely financial, guaranteed by a culture and system that judges them as savages and primitives. Or worse still, as inferiors. Inferiors in the eyes of a civilisation that possesses other knowledge and above all other values, which place knowledge on a single track, travelling in a single direction. And they come to offer the marvellous possibility of progress in that direction, to enter into progress. Even though in the field of anthropology, these notions (primitive-savage) no longer have any meaning, we must recognise that those words founded part of this science.


Thursday 11th July 1985

Last night I wrote ‘strange cultures’ and now that I re-read that, I think about my use of the word ‘strange’, that it comes from Latin, and for that reason, carries traces of ideas referring to what is external, other, outside, foreign… today, however, it would seem to carry something more than these ideas, something dangerous. I also used the word savage, thinking that it comes from the French ‘sauvage’ and is derived from the Latin ‘silvaticus’ and from there, ‘silva’, forest. Does that make the opposition between ‘savage’ and ‘civilised’ seem less horrific? But then, who knows what the ‘civilised’ did with the word ‘savage’… I do not have my dictionaries to research these words now.

Since I arrived yesterday I have observed in silence, participation has eluded me, although I’m learning and studying words from their vocabulary without much success. I’m creating a small dictionary for my own use. Meanwhile, I have settled into my hut which is made almost entirely from straw and where it’s cool. My only fear is leaving my cigarette alight as I tend to do, or waking up in the company of a scorpion or a black mamba, for which I have great respect. Early tomorrow a Bushman who understands English will come and we will try to communicate. He will become my informant, my eyes and I might almost say my perception. I shall have to be careful. This is one of the most important moments of my observation and research. The time to collect data and anecdotes through the perception of another member of the group. Although as for perception, which is the basis of any investigation, I have ideas that I may express at another time. In the afternoon I went for a walk, not very far because I was alone. The men are very friendly, some are dressed in a Western style and others retain more of their typical attire. The perversion of our culture reaches these places in the form of alcohol…

When they speak to me I don’t understand much, but their language is like an ancient song of clicks and it sounds marvellous. I have decided not to receive any correspondence nor read any kind of text that might distract me from my object of study. If ‘isolated’ is the word then so be it. I feel fully connected with this environment and limit myself to merely observing it. Later I shall work on each observation if my spirit doesn’t abandon me somewhere in this magical and ancient place.


Friday 12th July 1985

Although I thought that in this hemisphere it would be winter, today the heat has been stifling; I did not imagine temperatures close to thirty degrees. My interpreter Tobee came for me early and we went out to see the area. The walk was hard; I couldn’t help but think of thirst and perspiration. My boots were drenched and I suffered a lot with each step… At times I thought that lions stalked us, or was it the effect of the heat? Last night I didn’t get much rest, I found it difficult to sleep, the sounds of the dark forest are disturbing, they fuel my imagination and images abound behind my eyes. Insomnia invited me to write. I was smoking… a lot, I think the immense star-filled night had something to do with it. Interruption.

My stay with the |xam bushmen definitively borders on the extraordinary, and for that I must thank Tobee. Tonight, thanks to him, I was able to witness an ancestral dance for the stars. Before the interruption I was in my tent writing my diary, with a freshly lit cigarette and Tobee came looking for me, ‘tonight we’re dancing for the stars,’ he said. Of course I left everything and followed him. Timidly, but full of expectation. From afar I saw the flames of a large fire; Tobee told me they were called ‘gua-gua’.[2] The women were seated around the fire and began to clap with a soft, slow rhythm which they increased as they added their voices. The men began to walk around the fire lifting their feet (which they call ‘gu-tsau’),[3] to the rhythm of the voices and soon they all joined in chants which progressed until the rhythm of the music and the dance rose to a climax, in a kind of inspiration which made some of them tremble and sometimes shake frenetically. I looked at Tobee, but didn’t want to ruin the image with my questions. Could writing and describing all of my observations give me the capacity to understand the value that a ritual holds for another culture?

My questions are beginning to slot into the construction that exists when one has a view of the other, and not just any view, but a critical one. Is that it, our criterion for defining the other? And how can I reconstruct the object of study through my own language? My thoughts return once more to the issue of perception…

What is the true labour and/or limit of participatory observation? How does one escape criticism while describing? And why this drive in our culture to categorise and classify everything, as if we could thus organise everything around us… Isn’t that just an artifice, an illusion which we create through our own language so as to feel busy and calm in a confusing universe?

Anyway, last night I delighted at cultural differences. While the flames illuminated my face, I saw bodies pass, as if they floated full of energy, voicing chants that are surely as old as their culture and I felt the desire to sit in the spectator’s chair. It was everything I wanted and a great honour that I was allowed to do so protected by the skin of an antelope caught who knows when.

My interpreter explained that what I had observed was a healing dance, in which the music together with the voices and the dance help them connect with the spirits of their ancestors. They help !ka tsau /’an.[4] It was as if the body was stirred by an inner heat, causing great tremors that began to mark and lift the rhythm, all this creating an energy in the atmosphere which is impossible to translate, but which we might call ecstasy and this all leads us to connect with another perception (…)


Saturday 13th July 1985

Last night I went to sleep at I don’t know what time, in raptures from having felt so much pure energy, they were still dancing, more intensely all the time. Some of them, the recently initiated, could not bear such ecstasy and they retired exhausted, in a state that worried me. I drifted off to the sound of their chants and dreamt of strange scenes (…) I can’t remember the exact images, but from the sweat I deduce that it was nothing pleasant. I awoke somewhat distressed.

And if yesterday I was awestruck, after what I saw today, I think I’m getting closer to the heart of what I’m trying to catch sight of. Among members of the |xam bushmen and even some shamans there is one shaman (n/om-kxao)[5] who stands out from the rest. Everything about him is remarkable, judging from what I have observed so far. He is considerably larger than his congeners, from his height to the size of his eyes and eyelids. His movements in last night’s dance possessed a greater intensity compared to the rest, and they all moved closer to run their hands over his body as if he transmitted some kind of energy that the others didn’t, and then they started shaking more vigorously. He tends to have an entourage of apprentices flitting round him day and night like flies. And although since my arrival I have found it difficult to observe him, today I witnessed a scene that my retina will retain forever.

Around midday we went out for a walk, or that was what I quickly deduced because they weren’t carrying hunting weapons (spears and arrows dipped in poisonous sap). There must have been a purpose to that walk but I was unaware of it and I restricted myself to what my eyes saw, trying not to impose meaning.

At first they didn’t want to let me take part, but again thanks to Tobee’s intervention and after taking off my shoes I joined the back of the line. I think that they took pity on my pleading face.

I was once more that boy explorer of my childhood. The sun was burning hot and no one made any sound. They would stop for long enough to observe the movement of the leaves on the trees, which they seemed to know like the backs of their hands, even with all the nature that surrounded us, so I sensed they were following some sign or other. It was clear that we walked towards the direction from which the wind came.

Behind what looked to me like a stand of trees, under our gaze, a mantle of sand lit up as golden as the sun. I assumed without question that it was the desert that surrounded us. Although it wasn’t the image I was used to imagining or seeing in photos or films, this was new, full of dunes, huge dunes of red sands. But here the only person fit to step on the sand was that same particular member of the tribe, whom I later discovered was the most powerful shaman. I saw him move to an area as if he knew exactly where he was going, and in his hands he carried some stones which I inferred must work as talismans. One of the stones was black as coal, it might have been jet, and the other, I’m not sure, it had two colours, earthy and golden. It could have been a tiger’s eye…

While I was thinking about the origin of the stones, I saw him stop and look right and left. He spread out his arms and began to spin faster and faster until his hands released the stones at the same time and they fell, I don’t understand how, in the same place. He walked over to them, and when he reached the talismans he knelt down and started to pick up the sand with his hands and look at it, almost stroking it with his fingers, as if he was trying to decipher a message. Then a kind of collective chant began. When they fell quiet, the n/om-kxao started speaking, the sound of the clicks was slow and pronounced with something that I might call sweetness. He seemed to speak with the red sands, while the dunes enveloped us and the breeze suddenly gained strength. The ritual lasted a few minutes longer. The wind flung the silence between us. When he picked up the stones he stood up slowly. He kissed them once each and hung them from his neck, like a necklace. He moved towards us and we made our way back.

They all walked in silence and I did too, only the wind seemed to speak, it didn’t stop howling. When night came and the stars were at their brightest, everyone, men and women, sat on the ground in a large circle around the fire and I joined them. I glimpsed beauty outlined by the flames, each shoulder, profile, smile that extended to me that night. We observed the sky. I opened my packet of tobacco and offered it. While the most important shaman helped himself and smiled placidly at me, giving me such peace as I had never experienced, he began to speak to me. Of course I sought out Tobee’s gaze to understand… ‘we speak with the earth and listen to the wind, the wind brings us stories. We possess wind and we go with that wind to our death’. I didn’t say anything in return, but I asked Tobee to pass on my thanks for allowing me to witness last night’s dance and today’s conversation with the sands…

When the great shaman left Tobee said something like:

Our greatest gift is to remain connected to our land, to the land of our ancestors and with them through dances and chants. We hope to return to our land. Meanwhile… we worship the stars.’


– Pages torn out –


Tuesday 16th July 1985

I’ve just had the same nightmare as the last few nights, now I see the place clearly, I’m in a museum and I see bushmen’s heads on display, dried out like trophies (…) there’s one that looks like a woman’s and I see her bottom lip protruding, as if letting out a cry of pain and suffering. The image is unbearable and I wake up. I try to smoke a bit of (…) and to change the ideas (…).

These last few days I haven’t stopped asking myself what the mystery of that scene could be. How had that conversation with the sands been born, and who was responsible for the message, the shaman, the stones thrown, the red sands or the wind? Perhaps each element has a responsibility in recreating the ritual and without the participation of any one of them, it would lose it meaning. Unquestionably. That was what made up the ritual. All of a sudden my Western view began to strive to see beyond the horizon.


 Wednesday 17th July 1985

Today I went for a walk with just my translator. We started to talk about certain issues that I don’t yet understand. I tried to return, albeit fearfully, to the matter of the red sands. I asked if he knew the origin of all that.

After a long silence, he asked me if I had had any ‘!un’[6] which had caught my attention recently. I was surprised by his question and automatically remembered my recurring dream… I said yes, I said that since my arrival I had had the same nightmare several times.

He replied that when we got back we would talk to the great shaman about my question. I was quiet for the rest of the walk, wrapped up in my thoughts, asking myself questions and answering them at the same time, exhausting myself meaninglessly until Tobee calmed me saying that we would have “N/haitzi’i”[7] when we arrived, as if he sensed my worry.

When we arrived there were a lot of people already around the fire, getting ready for the night that was about to fall upon us. I sat down in no particular place and Tobee kept going. I waited while they started singing g//aoah da’atzi”.[8] I felt once more like a child explorer lulled by those ancestral chants…

Meanwhile, the great shaman sat by my side, smiled at me in a friendly way and nodded at Tobee who was now at my other side and who said to me, ‘now you can ask him about the red sands’.

I felt a bit nervous so I started to roll a cigarette to keep my hands busy and collect my words. Then I asked. I did so simply, without meaning to offend, although I felt I was entering muddy territory. The great shaman began to explain and Tobee translated for me.

´people call us bushmen, which means people of the woods…, we also have the wind and we are in contact with nature, with all of it because we are part of it.

Part of the stars, the moon, the sun, each stone and grain of red sand…

We are ‘=ahmi’[9] and we don’t have the feeling of ‘!Xaua-khoe’,[10] which is so common among whites.

‘Our values are based in always being ‘=Uma-khoe’,[11] trying to get the feeling and also replacing that feeling with a stronger one.[12] ‘Are’[13] would be the highest and most wonderful level…

Then there was a silence that seemed eternal during which the only music was the crackling of the flames lighting up the face of someone who had previously seemed like an enigma, and now offered himself entirely. He carried on speaking…

I knew that you would come here, I was waiting for you since I dreamt of it. In my dream you witnessed that ritual which never took place except in my dream and which we carried out just for you, because you with your question will bring an answer. Of the ritual that you witnessed, all that was real was the stones, which belonged to one of the most important bushman shamans. The stones were in the dream.

Tobee was serious, his face seemed to speak to me of something painful and deep and I felt strangely troubled, with a great responsibility and at the same time my capacity for understanding left me. I felt trapped by my own ancient fears. But I knew that I had to talk about my dream. Tobee had asked me and the question wouldn’t be a risk. After a few second of silence I started to speak, I didn’t know if there would be any connection, but it was all that came to my mouth…

‘I can only think to answer by sharing with you a nightmare that I have been having recurrently for the last few nights. Today Tobee asked me if I had dreamt anything in particular and I remembered it. In my nightmare I’m in a museum, I imagine it to be somewhere in Europe, it could be a natural history museum… I don’t remember ever having been there and I see myself in a room where… – I’m ashamed to say it – dried heads of bushmen are exhibited, stuck on metal spears as if they were trophies… and I remember one which looks like a woman’s and her bottom lip is sticking out, like she’s crying out in pain…’

When I finished telling them, I closed my eyes and began to cry. I was so ashamed of my dream, because I was sure that it existed somewhere. When I lifted my head Tobee was staring at the fire and the great shaman gave me a smile that soothed my distress. For many minutes there was silence… I thought that we wouldn’t speak any more that night, but he spoke again.

The old master of the stones was the most important shaman we had, he belongs to a very distant generation of bushmen. The first who suffered the invasion of colonisers. He was taken to Europe at one time for an exhibition. I hadn’t even been born then. He never came back and we don’t know how he died or where they put his body. I am sure his spirit is with us, in the wind, and it was he who brought my dream and brought yours too. I think he’s trying to ask something of you…

Impossible to sleep. I’m scared, scared of dreaming about those heads again, scared of the incomprehensible, and how useless my science is for this (…). I don’t know how to interpret the words I heard today, nor what kind of help they expect from me.


Thursday 18th July 1985

Today I suggested to Tobee that we went for a walk. I wanted to get to know the surroundings better and on the way he explained to me how a bushman survives thanks to nature. We stopped several times and he showed me some healing roots, one of which had a terribly bitter taste. Then we walked until we reached what I would call a sanctuary of stones and there we sat down. In the trust of silence I made a cigarette with the tobacco I carried and invited him to share my herbs. I think that established a pact which informally invited me to confess my fears. I said that it was very difficult for me to understand the message of the dreams, my culture, my own language and how it shapes my reality; my studies and my role as a scientist inhibited these new perceptions of the universe, but that didn’t mean I didn’t want to help them. I can’t deny the existence of dreams and the truth of my own feelings. But now… Would I be part of my own object of study? Where do I position myself as an ethnologist?

I at least enjoyed sharing my cigarette with him, passing it to his long thin fingers fissured by the sun and the weather. Seeing him stretch out his black lips over the paper and hearing him breathe in the smoke as I did. Nothing separated us in that simple act of smoking. Then I spoke a little about where I came from and felt ashamed once more, and told him that.

He replied with a long silence that I didn’t know how to interpret. And I in turn replied by taking out my pencil and paper to draw the contours of the rocks, which seemed to want to say something. Unexpectedly, he began to tell me his story. It was tempting to not transcribe his words, I couldn’t collect everything, but given the respect that his trust deserves, I took note of only certain paragraphs, the rest, intact in my memory, forms part of the pact between his spirit and mine.

I grew up as a hunter, the same as all our men…, hunting means going to talk to the animals, not stealing. But sadly today we’re forbidden, like we’re forbidden to return to our land and our water hole, which would be beyond those precious red sands that we can’t walk on’

‘They’ve forbidden us from being what we are, hunting as our ancestors did, following the antelope’s tracks, that can take days, days during which he knows you’re there, and when he runs you have to run and when you run you become like him…’

‘The first time I hunted I wasn’t allowed to eat. But now we’re not allowed to hunt.’

‘The farmer says that he’s more advanced than the ancient hunter, but our antelopes are free, they’re not our slaves.’

 ´Our ancestors are very important to us, without them we couldn’t be here… I also learnt to be a shaman, I learnt to read the earth, to understand what she tells us…’

 I could do no more than say nothing and feel wretched. I had no reply to his words, what could I say faced with such cruelty provoked by my culture? Just remembering his last words, the importance of their ancestors makes me think of those heads horribly displayed in some museum. I should find out where they are when I return. How they got there and to whom them belong. How is it possible that something so senseless could still exist today? While the genocide against the bushmen advances, the same culture that exterminates them displays their heads in a marvellous museum, like objects of scientific study, to demonstrate how civilised we are and how interested we are in savages behind shiny, clean glass.


Sunday 31st July 1985

The dreams keep visiting me, now I can make out precise details of the museum which help me to know where it’s located. I’m sure it’s somewhere in the old world. I shall have to wait for my return so as to (…).


 – ­Pages torn out and end of the diary –



Mythological Legend of the Sun found at the end of the diary.

The Sun, a man whose brightness originated in the hollow of his armpit, lived on the earth long ago; but he only gave light to the space around his house. Some children belonging to the First Bushmen (who come from the Bushman plain in their country) were sent by the Bushmen to throw the sleeping Sun into the sky; since then, he has shone over all the earth.

[1] We believe this to be Dr Dow Lewis, English ethnologist with whom he shared an expedition to Brazil.

[2] gua-gua: when the fire has big flames.

[3] gu-tsau: the clapping that lifts the dancer’s legs in a dance.

[4] !ka tsau /’an: the heart rises more

[5] n/om-kxao: Shaman – master of n/om

[6] !un: dream

[7] N/haitzi’i: good feeling when laughing together with friends.

[8] g//aoah da’atzi: healing songs to quietly sing around a home fire.

[9] =ahmi: refers to Bushmen as “circle people” and the circles around the sun and moon that remind people of important things.

[10] !Xaua-khoe: ignorance caused by being selfish and greedy. It is the opposite of love.

[11] =Uma-khoe: sharing.

[12] ta’msi: feeling – ta’ma kaice g/aoh: very strong feeling

[13] are: love, which is the most important word for a n/om-kxao = shaman

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