N/om, Change, and Social Work: A Recursive Frame Analysis of the Transformative Rituals of the Ju/'hoan Bushmen

Article excerpt

The Ju/'hoan Bushmen, or San, of Namibia and Botswana are sometimes characterized as a culture that emphasizes ambiguity and contradiction. What they articulate about important matters--whether it involves healing, storytelling, ritual, or myths of origin may on the surface appear to readily change with no apparent concern for alteration in either description or explanation. Guenther (1999, p. 246) proposes that this kind of thinking is "consistent with the mobility, openness, fluidity, flexibility, adaptability, and unpredictability of the forager's life." While acknowledging the unique challenge of trying to understand Bushman experience, our fieldwork finds that the Ju/'hoansi host a consistent worldview that is often outside the conceptual radar of conventional social science theory and practice. Bushmen emphasize shifting ways of being in the world and this dynamic provides an overarching contextual frame that helps clarify Bushman discourse. As the Ju/'hoan Bushmen come into contact with social service programs, social workers and other NGO professionals need to cultivate an appreciation for how members of this culture construe their life experience in a unique way, especially in matters that involve healing and help.

In this paper we demonstrate that the Ju/'hoansi account of First and Second Creation is used to contextually frame important matters in their life. Using Recursive Frame Analysis (Keeney, 1991; Chenail, 1995), we will outline the ways in which shifting frames move back and forth between contextualizing experience as inside First or Second Creation. This oscillation between two phenomenological worlds underlies Bushman experience, discourse, understanding, and performance. Our work is informed by an examination of their puberty rites, which have been rarely observed by anthropologists.

We find that these rites provide an exemplary way of making sense of their healing dance. In addition, we explore the way Bushman storytelling can be understood as a performance that emphasizes creative improvisation rather than narrated meaning. We address these experiential domains, demonstrating that they share the purpose of crossing the border between First and Second Creation, that is, the mythically connoted prelinguistic and linguistic ways of holding experience. In the shifting itself, what they regard as the changing or N!o'an-kal'ae that underlies life, is found n/om--the creative life force--which Bushmen value hunting in order to infuse their lives with vitality and inspired meaning. Following a brief discussion of First and Second Creation, a recursive frame analysis will map this border crossing so as to illuminate how previously assumed ambiguities actually are consistent and clear when seen as frame shifts rather than as static forms. We will propose that the Bushman way of utilizing narrative and ritual is arguably more complex and process oriented than the means through which social science narratives and descriptions are cast. We conclude with a brief discussion of some general implications for those offering mental health or social service programs with Ju/'hoan Bushman communities.

First and Second Creation: An Origin Myth that Inspires Bushman Performance

For two decades, we have conducted interviews with Bushman elders across Botswana and Namibia. Here we report the commentary of elders who reside at the Nyae Nyae Conservancy in Namibia. Interviews were mostly conducted between 2000-2012 (see Keeney, 1999; Keeney, 2002). Following years of establishing close relations with numerous members of several Bushman communities (that included being adopted and receiving Ju'/hoan names), we were accepted as members of their healing tradition and even called n/om-kxaosi. With this inclusion in their ritualistic life, we had conversations with elder healers in multiple roles including colleagues inside a healing fraternity and as scholars trying to understand the way they conceptualize their practice. …