Cultural Misunderstandings and Personal Interpretations

According to Mr. Lee, The Kung Bushmen’s perception of the Christmas holiday and celebrations is considerably misinterpreted. The idea of the Christmas holiday arrived in the Southern Tswana tribe in the early nineteenth century. Later, local catechist among the Bantu speaking tribes in the remote areas of the Kalahari Desert spread the idea concerning the celebration of the Christmas holiday. According to the Bushmen, celebrating Christmas simply means praising the birth of a white man’s chief. As an ethnographer, Borshay Lee has a different opinion concerning the celebration of Christmas. After buying the fattest ox, Mr. Lee encounters ridicule remarks from some of the Bushmen. This demonstrates the aspect of conflicting personal interpretations between individuals from different cultural divides. At first, Mr. Lee says that he came to the Kalahari to study the hunting and gathering economy of the Kung Bushmen. Mr. Lee should have known how to interact with Bushmen in a manner that could have eliminated misunderstandings resulting from his own personal interpretations.

By buying the ox, Mr. Lee thought that he could make the Bushmen happy. The ox was an ideal gift to thank the Bushmen for their hospitality during Christmas. Thus, Mr. Lee underwent a cultural shock when the Bushmen termed the ox as “a bag of bones”, and said that it was not acceptable to them. Since Mr. Lee could not understand the reaction by the Bushmen, he thought that there was something wrong with their perceptions of a bonny animal (Zelizer, 2011). It never occurred to him that his perceptions concerning the ox were the cause of the problem. The Bushmen’s assertions that the ox was bonny conflicted with Mr. Lee’s view of a bonny animal. In his opinion, Mr. Lee provided the best. Culturally, when a young man kills such an ox people start to view him as a superior being. Therefore, in the Bushmen community, people will refer to such meat as worthless so that the young man does not start to view other people as inferior (Smelsa, 1994).

When it was time to kill the ox and prepare the meat for Christmas celebrations, Mr. Lee was surprised at how fast the Bushmen slaughtered the ox. Culturally, this task was a role for the men. The ox’s fatty layer was more than two inches thick. On seeing this, Mr. Lee asked one of the Bushmen why they were terming the ox as thin and bonny, yet evidence depicted the animal as presentable for consumption. In response, they ridiculed him terming the ox as “sick dead”. At this point, Mr. Lee could not understand why the Bushmen were sentimental about the ox. Even after the celebration, Mr. Lee remained unconvinced that there was something wrong with the ox that he had bought.


The definition of Christmas by the Kung Bushmen demonstrates varying perceptions about Christmas due to cultural differences. What Christmas means to the whites is quite different from the meaning given by Kung Bushmen. The Bushmen culture that Mr. Lee though he had a comprehensive understanding about suddenly became unknown to him, although he had been living with Bushmen for more than three years.

The issues that affected Mr. Lee made him become subjective rather than objective. Although he had an understanding of the issue concerning social conflict within the Bushmen community, he was not yet aware of their hunting traditions and their manner of expressing humility among community members (Schaefer, 2008). Mr. Lee’s experience during the Christmas celebration demonstrates the idea that it is difficult to even for an ethnographer like Mr. Lee to conform to foreign cultures and values. It also shows that it is easy to misunderstand actions and words from another person if you do not request for an explanation regarding the matter of concern. Later, when conversing with Tamazo, Mr. Lee asked him why no one cared to clarify the ox’s issue to him. Tamazo replied that Mr. Lee never inquired on the issue. It was after conversing with the Bushmen cultural consultants, that Mr. Lee used an approach in ethnography to comprehend the native viewpoint. In the Kung Bushmen community, the appreciation of an individual’s hard work occurs in private. The Bushmen argue that even though you have done an excellent job, praising your pleasant work in public will do you more harm than good. They believe that praising someone in public will boost his ego, and this may lead him into killing another person instead of an animal. The Kung Bushmen base their survival tactics on their level of environmental awareness, and the evaluation of how people think and act within the community. This is beneficial if people have good intentions, and they do not take the hard work by a certain individual for granted (Zelizer, 2011).


Misunderstanding someone or something is very easy if we do not put away our individual beliefs and interpretations, and consult with other people. Even if someone is an ethnographer, he or she may still face difficulties concerning the interpretation of various aspects in other cultures. Culture exhibits significant levels of complexity, and the best interpreters are the individuals who belong to that culture. Thus, enquiring is crucial if someone intends to eliminate any obscurity concerning a certain concept. This will limit misinterpretation of situations from other cultural divides. Unless someone asks questions from individuals who have a comprehensive understanding of a certain culture, then he or she cannot become familiar with that particular culture. This is one of the aspects of cultural relativism.