Field Work – South Africa 2016


In August 2016 I, Karri Neldner, and Jon Redshaw went to South Africa to conduct field work. Karri and I had spent time together doing fieldwork in Vanuatu, and Jon and Karri had previously worked together examining Great Ape cognition.

Left to right. Jon, Karri, Me. Those are not my sunglasses.

We arrived in Johannesburg, and after a brief trip through Kruger National Park (when in South Africa!) we linked up with our contact Keyan Tomaselli, and one of his graduate students, Ìtùnú Bódúnrìn. Our goal was to pack a 4WD and drive 400+ km to Kimberley, conduct some work with the wonderful !Xun and San people in Platfontein. Thereafter to drive another 400+ km (including a long stretch in the Kalahari) where would work with the local community at Molopo.

We were incredibly fortunate to have met Keyan previouly. Keyen been making this trip for more than 20 years, and several years ago, my PhD supervisor Mark Nielsen (who also supervises Karri) began attending these treks cross-country (where he took steps to examine the universality of Over-imitation). In 2016 he sent Karri and I instead. This work would not have been possible without the immense investment of Keyan and the amazing work he has been doing with traditional communities throughout South Africa.

We spent several days in Johannesburg preparing for the trip. Buying supplies for ourselves and the vehicle, and preparing stimuli and run sheets.  Then we got moving. South Africa is a country of fire. There are constant thin plumes of rising black smoke dotted across the horizon. That is when you can see the horizon; once out of the cities it’s just as likely you’ll be winding around tall, coloured rock mountains. But, like any road trip, it was hot and cramped, long, and not everyone was happy with the choice of music (and we were constantly terrified of South African drivers)… but we survived the first leg. Once in Kimberley we met some of Keyan’s colleagues (who graciously provided many great dinners and a bed for Karri). We then connected with the community to began recruiting translators. We found four fantastic guys – Jason, Norman, Skambo, and Andre. As will become a truism: without them, this research would not have run as smoothly as it did. We soon got down to work.

We had practised for this moment: We set our projects up in such a way that we could easily run children through each of our studies without draining them, boring them, or corrupting our own data. Jon went first. Jon was replicating prior findings looking at how children make predictions about the future (built on this work). Karri went second, and was looking at how and when children would innovate on natural-type problems (below). While I went third. My task was a new task (thought up while in Vanuatu) that related to how rituals influence our memory for action sequences. I designed a whole new kind of puzzle box, which had a particular set of affordances that meant that some actions were important and some where not (and I could vary how obvious this was!).

Karri testing in Platfontein. School is out for the big kids. Courtesy Jon Redshaw

We spent three solid days camped out inside the community schools. First in the San language area, than the !Xun. Each of us had a rather challenging task ahead, which required carefully balancing the number of children in each condition as a function of their age. It wasn’t perfect random assignment, but based on past experience and advice from our supervisor, we had structures in place to avoid making errors (and losing valuable data). As anyone will tell you, fieldwork is tiring and trying. Not only is it the sole purpose of your trip (so you better make it happen!) but you have to keep the translators happy and paying attention (ensuring they don’t give away any hints to the children), the children entertained (and in another language! You have to learn the local variant of the hi-5…), and all your apparatus and equipment in working order (Is the lighting ok for the camera? How are the batteries?).

A school building in the Kalahari

We were very lucky, everything ran smoothly. In the evenings (when we weren’t exhausted) we would back up and code our data. In the evenings we would return to the house of Keyan’s colleagues (Johan and Elsabe), and enjoy a cold beer and some excellent home-cooked meals. On our final day in Kimberly, we enjoy a contemporary Braai. We ate all the parts of all the animals in all the shapes meat can be made to take. It was delicious.

The next day we began planning for the next leg. We had given away all our rewards for the children, and Karri had used up various expendable elements of her research. We needed more supplies. After we had sorted this (a couple days worth of work) we jumped into the 4WD again and headed toward the Kalahari. The community in the Molopo region was considerable more remote than the one at Platfontein, and so we had to make a few more considerations in our planning, but that said, we ended up staying in a Hunting Lodge a short distance from the communities we would be visiting. Both Jon and Karri are huge fans of Africa, and so travelling into the ‘red dirt’ region of the country was something they were very excited for, and in the end I too was mightily impressed with the South Africa’s beauty. But at the same time, I was surprised at how cold the desert was!

This is what it looked like driving through parts of the Kalahari. We’d jog along the roads some afternoons to avoid going stir-crazy. We had the same view, only it moved more slowly.

We made contact with a local man – Dion – who was respected in the community and who was a good friend of Keyan’s. Again, through these pre-existing networks, we found some excellent translators – Anneke, Dion, Hendrick – and set out to work. Both here and in Platfontein everyone was incredibly accommodating and eager to participate. The local schools (which was a fenced off area the size of two tennis courts, with a small playground and a couple of small buildings) all but shut-down to allow the kids to interact with us. We couldn’t have been more grateful for their help. Again, we powered through our protocols with the help of our translators, and after another stretch of full working days, endless children, and almost-but-not-always co-operative technology, we succeeded in collecting our data. Not only did we all end up with a more than 100 children having participated in each of our experiments, we all managed to balance our cells across age ranges nicely. A coup by developmental cross-cultural psychology standards!

A little girl from the Molopo region participating in my experiment with Hendrick translating. Courtesy Jon Redshaw

Again, each evening was spent uploading, backing up, and coding our data. Though the hunting lodge did have a few affordances (and, Oh, the food!), and so were were able to enjoy great food and a cold beer at a very Afrikaner lodge bar. It feels a little embarrassing to admit how comfortable this setting was, but sometimes you eat fish and get food poisoning in Vanuatu, and other times you get to eat Springbok Pie (always order the Springbok).

When the children weren’t playing soccer, they were constructing terrifying trampolines and flinging themselves down hills. Courtesy Jon Redshaw

However, like any field trip, the whole exercise was not without its hiccups. On at least on occasion we arrived at a location and no-one was there to greet us. We just hung around a rusty windmill. It was probably haunted. There was a surprise dog attacks (don’t worry, it ended up being fine). After playing with the children in Molopo, I ripped my pants and had to spend a whole afternoon testing wearing thoroughly tattered clothes. On a quick joy ride we incapacitated our 4WD in the middle of the desert. Testing was interrupted one day by a sand storm. And all the while, in the Kalahari, the annual rains were threatening to arrive.  But that’s all entirely offset by meeting everyone who lives in these places. On our final night in the Kalahari we had a traditional Braai. It was a little less put together than the more elaborate Kimberley version, but the food was just as good (if not better – the best way to eat a Pork Chop is to Braai it!).

And so we began our ~850 km trek back to Johannesburg. Jon and Karri went north to find Chimps (and to hopefully conduct more work), while I returned to Australia to analyse my data. The manuscript, as of February 2017, is in prep.

Sunset in the dunes of the Kalahari.