WHAT DOES THE SITUATION SAY? 1
What Does the Situation Say? Theorizing
Multiple Understandings of Climate Change
Abstract Our ways of knowing the weather are transforming. Climate change modiﬁes weather patterns,
and the globalization of scientiﬁc knowledge promotes new ways of making the weather intelligible. Follow-
ing both transformations, I explore how Damara pastoralists (ǂN¯
ukhoen) in Namibia entertain various Indige-
nous, religious, political, and scientiﬁc explanations for the most distressing weather-related phenomenon they
experience—the lack of rain. Integrating qualitative and quantitative data, my ethnography reveals how people
combine knowledge from multiple, even contradictory, registers to explain one situation, and use a different
combination of sources to explain another. To understand this, I develop a phenomenological framework that
shows how being-in-the-world creates a phenomenon situationally. If phenomena differ depending on how we
enact the world, it is unsurprising that these phenomena would then entail different explanations. With this, I
theorize why people make sense of climate change in multiple ways, and why they move between them. [climate
change, knowledge, phenomenology, Namibia]
Our ways of knowing the weather are transforming. Climate change modies weather pat-
terns, and the globalization of scientic knowledge promotes new ways of making the
weather intelligible. Following both observations, climate-change anthropology has shown
how scientic models about “global warming,” the “ozone hole,” and “carbon sinks” began
circulating outside academic contexts and how these models blend with other knowledge to
form climate worlds—that is, lived social spaces of theorizing climate (Hastrup 2015, 148).
Because distinct registers interact in multiple ways and across different scales, the result is
often hybridity (Brüggemann and Rödder 2020; De Wit 2018; Krauss 2009; Orlove et al.
2010; Orlove and Strauss 2003; Rudiak-Gould 2014a, 2014b).1
The existing literature documents this hybridity and shows how particular social groups
employ unique vernaculars, or interpretive frameworks, to invest climate change with mean-
ing (Callison 2014, 7). Accordingly, Rosengren (2018) nds that in the Peruvian Andes, mi-
grants from the Andean highlands are conscious of scientic climate-change interpretations,
whereas Indigenous Mitsigenka explains atmospheric events in terms of their own ontol-
ogy. Shaffer and Naiene (2011) report a gendered distinction in the way people in southern
Mozambique make sense of a changing climate. Friedrich (2017, 331) nds that on the Philip-
pine island of Palawan, people with different education levels disagree on climate change. In
a similar vein, my past research in Namibia has shown how pastoralists and scientists make
distinctively different sense of the lack of rain and of climate change (Schnegg 2019, 2021a).
ETHOS, Vol. 0, Issue 0, pp. 1–22, ISSN 0091-2131 online ISSN 1548-1352. © 2021 The Authors. Ethos published by Wiley
Periodicals LLC on behalf of American Anthropological Association. DOI: 10.1111/etho.12307
This is an open access article under the terms of the CreativeCommonsAttribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License, which permits
use and distribution in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, the use is non-commercial and no modiﬁcations or
adaptations are made.
Although the hybridity of knowledge and between-group differences are well established
in scholarly literature, increasing evidence suggests the situation is more complex. More
and more ethnographies document that the same individual can know changes in weather
differently at different places and times (Ehlert 2012; Paerregaard 2016; Rosengren 2018;
Schnegg 2019). According to these ethnographies, people foreground specic aspects of their
knowledge in particular situations and other aspects in other situations. The aim of this
article is to explain these situational variations through a case study from rural northwestern
Namibia. In this arid environment, the lack of rain is the most distressing weather event and
droughts are its extreme. According to my interlocutors, it rains less today and the lack of
rain poses severe challenges for the pastoral livelihoods of the Damara people (or ǂN¯
in Khoekhoegowab) with whom I work.2
To understand how ǂN¯
ukhoen people make sense of the observed lack of rain, I suggest an
explanatory framework that integrates what people experience and what they are told, for
example, observations and perceptions (Rudiak-Gould 2011). We do not simply see weather
phenomena; weather is experienced in a wider sense through an “embodied objectivity”
(Haraway 1988, 581), which includes—among other things—the senses, the practices, and the
places through which experiences are made (Ingold 2010; Ingold and Kurttila 2000; Rudiak-
Gould 2013). Phenomenological theories are especially suitable for exploring this nexus be-
cause they hold that we do not come to know phenomena like the weather through cultural
models alone but also through (bodily) experiences and the holistic situations in which they
come to exist. Another strength of the phenomenological approach lies in addressing the
link between those experiences and the wider social and political context that enable, hinder,
or enforce them (Desjarlais and Throop 2011; Jackson 1996; Ram and Houston 2015).
In the eld of environmental anthropology, Tim Ingold has demonstrated this connection
most convincingly. In his foundational book, The Perception of the Environment, he combines
different theoretical approaches in his “dwelling perspective” (Ingold 2000). The term and
the basic idea are taken from Martin Heidegger, who was the rst to argue against the “in-
tellectualized” traditions in philosophy (including his mentor Edmund Husserl) and to show
that how we interact with the world in practical activities shapes what we know about the
world—and also what exists.3According to Heidegger, we are thrown into the world as Da-
sein (Da-sein: there-being) and have to establish meaningful relationships with the entities
we nd. We do this with a certain future orientation and purposes in mind, which makes us
dwell (wohnen) in the world through skilled activities. Heidegger refers to Dasein’s different
ways of relating to the world as being-in-the-world (Heidegger 2006; Schnegg 2019).
One salient insight Heidegger and other phenomenologists share is that we only get to know
specic aspects of a phenomenon at a time. Husserl calls this process Abschattung (adumbra-
tion) and uses the example of a table to demonstrate that we can only see a certain side of
it at a time. Most of the table—its back, its underside, and so forth—remains hidden to us.
Wittgenstein (2010, section XI) further develops this idea and suggests the term Aspektsehen
(aspect-seeing) to indicate how we see a phenomenon in a particular way depending on the
mindset we have. To illustrate this, Wittgenstein uses gestalt gures, or ambiguous images,
WHAT DOES THE SITUATION SAY? 3
that appear differently depending on the view one applies, such as the famous rabbit-duck
illusion. In psychological anthropology, Duranti (2009) and Throop (2015) have offered elab-
orate analyses to show how these processes shape what feelings and situations become.
Husserl and Wittgenstein largely view this aspect-seeing as a process taking place in the
mind. Heidegger disagrees. His main project is to overthrow the Cartesian divide between
the subject and the object, and Dasein is the entity that combines both. According to Hei-
degger, we are always in-the-world already, and while being-in-the world, we get to know
things as things. The as in etwas als etwas sehen (seeing something as something) is estab-
lished through practices and use (Heidegger 2006, 34). Because uses differ, a phenomenon
can reveal itself differently and situationally.
Building on these concepts, I suggest a framework that explicates how being-in-the-world
reveals a phenomenon, for example, the weather, in a particular way.I focus on three interre-
lated aspects of being-in-the-world that partly go beyond Heidegger’s theory. First, knowing
comes from doing, which implies that how we relate to an entity partly shapes what the entity
becomes. In the Heideggerian tradition of phenomenology, we are “doers,” not “knowers,”
and becoming is mostly a matter of use. The rain has a different use for people who have
gardens than for those who do not. In this view, the practice of gardening partly determines
what the rain is and also how it is explained (Ingold and Kurttila 2000; Schnegg 2019, 2021a).
Second, knowing resides in things. This means that part of an object’s denotation resides in its
materiality and is circumscribed by the agency it brings into the relationship between hu-
mans and things. The spade I use for gardening has a meaning that resides in it, and the
human–spade relationship will always be shaped partly by the materiality of the tool (Hei-
degger 2006; Latour 1991; Malafouris 2013). Third, to add to Heidegger’s original analysis,
both practices and things are shaped by the economic, political, and social structures that make them
available only to some (Ingold 2000).
In my ethnography, I recorded how people talk about the weather. In his phenomenology,
Heidegger gets rid of the acting subject, which means that we must ask ourselves: Who,
then, speaks?4To answer this, the distinction between Sprache (language) and Rede (telling) is
revealing (translations from Dreyfus 1991, 215). With Sprache, Heidegger refers to the deeper
structure and meaning of speaking, allowing him to conclude in his later work that language
speaks (Die Sprache spricht) (Heidegger 2003). But how does language speak? Heidegger uses
the term Rede to refer more closely to the way something is articulated and what things are
put into words. Rede is closely linked to Dasein and is part of how it is in-the-world and
makes sense of the world. In this sense, through Rede, the relationship with the world is
established. Because Dasein can only see something as something, in a particular situation
only some aspects of a phenomenon are told (Heidegger 2000, 61).
With this, we have a framework to theorize how ways of being-in-the world foreground
particular aspects of a phenomenon (the weather) situationally. Knowing that the weather is
something different from situation to situation makes intelligible why the weather is spoken
about in different terms.
The Meaning of Weather and Climate Change
Climate is typically dened as the average weather. The term was already used in Ancient
Greek, and the experience of it has long been connected to movements in space. With the
development and spread of scientic instruments in the eighteenth century, weather could
be compared across time. Global warming and long-term climate change are scientic ab-
stractions of those measurements that can hardly be experienced in the everyday. What we
experience is the weather, its variability, and (possibly) the increasing frequency of extreme
weather events (Rudiak-Gould 2013). In arid northwestern Namibia, rainfall is the most
salient weather phenomenon. The area receives between 100 and 300 mm of precipitation
annually. Rainfall is restricted to the summer months—September to April in the southern
hemisphere—and even then, to relatively few days (Schnegg and Bollig 2016).
Unfortunately, we lack reliable scientic data on how the overall amount and pattern of pre-
cipitation has changed over time in this area. However, I obtained comparable information
from two settler families of European descent who own private farms close to Fransfontein.
Their data goes back to the 1940s and indicates, according to my calculations, that rainfall
has decreased measurably over the decades. My regression analyses on both families’ data in-
dicate a moderate decline. At the same time, the trend is interrupted by regular uctuations
and cyclical droughts during El Niño years.
Those measurements match the reports of the ǂN¯
ukhoen people. An astonishing 90 percent
of those I talked to were sure that it rained less now than it used to. This conrms the eval-
uation Sullivan (2000, 2002) received from neighboring communities. On the observational
level, then, the consensus I nd among social groups (scientists talking about the larger re-
gion, settlers, Damara people) conrms that they often agree about what is changing in the
environment (Cruikshank 2001). Although people remember droughts from the past, it seems
as if they perceive droughts as occurring in regular (seasonal) cycles. These droughts do not
require distinct explanations. With scientic climate-change knowledge, current experiences
are singled out when a particular explanation is offered for them.
To explore what the lack of rain means for the Damara people, we must better understand
what rain is. Without going into detail, Damara people identify at least 11 types of rain
(ǀnanus).5The primary differences among them are not in the physical shape or the quan-
tity but mostly in how they intertwine with past and future events (Schnegg 2021b). This
involvement in time spans a network that constitutes the rain in the now, including rain that
wipes away the footprints of the dead (ǀhôaǀnanub), rain that can irritate and possibly even
kill the livestock (gurukupu ǀnanub), rain that is so soft that it protects mopani worms (ǀhom
ǀnanub), and rain that makes particular grasses grow (sabe ǀnanub). All four ǀnanudi are distinct
things. Because the uses of the rain affect many domains of life, it is not surprising that ǀnanus
is an all-encompassing phenomenon. For the people with whom I talked, nanus ge a hoaraga
u(“The rain is everything!”), as they say. One of the most common Khoekhoegowab ex-
pressions for drought is ǂû-i ǀkhai, which translates literally as “there is no food.” Thus, the
lack of rain (ǀnanus) is described through the effect it has.
WHAT DOES THE SITUATION SAY? 5
Knowing the Weather by Context
Fransfontein, the community in northwestern Namibia where I have worked for many years,
consists of roughly 250 households situated 450 km northwest of the Namibian capital,
Windhoek. As in most of the Kunene region, the communal pastures surrounding Frans-
fontein are dotted with small settlements where inhabitants live pastoral lives (Pauli 2019;
Schnegg, Pauli, and Greiner 2013). Before colonialism, most ǂN¯
ukhoen were hunters and
gatherers, but no longer are. Another salient transformation that came with German colo-
nialization is the creeping occupation of farmland by settlers of European decent. This has
restructured access to land and water sources signicantly. Nineteenth-century German
colonial subjugation, forced sedentarization, and taxation also pushed Damara people to-
ward seminomadic pastoral livelihoods. Forced to live on pockets of land much too small,
their vulnerability signicantly increased (Schnegg, Pauli, and Greiner 2013; Sullivan and
Before independence, the South African colonial government did not allow Indigenous peo-
ple to move and settle freely. This changed in 1990 and, besides the obvious positive effects,
the new policy had some troublesome consequences for Damara pastoralists in Fransfontein.
For one, rich pastoralists from the north (often Ovahimba people) moved to the area to nd
better grazing conditions or to lower the risk of losing livestock during droughts by distribut-
ing it over a large region (about 1000 km). For another, urban and often very wealthy migrants
born in Fransfontein became part-time pastoralists who kept large herds. Because few rules
and institutions are in place, both trends have contributed to overstocking, leading to heavy
losses when the rains failed to come (Schnegg, Pauli, and Greiner 2013). Although people in
Fransfontein increasingly suffer from land scarcity, the land adjacent to Fransfontein is still
owned by descendants of European settlers. This physical closeness also implies that people
experience the abundance of land and the ease of livestock farming on private farms when
they come to visit or work there.
Under the South African Apartheid regime, the government strictly controlled the man-
agement of livestock. It monitored livestock numbers, maintained the boreholes from which
groundwater is pumped for people and livestock, and provided diesel to run the pumps.Many
of those services were cut with neoliberal policies after independence and sold to the commu-
nities as a new way to “participate” in natural resource management. However, privatization
often meant more participation in the environmental costs and much less in the benets
(Schnegg 2016; Schnegg and Kiaka 2018). Although independence brought positive changes
for many of the people around Fransfontein, a group of middle-aged people did not have the
mobility, the (educational) resources, and sometimes the luck to take advantage of the new
opportunities. Seeing their kith and kin surpass them in social and economic terms spurred
narratives about how good things used to be. As Stewart (2016) has shown so convincingly,
these middle-aged peoples’ statements about the past must also be read as statements about
their positioning in the now.
The Fransfontein region was Christianized by the Rhenish Mission in the late nine-
teenth century. The community as it exists today—with a church, a large garden, and a
school—was built around that time. Today, almost all people in the community consider
themselves Christians. The way Christianity is practiced, however, varies signicantly. While
elderly people regularly attend Sunday church services, most of the religious youth is orga-
nized in choirs that are central to everyday religious life. Groups of ve to fteen people
often meet several times a week to rehearse for special church services. Many choirs (e.g.,
Pronobis) belong to larger organizations that operate on the regional and national levels.
In addition to mainstream Protestant churches, Pentecostal churches are on the rise, just as
they are in most parts of Africa, and more and more people in Fransfontein belong to one of
them. Entering a Pentecostal church is referred to as “repenting” and members call them-
selves “repent.” People typically say they join to turn away from behaviors that characterized
their previous lives such as alcohol abuse and sexual relationships outside their partnerships.
The growth of Pentecostal churches has coincided with an era of rapid social and economic
transformation after independence from South Africa in 1990. Salient among these changes
are increased economic insecurity and health threats from the HIV epidemic. According to
their new members, Pentecostal churches provide a means to regain control over their lives
I rst came to Kunene in 2003 with my wife and colleague Julia Pauli. We lived in Frans-
fontein for more than a year, working on a community ethnography (Pauli 2019). I have
returned many times since. At this point, I speak the people’s language, Khoekhoegowab,
quite well. To learn pastoralism for myself, I bought some sheep, goats, and cattle, which I
care for when I am there. A few years ago, I lost many of the animals,one by one, to drought.
I do not mean to imply that I have experienced the losses my neighbors did. I do not. I come
and go as I please, and I have a job at a university. The loss of cattle, each worth 100 days
of labor, means something very different to my neighbors than to me. Although I do not
keep cattle to “be like” a Damara pastoralist, I still feel that it helps me develop empathy and
reect on the differences between our lifeworlds and my privileged position simultaneously.
The data I present in the ethnographic section next were mostly collected after 2015. Be-
cause I was part of the social eld and the knowing that I describe, I include myself in the
dialogues. With these conversations,I document people’s explanations why weather patterns
in the region are different today. To better understand how they overlap, converge, or col-
lide, my research partners and I collected survey data in February 2020 from 133 individuals
in Fransfontein and in the seven surrounding communities. In the hinterlands, we talked to
every adult resident of the community (a total of 60). In Fransfontein, we approached ev-
ery household on 3 streets and talked to 73 people. In addition to interview data, I base my
account on my own long-term ethnographic experience.
Different Explanations for the Lack of Rain
The more than 30 conversations I recorded before doing the survey reveal a hybrid web of
meaning and themes. It is problematic to break this down into categories like “scientic”
WHAT DOES THE SITUATION SAY? 7
versus “Indigenous,” “urban” versus “rural,” “social” versus “natural,” and so forth (Agrawal
1995; Green 2008; Hastrup 2013). In the southern African context, this becomes especially
evident through the work of McKittrick (2018) who shows that in the beginning of the 20th
century, settlers in South Africa often had moral explanations for climate change that differed
largely from the scientic knowledge available at the time.
At the same time, certain themes and causes recurred in many conversations, such as “God,”
“punishment,” “carbon dioxide (CO2),” “land degradation,” and “the winds.” Based on their
saliency and on grounded theory, I identied certain explanatory registers that surround
them. A register is “a linguistic repertoire that is associated, culture-internally, with particular
social practices and with persons who engage in such practices” (Agha 2005). Those registers
(e.g., “God,” “CO2”) are more coherent hubs in the web of meaning all the themes form.
Although these registers make up some (not all) of the hubs in this network, they are by
no means closed. They are intertwined historically and informed by colonial processes and
thought. I describe four of these registers next.
In this register, God changes the weather because people are doing wrong. Thompson and
Rayner (1998, 151) observed a long time ago and across numerous contexts that people re-
late changes in the environment to their own wrongdoing and thus moralize such changes.
In Namibia, the religious register is connected to German colonialization, which included
religious (Christian) indoctrination. Contemporarily, the register connects the region with
Pentecostal churches from South Africa, where the most popular prophets come from and
where the TV channels that popularize them are produced. Although religious discourses
frame the social and political world morally, Indigenous ontologies merge with them in man-
ifold ways when, for example, the dead live in a Christian “heaven” and revisit the earth as
animals or winds.
In this register,no rain falls because the two winds that are responsible for rain cannot agree.
ukhoen people have a detailed understanding of how and why it rains (Schnegg 2019).
This knowing makes two humanized winds, one female (huriǂoab) and one male (t¯
sponsible for the rain. During the morning hours, the female huriǂoab seeks out t¯
love and care, and people watch as the two meet in the sky east of Fransfontein, where
clouds begin to form. There will be rain only if they agree, and most people believe that
the lack of rain indicates that the two winds do not reach an agreement. However, peo-
ple hold neither of the winds nor their relationship to humans personally responsible for
the rain. Furthermore, today most Damara people are Christian, and this register is often
linked to religious discourses when, for example, God mediates all human and nonhuman
In this register,the increasing concentration of CO2and other greenhouse gases is the cause
of climate change. From a scientic point of view, the lack of rain is linked to a warming that
occurs when the atmosphere traps the sun’s heat, preventing it from radiating back into space.
There is consensus today that scientic knowledge about climate change is constructed as
a “heterogeneous archaeology” of past events (Jasanoff et al. 1998) through social practices
Overgrazing and Degradation
There is not enough land. According to this register, in South African colonial times, the state
was strong, exercised control, and provided people with technical assistance if they needed it.
Because of this stewardship, livestock remained below the carrying capacity, and the animals
were in good health. In the end, the political system prevented less rain from meaning less
food. This register is highly politicized and often expressed by those who feel left behind
since independence, mostly people with comparably little education and few opportunities
in the new markets. It links to the explanation that the rain fails to come because of the
weakening of the established political leadership (Sullivan 2002).
Knowing by Representation
To evaluate how Damara people in the Fransfontein area explain the lack of rain, I conducted
a survey that included statements I retrieved from my qualitative interviews. Table 1 shows
agreement with specic statements. The results underline the salience of two registers. Al-
though almost all people I met attributed what they experience to God and the winds, only
a few used scientic reasoning. Political explanations were also prominent, and many people
agreed that governance played a role (Sullivan 2002).
Looking at the religious register rst, the data show that almost all people agree that God
is eventually responsible for the rains, while there is a little less agreement about why He
no longer provides rain. However, the general narrative is that God is punishing people
for what they are doing wrong, and this wrongdoing is “their” wrongdoing—the present-
day Namibians. This has to do with recent societal transformations, a strong move toward
a capitalist economy, increased inequality, and more individualism. This moralization has
been observed across many societies (Rudiak-Gould 2014a, 2014c).“Selshness” and “crime”
often appeared in my interviews. These two words are salient themes here as well. They
describe traits and actions that are morally wrong. Unsurprisingly, God (not only in Namibia)
is punishing people to encourage them to get things right (Rayner 2003). The remedy is clear:
people must change their behavior and, importantly, pray.
The register that refers to Indigenous ontologies is comparably salient as well. Most people
agree that it rains less today because huriǂoab and t¯
uǂoab, the two caring winds, do not agree
anymore. However, when it comes to a more detailed understanding of this domain, the
WHAT DOES THE SITUATION SAY? 9
Table 1. Agreement with statements from different explanatory register (N=133)
Discourse Statement Agreement (%)
Humans cannot change the rains, only God can. 97.7
To stop the drought, the people in this area have to pray to God again. 96.2
God is punishing people because they are committing crimes. 84.7
God is punishing people because they have become selsh. 75.8
God has changed the weather to punish people. 65.2
Is it true that it has stopped raining because huriǂoas and t¯
uǂoab do not agree anymore? 79.2
The weather has changed because the people in Europe are burning too many trees. 31.5
The weather has changed because the people in Europe are driving too many cars. 15.2
The weather has changed because the people in this area are driving too many cars. 11.8
To stop the drought, the people in this area have to stop ying in airplanes. 6.9
The weather has changed because people are using too much electricity. 6.4
There is drought because the current government does not control the people anymore
like it did before Independence.
There is drought because Namibian politicians are weak leaders. 65.9
To stop the drought, the people in this area have to reduce the number of livestock 37.9
The weather is changing because of things people in Namibia are doing currently. 78.2
The weather is changing because of things people in Namibia did in the past. 14.4
The weather is changing because of things people are doing in Europe currently. 31.8
The weather is changing because of things people in Europe did in the past. 12.9
consensus decreases. For example, only about half of my interlocutors were condent that
the weather could be predicted through signs around the moon—skills Ben Orlove, John
Chiang, and Cane Mark (2002) have also observed in the Andes.
The scientic explanation has not spread as widely. Only about half of the people reported
having heard the term “climate change.” This number astonished me, because one hears the
term on the radio, the most popular form of media in the region, almost every day. Politicians,
for example, blame climate change for problems they cannot solve, such as insecure liveli-
hoods, high levels of vulnerability, and lack of food. Many people agree that our behavior
is contributing to the transformations we face. Although the majority believe that practices
such as driving cars, using electricity, ying airplanes, and eating meat have no effect, people
agree that cutting down trees makes a difference.
But it depends on where those activities take place. Many people in Fransfontein are sure
that the things people do or did in Europe (their catch-all for industrialized countries) are
too remote to affect the weather in Namibia today. The localization becomes especially ev-
ident if we look at the causal linkages people acknowledge, shown in Table 1. People here
(not in Europe) and now (not in the past) make the climate change. Sullivan reports a similar
tendency when she describes how Damara people relate the political insecurity after inde-
pendence to the lack of rain (Sullivan 2002). For the people in Fransfontein and elsewhere,
the weather has a moral dimension, mediating between the social and the environment (In-
gold 2006; Rudiak-Gould 2014a). Why would God, through the weather, punish me here,
today, for what Europeans have done in the past?
When it comes to the role of politics, the numbers in Table 1 reveal that most people be-
lieve that bad governance also causes droughts, supporting the nexus between politics and
rain that Sullivan (2002) already illustrated. Most respondents agree that there is less control
because the government of independent Namibia relaxed many of the colonial state restric-
tions, including restrictions on the mobility of people and animals. They believe the state is
not as strong as it used to be, and it is in fact weak—a common narrative in Namibia. This
weakness is responsible for many of the negative developments, including unemployment,
inequality, and crime.
Taken together, the survey ndings support two important points. First, multiple registers,
many of them partly contradictory, are used to explain the lack of rain. This is evident with
CO2and God pointing to distinct world views. Second, and importantly,the hybridity I have
found at the community level does not mean that individuals only draw on one register but
rather that the same person combines different explanations. Most people combine two or
more. This indicates a hybrid web of meaning that is the background matrix from which par-
ticular registers are drawn situationally and through people being-in-the-world. To further
explore this, I shift to a more case-based approach and engage with the knowing of three
people—James, Frans, and Charles—in particular situations.6
WHAT DOES THE SITUATION SAY? 11
Knowing by Situation
James and I have known each other since I began working in Fransfontein. He is a little over
50 years old now and grew up during the Apartheid regime. Although suffering the same
injustices as his peers, he was privileged to go to one of Namibia’s elite Catholic high schools.
Even today, James feels much sympathy for the scientic reasoning this education introduced
him to and for the Bible. James has started many economic activities—farming, gardening,
poultry rearing, transportation, and leather fabrication, to name a few—but none brought
him the success he felt his efforts deserved. Also because of this frustration, he “repented”
some years ago. After years of following other prophets on TV who appeared powerful, he
recently decided to build his own church. The church is a separate room attached to his house
in Fransfontein where ve people meet on Sundays at around 10 a.m. to read the Bible and
When I rst talked to James about climate change, we sat in his church. James had seen me
in the main Protestant church for many years and proudly pointed out the four chairs in the
corner, the curtains covering the muddy walls, and the owers growing in old tires he had
painted white. I indicated how pleasant I found the interior, when some empty buckets in the
corner of the room caught my eye. “What are those for?” I asked. “You know, my church is
very powerful. If people listen to my prayers, many of them relieve themselves of everything.
They are so shaken that they vomit.”
Like most people, James nds that the weather has changed. Sitting next to his buckets on one
of the four chairs, he knew that the problem was politicians, and more generally, the elites.
“Look at all they do. They steal, they rob, they betray. If you have leaders like this, how can
the people follow God?” He continued to explain that the drought we were experiencing was
God’s punishment for this corruption. “You can read it in the Bible. It is all written there,”
he insisted. “Only later will God come and save the earth. Currently, he is still warning us.”
We talked for more than two hours. Then he asked me to take a photo of him in his church,
with the buckets and the owers beside him.
James and I met almost every day whenever I was in Fransfontein. On one of those days, not
long after the interview described above, we sat under a tree overlooking his animals as they
grazed in the eld. It was rainy season, and we were about 10 km outside Fransfontein. Our
conversation turned to the weather and the chances of rain. Sitting on the sandy ground
in the arid land, we felt the hot wind blowing from the east. It blew strongly, and heavy
clouds formed across the sky. They looked promising to me. I wanted to impress him with
the knowledge I had gained, so I said, “It will rain today. Do you want to bet?” He replied,
“No, it will not. Things are not like when we were growing up. We had plenty of grazing
back then. But now, just look at my animals. All of them have died.”
“And why is it different today?” I asked.
“Remember, we passed through the commercial farms that border our community,” he be-
gan. Descendants of European settlers still owned most of the commercial farmland adjacent
to Fransfontein. “The whites are burning the trees, making even more money than they al-
ready have. While this will bring money to them, we, the blacks, will struggle and starve.
The trees calm down the winds and attract the water in the clouds as well.”
James was right. The clouds did go away, and the wind, which we felt so strongly under the
tree in the sand, brought neither the water nor the grass and eventually the food we were
But on one of the following days, the rains nally arrived. The next time I visited James, I
jokingly asked him whether the Whites had now stopped burning trees. “No, we prayed,”
James replied. “Both my wife and I got up at ve o’clock in the morning and we went there.”
He pointed to a plain in front of his house. “And we just prayed. Two hours or more. You can
seehowtherainscame....Buttheyonlycamehere.” Then, pointing to the other houses,
he said, “Even there the people did not receive a single drop. It is still dry and dead. The
neighbors came over to my house and could not believe that it had rained so nicely here. I
told you the other day, Michael, we need to pray and to change the life we live. Then there
will be food again.”
The boundaries between discourses are not clear-cut. Such was the case when we were sit-
ting in the sand, and James mixed scientic, Indigenous, and political explanations. Possibly
because I was with him, calling upon my knowledge of the winds, he replied by referring
to science and colonialism. In the context of our conversation, the rain was his food, and
the colonial elite, the people from Germany like me, were contesting it. By contrast, in his
church he attributed the lack of rain to God punishing people’s sins, pointing to another set
of people and another kind of blame. Both contexts shaped his way of relating to and under-
standing the world, which in turn created the world in which he presently found himself and
the explanations that were called for.
I rst met Frans in his ofce. He grew up in the hinterlands and still owns some animals
at his parents’ place. He was in his early thirties at the time and was serving as a public
administrator in a nearby town, a position he had held for several years. After nishing high
school, Frans had studied at the university, but he did not graduate because his family got
into nancial trouble and needed his help. Frans was an ambitious man and had visited the
United States on a fellowship, where he attended seminars. When we talked about climate
change, Frans sat at his desk, leaning over his monitor where emails kept popping up. He
was checking eBay for a sedan he intended to buy.
We had a very broad conversation that went beyond the weather and climate change. I
kept bringing the discussion from the weather in the United States and Germany back to
climate change in Fransfontein. According to Frans, deforestation was the main cause of
global warming and eventually the drought we faced. Although he knew very well from the
WHAT DOES THE SITUATION SAY? 13
workshops he attended that deforestation was a global phenomenon, he insisted that the
people in the area, especially the poor, cut down more trees than they used to. “The people
are poor in Fransfontein. They have no money to buy building material. They are felling
all the trees to build their houses, to build kraals, and then they cook with re every day. In
the towns, people have electricity, just like you in the developed countries.” He explained
this to me while we sat in his newly built ofce where he was the administrator responsible
for providing solutions and development to the poor who often did not understand what he
called the challenges of the millennium.
Frans’ father was a well-known Indigenous leader in Namibia, and I had heard nongovern-
mental organizations praising his name. His father’s reputation made Frans proud. Talking
about his hometown, he lamented how little it had rained in the past years. Then our collo-
quy became more personal. “All my animals have died, and only four are left. I used to go to
the farm every other week. But now? Why should I go? There is no food, only death. When
I lost the rst two cattle, I still thought the rains would eventually come and that it is difcult
to sell the animals now anyway. Everyone sells, and the prices are much too low. Then, when
I came again, I was missing three more. Just like this. Now all are gone. The drought has
taken everything. There is nothing left to eat.”
“But why is there no food?” I asked.
“We have done things wrong,”Frans answered. “Only God can save us.”He continued, “Last
year,people organized a prayer day on which people across the country and from all churches
prayed for rain.” He was himself a religious person. “And there are also other means. In the
area where we live, people slaughtered a goat to make a sacrice. This can help as well.”
Although Frans combined elements from the three discourses mentioned above, they were
not arbitrarily mixed but referred to specic themes evoked in specic situations. To some
degree, he avoided being confronted with the inconsistencies between the registers. At the
end of the interview, I pointed out that he had given me several different explanations for
the changes he observed. His reaction implied that he was already aware of this discrepancy:
“Well, it is one problem we have. There are different ways to tackle it. It does not really make
a difference as long as it serves the end—it brings rain.”
Charles is a teacher and a pastoralist. He grew up a few hundred meters away from where he
currently lives. After independence, his secondary school education brought him the oppor-
tunity to work as an educator, teaching the elders who had not attended school during the
Apartheid years to count, to use ATM machines, and to write some basic words, including
their names. Teaching became a passion for him. He started to take classes himself and began
working as a primary school teacher.Today, he teaches on and off when he is not busy with his
livestock at ǁGamo!nâb (literally translated “place with no water inside”), a small community
some kilometers outside of Fransfontein, where I also live whenever I am in Namibia.
I was with Charles in his kraal one afternoon, waiting for his animals to return. As we leaned
over the wooden poles, we felt the hot wind on our skin. Our conversation turned to the
weather and to climate change. Charles, who knew the area better than anyone else, com-
plained about how he had suffered. In the past, not even three years ago, he had more than
20 head of cattle and 100 sheep—many more than his neighbors had back then and 10 times
what he has today. “You know how big my kraal was,” he said. “But today, there is no food.
The drought took it all. We are all suffering.”
I asked him why.
“Can you feel the wind? You see, it comes from the sea. We do not understand why, but it
is blowing so strongly and until late in the afternoon. She does not let him in.” Like others
before, Charles was referring to the two loving and caring winds, huriǂoab and t¯
we both felt. Many people in the area attribute the arrival of the rains to the interplay between
the two winds. They are human-like and must agree to bring the rain. If they cannot,mostly
because the westerly (female) wind is too dominant and blows all day long, they will not have
the chance to return jointly.
Not long afterward, when his animals were already in the kraal where they would spend the
night protected from jackals and other wild animals, a large number of goats passed by—a
hundred, possibly more. I asked Charles who owned them,and he went straight to the point.
“Because of them, we are suffering. Because of them,there is drought.”He explained further:
In the past, things were more organized. The government would keep a record of how
many animals everyone had, and if there were too many of them in one area, the ex-
tension ofcers from the ministry would come and make a plan. But today, look at the
Himba people who own those animals. They came last month from the far north and
have much more livestock than anyone else. They do not belong here; this is not their
land. But we are nice and allowed them to stay. But the problem is that you let one in
and then all their relatives come as well. Their herds increase. While they tell you that
they are buying the animals, they just get them from their relatives. This is how their
I asked him about the impact of the increased stock brought by migrants. He replied, “They
cause the drought. If there is nothing left, they just go away. They have no houses. Not like
us. . . . In the past this was different; the government was strong and would prevent people
from going anywhere. There was food for the animals, and we had food as well.”
Another afternoon, as we walked through the savannah collecting rewood, clouds started
to form in the east. As I often did in such a situation, I brought the conversation around to
how nice and promising the clouds looked to me, to see how Charles would react.He agreed.
“Yes, the whole day has been promising,” he replied. “Hot in the morning, and the female
wind has calmed down to let him in.” Then suddenly, a sound cut the silence around us. Was
it a truck on the road in the distance? I knew most of the sounds in ǁGamo!nâb. The place
was !nosa, people kept telling me. !Nosa means silent and boring at the same time. But no—we
WHAT DOES THE SITUATION SAY? 15
gazed up at the sky, and both noticed the airplane’s vapor trail at the same time. It was a low-
ying Cessna. Charles is normally a calm man, but this made him angry. “Don’t they know?
Or do they not care? They bring death to all of us. Those gases will destroy the clouds and
the rain. We have seen this so many times.” I did not understand fully, so he explained. “You
know, it is those planes that cause climate change. I teach agriculture at the school,and there
we learn.” We continued to talk. Later I mentioned again that the day looked promising for
rain, but his reply was uncharacteristically harsh. “Didn’t you see? No way will there be rain
today.” And he was right. The theme in Charles’ explanation was widely recognized in the
area, as I learned in the days that followed. Many people mixed their scientic knowledge
about climate-changing atmospheric gases with the gases they could see: vapor trails and, in
other contexts, smoke from burning trees.
When I leave for Germany on my regular ight, Charles sees my plane ying around nine
o’clock at night across the sky. There is very little air trafc in this part of the world.I typically
send him a text before boarding my ight and we conrm when I land the next day. Once I
had asked him if these planes would cause the rain to fail, too, but he denied it. “No, there
must be gas.” And while he sounded sure,this might also have had to do with his reluctance to
put me in the same category as the colonial settlers. At the very least,I sensed some awareness
and ambiguity in him.
The survey reveals that people use different registers to explain the observations they make.
Maybe unsurprisingly, my ethnographic analysis shows that these registers do not mesh into
one web of meaning in which all explanations are equally important all the time. Rather,
people foreground particular aspects depending on the situations they nd themselves in.
With this, the weather has become something different depending on the situation in which
it is encountered.
These observations link up with ontological debates in environmental anthropology (Bur-
man 2017; Goldman, Daly, and Lovell 2016; Knox 2015; Mészáros 2020; Schnegg 2019;
Whitaker 2019). In my previous work,I have also shown that Namibian scientists and Damara
people share many observations about the winds, the rains, and climate change. At the same
time, their explanations can hardly be more different, which indicates that the phenomena
are different things for them (Schnegg 2019, 2021a).
Although the ontological literature demonstrates how different groups like the Namibian
scientists and Damara people can live in different worlds, the analysis I present here centers
agents and situations. If practices can, as Annemarie Mol shows, make the world in which we
nd ourselves, this applies not only to different practices and to different groups (e.g., as per-
formed by different medical specialists in Mol’s analysis) but also to the different ways people
do things (Mol 2002). Would it not be more appropriate, then, to refer to multiple worlds
instead of different registers to explain one world (Omura et al. 2018)? The answer depends
on the denition of world, of course. If we dene world as an extension of culture that per-
meates practices, materiality, and things, then different ways of being-in-the-world will bring
forth different worlds—worlds that are not mutually exclusive, that allow for movement be-
tween them, that allow for switching (Dreyfus and Spinosa 1999; Pauli 2020; Rottenburg
2003; Schnegg 2019). Although I can only preview the answer here, the differences between
worlds seem pronounced enough to support this.
No matter whether we talk about different registers or worlds, the question remains how the
situational difference comes about. To explain this, I have identied three components that
can become building blocks for a more nished phenomenological theory of environmental
knowing. They add to my previous work that foregrounds practices, aims, and the networks
of involvements around a phenomenon (Schnegg 2019, 2021a). The remaining paragraphs
reect these components and the steps still ahead.
First, knowledge comes from doing. The focus on being-in-the-world includes the proposition
that practices contribute to what an entity becomes. If this is so, different uses (or no use at
all) can help to explain why different explanations are required in different situations. In the
case of Fransfontein, most of the people are (also) pastoralists. Walking through and being-in
an arid environment that does not provide sufcient food conrms continuously that the rain
is essential for the livestock to survive. What this implies becomes especially evident when
taking goats and sheep to the eld. Although the animals graze in a relaxed mode around the
community in good rainfall years, during a drought it takes ve or more hours of walking
through the harsh savannah landscape to provide them with sufcient food. If there is no
rain, the zula is immense, people say—the hard struggle to make ends meet against all odds
and the acceptance of what life throws at you.
With this experience, people ask why they must suffer so much. Often, the answers point to
colonialism and the inequality that continues to exist. For example, James and I sat under
the tree and felt the wind, sand, and heat on the deforested and degraded landscape.But who
is responsible? The colonial elite. They took the land many years ago and still live in abun-
dance. Although James explained this to me, we both knew how much easier it was to keep
livestock where the (colonial) elites stayed. We had been on their farms together many times
and seen how vast territories and good infrastructures (e.g., fences, boreholes) make farming
much easier and much more productive, too. In sum,the experience of hardship foregrounds
registers that ask why these practices are so difcult and why people in Fransfontein have so
little land, land that is overgrazed by too many animals.
In a similar situation, Charles sees the herders from up north passing by, which prompts
him to reect on how difcult pastoralism has become. He also concludes that there are
too many people and animals. Again, the situation of being-in-the-land and caring for his
animals foregrounds specic aspects of what the lack of rain also means—overstocking and
degradation—and leads to particular ways of making this meaningful.
I encountered another way of doing weather knowledge in my conversations with Frans.
Being-in-his-ofce and doing administrative work, he cares about the people and their
WHAT DOES THE SITUATION SAY? 17
economic “development.” To overcome poverty is a major national policy aim, and he sub-
scribes to it. It is his vision, too. Against this backdrop, he cannot blame people for cutting
down trees as long as they are poor. In so doing, he builds up a distance between him, his
economic position as a government employee, his scientic knowing, and the pastoral com-
munity. In this situation, the practice of doing community development makes him refer to
specic registers from the hybrid knowledge he maintains.
Second, knowledge resides in things. Accordingly, the things with which I interact in a partic-
ular situation partly structure what the phenomenon becomes and which explanations are
required for it. For example, when James and I are sitting in his church with its worn-out
chairs, a place for the prophet to pray, owers, and much more, the architectural assemblage
makes God present through those objects and through the role they give James as a prophet.
Not surprisingly, religious aspects are foregrounded while we talk about and interact with
Asking questions about the change in weather can foreground moralizing registers. In a
Christian society, God can be understood to punish people for their sins. This kind of self-
blame has been described by many climate-change anthropologists (Schnegg, O’Brian, and
Sievert 2021). As Peter Rudiak-Gould shows, the experience of climate change often ts into
general discourses of decline. This often leads to either in- or out-group blame (Rudiak-
Gould 2014c). In the case I explore here, both can be found. James blames politicians, for
example, as an out-group, and Charles refers to the Himba people in the same way. Con-
versely, those who make moralizing statements about the loss of solidarity within the com-
munity blame members of the in-group.
When I visited Charles’ pastoral home one day, shortly after the day we met in his church,
the animals were around, and we saw their thinness, their suffering; we saw that they might
die. We sat on the sandy ground with little or no vegetation around. This scarcity contrasts
with images of the abundant cattle farms that still belong to farmers of European descent.
In this context, also largely inuenced by the arid and degraded ground on which we sat,
other aspects of the phenomenon become salient—the ongoing colonial inequalities, the
overgrazing, and so on.
Yet, knowledge about the lack of rain did not only sit in the dried-up ground but also in the
aircraft Charles and I saw. The private plane is a pervasive symbol of the colonial legacies, the
suffering, and the tremendous inequality that continues to exist in Fransfontein. Although it
would take Charles more than a day to prepare his donkey cart and to travel to the neigh-
boring community, the descendants of European settlers y hundreds of kilometers to buy
fresh food. At the same time, the aircraft appears with awhite contrail, which triggers the dis-
courses of greenhouse gases and their relation to climate change. As a result, Charles blames
the colonial elite as an out-group, linking to a particular trajectory of moralizing societal and
Third, across these examples, the things people interact with when talking about the weather
are charged with particular colonial, religious, and practical histories that all contribute to the
situationality of their experience. Against this backdrop, specic aspects of the rain are fore-
grounded, and different explanations are necessary. But how and why do people move be-
In two fascinating essays, Duranti (2009) and Throop (2015), building on Husserl and
Wittgenstein, show how “phenomenological modications” make a thing appear differently
from one situation to another. Mental processes lead to a changing attitude toward the
thing—much like the famous gestalt gures or M. C. Escher’s art. In this reading, experi-
encing a phenomenon situationally makes us see and talk about it differently.
The framework I suggest builds on these works. However, I follow more closely Heideg-
ger’s attempt to overcome the divide between the perceiving subject and the perceived ob-
ject. With him,I argue that through being-in-the-world, they become one—Dasein—which
responds to the world. Getting rid of the subject poses the interesting question of who,
then, speaks. The registers (explanations) I nd are, in this reading, not an active framing of
the world through the mind (as Husserl would argue) or words that articulate what we do
(as Wittgenstein would suggest). They are instead, part of Dasein’s being-in-the-world and
closely tied to it. In this sense, Dasein, as a link between mind and world, reveals itself in a
particular way and needs to be talked about accordingly. Put differently, the situation talks!
It will require more work to fully develop this idea and I am increasingly convinced that the
work of the German philosopher Waldenfels and his responsive phenomenology can become
a very productive guide for doing so (Waldenfels 2011). In my reading, one of the advantages
of the approach I am developing is that it decenters knowing from the mind, allowing us
to explore the different aspects a phenomenon contains so the phenomenon reveals itself
and “speaks” in a particular manner, situationally. As my analysis has shown, the situations
I experienced spoke not only about “CO2” but also about colonialization, the failure of the
postcolonial state, modernity, death, economic inequality, politics, and much more—in short,
political ecology. Through this focus on situations and the ways people respond to them, the
kind of listening this article encourages also implies that we will hear voices that are often
not recognized in the climate-change literature. Anthropology, more than other disciplines,
can add them.
To conclude, making different ways of being-in-the-world the entry point provides an an-
alytical framework for understanding how weather phenomena become different from one
situation to another. Knowing that the lack of rain is something different from situation to
situation makes intelligible why it is talked about differently, situationally.
MICHAEL SCHNEGG is a Professor at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at
the Universität Hamburg, Germany.
WHAT DOES THE SITUATION SAY? 19
Acknowledgments. Without the continuous support of numerous people and communities in Kunene, this re-
search would not have been possible. In addition, Julia Pauli and Edward Lowe have shaped my thinking about
knowing since the beginning of my career, and I am extremely grateful for the challenges and the advice they
have given me. Coral O’Brian, Inga Sievert, and the anonymous Ethos reviewers have offered very construc-
tive comments. Moreover, I am deeply indebted to Sylvanus Job for teaching Khoekhoegowab to me. The re-
search presented here was funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) as part of the projects Know-
ing the Weather in Namibia (423280253) and EXC 2037 CLICCS—Climate, Climatic Change, and Society
1. While we often nd convergence and hybridity,other studies also report that people mobilize existing cosmolo-
gies to resist the idea of climate change (Crate and Fedorov 2013; Hermann and Kempf 2018).
2. I use Damara or ǂN¯
ukhoen as a shorthand for the Damara people in the area around Fransfontein where I work.
Khoekhoegowab is a language of the Khoe-Kwadi family with four (primary) click sounds (ǂ, palatal; ǁ, lateral; ǀ,
dental; !, alveolar). Khoe-Kwadi languages belong to the southern African non-Bantu languages with click phonemes
that, although not forming a single linguistic unit, are conventionally subsumed under the cover term “Khoisan”
(Güldemann and Fehn 2014, 2).
3. Heidegger’s personal involvement with the National Socialist Party in Germany and his anti-Semitism have
made him a highly controversial gure (Trawny 2014f). Critics claim that his afliation with the Nazi Party reveals
the more general problems inherent in his philosophy, but his supporters argue that political and philosophical
engagements can be separated. I understand that his thinking romanticizes the national in problematic ways, but
I also agree that particular aspects of his work, especially the importance of practical activities, can and should be
developed critically—as long as the problematic aspects of his thinking are kept in mind.
4. I am very thankful to one of the Ethos anonymous reviewers for posing this question and pushing me to think
5. Among both the Damara and the Nama, ǀnanus refers to rain. Among the Nama, ǀnanus also refers to the cloud.
6. All names are pseudonyms and were chosen to reect the popularity of English or German rst names in the
region. In addition, most people in Fransfontein also have “house names,” mostly in Khoekhoegowab. My data
collection required being-with people over very long periods of time, which lead to a certain gender and age biases.
The three case studies I describe focus on men between 30 and 55 years old. However,during my eldwork I engaged
with many different people and could not nd any indications in my ethnographic material that the ndings I report
could be reduced to those social categories.
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