The Bushmen, also called the San people–both terms are considered somewhat derogatory but will be used for simplicity of exposition– are the oldest inhabitants of Southern Africa. Hunter-gatherers for most of their existence, they have been around for over 15 centuries and are thought of as being our oldest living ancestors. Shown as the most genetically diverse of any living humans studied, the San People are described by Paul Theroux in his book “The Last Train to Zona Verde” as follows: “it is said that the features of the San people are a combination of all the racial characteristics of the world –Asian eyes, African faces, European skin tones– and if there was a human synthesis of all the world’s ethnic groups, the resulting examples would probably be a San person.” There has been a lot written on them, most notably by the Marshall family who in the 1950s spent extended periods of time living with them and documenting their fascinating ways of life. But the most likely way you may have come across this tribe is by watching the 1980 movie, The Gods Must be Crazy. In this quirky comedy, a Coca-Cola bottle dropped from an airplane creates trouble among a tribe of Bushmen who believe that the gods must have sent the bottle, and since it is to them quite obviously useless, the gods must be crazy. The movie presents an idyllic view of the Bushman way of life, at least in comparison to our so-called “civilized” society.
Not many Bushmen are left; by some estimates only 80,000 Bushmen are alive today, living mostly in the remote areas of the Kalahari Desert, in Botswana, Namibia, Angola, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. A small group, around 1,600 of them, can be found in Northeastern Namibia. These Bushmen call themselves the Ju/’hoansi, which means “real people,” or “harmless people” (the punctuation is used to denote different clicks sounds used in Bushman languages.) I had the opportunity to meet and interact with a small community of Ju/hoansi people not far from a tiny town called Tsumke.
One morning (mid-morning, when the sun is too hot for the lions to walk around), we were treated to a bushwalk. Our guides were three elder men who dressed in their traditional garb for the occasion and carried bows and arrows as well as a very long spear-like pole that they described as digging sticks. Walking in a line, as they typically do, our guides demonstrated the skills that allowed their people to survive for centuries such as finding a “water tuber” that will quench your thirst if needed, unearthing hidden roots with a digging stick, making fire out of two pieces of wood, making twine out of twisted vines, and putting together a trap for a guinea hen that even the most astute one couldn’t escape. They pointed out the plants they use for medicine, and on the way, they gathered a few branches of the wood they use to make arrow shafts. The men also talked about how to make the poison they applied to their arrowheads to make them deadly. The heat was intense (these lions clearly know something) but our walk leaders did not seem to be impacted by it at all (I, on the other hand…).
This walk gave us a glimpse into their traditional way of life, but a visit to their village made clear that life has changed for the Bushmen. The village was a small cluster of huts and some sleeping nets. Faded Western clothes have replaced the traditional dress. For many years now, hunting has been highly restricted, as former hunting territories have become wildlife reserves. It is clear that the hunting and gathering era is over as a way of life, although the Bushmen still pursue some of these activities to supplement their meager diet. Women, for instance, still go foraging for mangetti nuts, which are the size of hazelnuts, and a rich source of protein, to add to the cornmeal ration provided by the Namibian government. The Bushmen have had to adapt to their new ways of life, and are still in the process of doing so. In the meantime, it is clearly a struggle.
We had been told that there was a chance that we might be able to attend if the community decided to perform a healing dance at night. Only at the last minute where we told that this would be happening. It was a mesmerizing experience and went on for several hours. The women were mostly standing up in a row singing and clapping their hands in a sharp rhythm. It is said that when Dave Mathews of the Dave Matthews band heard the music of the San and asked his guide what the words to their songs were, he was told, “there are no words to these songs because these songs we’ve been singing since before people had words”. Here is a short clip if you want to listen to the Bushmen.
The description of the dance is best left to Elizabeth Marshall as she has seen it performed many times. In her book, “The Old Ways”, she describes the healing dance as follows: “to cure people and get the evil out of them the medicine man, or healer, will begin by washing his hands in the fire. He then will place one hand on the person’s chest, and one on their back, and will suck the evil from them. The medicine man often shudders and groans as he does this, and then will suddenly shriek the evil into the air. As Marshall also puts it, they sometimes dance themselves into a trance, they can also suddenly fling their arms into the air and with a piercing shriek crash to the ground. There could not be a more accurate description of what we witnessed. That evening the Bushmen were back to being Bushmen.
As it is often the case, this was a visit that generated mixed emotions. It was a unique opportunity to witness the inimitable skills and knowledge of the Ju/hoansi people and to experience their openness and friendliness. Yet, the Bushmen are clearly struggling, and as I am told it is even worse in Bostwana where they are in a legal battle with the government over land rights (for more on this, go to Survival International). This is clearly a problem beyond the scope of my little blog post. Yet, I sincerely hope that the Bushmen find their ways in the modern world as they have been able to do so for so long and I hope that we can help them in the process. Otherwise, the gods are still crazy.