The Elegant San

Xhase Samelec and Dacham clicked merrily to one other as we passed through the scorched grassland and lowlying bush. It seemed strange to see two men with apricot-yellow skin, Mongolian high cheekbones and slanted eyes in the Southern African bush. So different are they in appearance to the local Bantu tribes that you might think the Bushmen are misplaced in the Kalahari Desert, but they have lived here in Southern Africa for thousands of years. It is their homeland and they were the original inhabitants.

The Bushmen tread gently on the fragile earth of the Kalahari, but yet they leave their indelible footprint on it. Dressed in traditional skin loincloths (xai) made from duiker antelope skins, kudushu sandals and with steenbok hide sacks on their shoulders they led us through the primordial veld stopping briefly to show us their bush secrets. “This is the bushman fridge,” Dacham explained to us as he dug up a round football sized ostrich eggshell buried beneath the ground. He deftly removed the grass plug and drank the cool stored water from a hole in the eggshell. He had the whole egg scrambled for breakfast himself he quipped. I didn’t believe he could eat the equivalent of at least two-dozen eggs (as yellow as a farmyard egg, but tastes slightly more oily and richer) by himself.

The Bushmen has a few quirky anatomical adaptations for life in the desert. They have an expandable stomach and posterior (their unique bodyshape called steatopygia) and can eat legendary amounts of food in one sitting, so perhaps he ate that huge omelet breakfast. One peculiar physical anomaly is the man’s permanent “semi-readiness”. Women have a protective fold of skin downward that presumably helps deter any unwanted amorous advances.

Onwards we trekked getting demonstrations of how food is gleaned and thirsts are quenched in the harsh desert environment. All explanations were filled with elaborate stories and accompanied by enthusiastic gesticulating. Our Afrikaaner guide with limited Nharo (the local Bushman dialect) explained the gist of what they were saying, which was filled with metaphorical embellishment.

Dacham dug up a large tuberous root and squeezed moist shavings from it to release a bitter but pleasantly cool liquid. He then showed us how he would trap a springhare by placing a long hooked rod down its burrow and digging the ground with his hands. We stopped at a clearing with two traditional beehive huts. Friction between two special corkwood branches was used to generate a fire in the rapidly fading daylight. Then they danced for us. The Bushman loves to dance.

Bushmen have been living their hunter-gatherer life in Southern Africa for at least 30,000 years. Ancient pottery fragments were found near the Chobe River and cave paintings can be seen at Tsodilo Hills in Northern Botswana, famously dubbed the “Louvre of the desert”, and in parts of Namibia and South Africa. The Bushman used to live from coast to coast in Southern Africa, but the arrival of the Bantu settlers from the North and later European settlers pushed them deeper into the harsher climes of the Kalahari. There may have been up to five million Bushman when the Europeans first arrived but now there is only about 100,000 left. Most of them live in Botswana and Namibia with only a few remaining in Angola, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The Bushman’s history is tragic. It is a story of mass genocide and ethnic cleansing. In the 18th century, Bantu tribes arrived and life changed. Although at first the Bantu didn’t bother the Bushman too much and traded with them (the Hottentots or Khoikhoi are thought to be of mixed Bantu and Bushman blood), later they became their slaves. The arrival of the Europeans had an even more profound effect. Boer settlers viewed them as subhuman and exterminated them in tens of thousands like vermin. Those that survived were banished to the desert or were enslaved in servitude on white farms. Many resisted the injustices with spears and arrows with limited success against the white man’s muskets. They were rounded up and murdered for hunting livestock and even in some cases just for devilment.

Some unfortunate Bushmen suffered the ignominy of being paraded around the cities of Europe and displayed as exotic curiosities. Hottentot Venus (Sara Baartman) was the most famous and, although an intelligent woman and fluent in five languages, she was treated like she was a circus performer’s pet. Even after she died her most private body parts were displayed in the Museum of Mankind in Paris until the 1970s. Her body was recently posthumously returned to South Africa for burial. The anatomical uniqueness of the Bushman including their elongated skull shape were used by those nasty eugenic scientists who argued that us pink-skinned Europeans are a “superior race” to Africans.

It is hard to know what to call the Bushman, as there is no politically correct term (no offence is meant by using it here). It was the Boers who coined the phrase “Bosjesman” first with the negative connotation of primitive savages. In its more modern interpretation as “people of the land”, Bushman is not really that offensive a term. In Namibia and South Africa, they are more likely to be called San because of a diverse group of languages spoken by a diverse group of peoples (including the Hottentots) called the Khoisan (with distinctive klicking sounds). San, however, is sometimes also considered derogatory as in the Hottentot language it means vagabond. The San Permit allowed people to hunt the Bushman and the last permit was issued as late as 1956. In Botswana, they are called Basarwa, but this can be interpreted as meaning “person with nothing”. The Botswana Government uses the all-embracing Remote Area Dwellers to describe the Bushman and other poor rural dwellers. The acronym RADs when a local pronounces it sounds just like “rats”, so it is equally unpopular among Bushmen. The name Ju/`hoansi, which means “red people” in the Nharo tongue of the Namibian !Kung Bushman is innocuous and inoffensive, but it involves a tongue twister of a click and is not recognized outside Africa and even among different Bushman groups.

The Bushman languages Khoisan contain a whole series of hollow clicks, guttural swallowing noises, and impossible throat exclamations. It is not a primitive language nor naïve. There are about 100 languages or dialects of Khoisan languages and there was little written form for them until recently (the different clicks are depicted in written form by ‘, ! and /). The Bushmen are good linguists and can often speak several languages.

The Bushman has tremendous knowledge of the bushveld and can find food and water supplies in droughts. Life is lived in tune with the environment and based on subsistence so food sources are sustained. They don’t eat much meat and mainly set traps for springhares, porcupines, honey badgers, and ground squirrels. It is the men who hunt larger animals (usually antelope and often using dogs and clubs) and they make poisoned arrows for their bows with the larva of the crimson beetle. The larger antelope are usually only eaten on special occasions and they never hunt for sport.

Women collect the other foodstuffs. Wild eland cucumbers with their protective thorns, shepherd’s bush roots (to make bread and porridge), fruits, nuts and of course mopane worms are all diet staples. Mopane worms are not worms at all but the green and blue caterpillar stage of the Emperor moth and are supposedly an acquired taste. Personally I prefer to just look at them.

Modern medicine depends on plants for more drugs than we often realise and Bushman knowledge has already reaped pharmaceutical rewards for the west. The diet drug hoodia (from the hoodoba plant) has been hailed the new wonder drug to tackle obesity and South Africa’s Bushmen will benefit from the pharmaceutical industry’s profits as they have filed a patent. The knowledge of the healing power of plants is one of the things we lose when ancient cultures disappear. Some Bushman remedies include using the leaves of the sicklebush to treat snakebites and scorpion stings and using lavender feverberry to cure the flu, colds and malarial fever. Four different plants are used for family planning and abortifacients. Wild sweet pea is the Bushman aspirin and a cure for hangovers caused by imbibing too much of their homebrew wood liquour (kari) and truly poisonous palm wine.

Many of their traditional hunting implements and jewellery are now sold to tourists as handicrafts. Bracelets and necklaces made from broken ostrich shell discs and strung together are particularly attractive. Bows and arrows are also purchased as souvenirs. Though the arrow tips are not laced with the beetle larva poison.

A special tiny bow and arrow was used for finding love. The bow is made out of a sliver of bone of the gemsbok about three inches long. The arrows are made of grass and the minute quiver made out of the feather of a bustard. The tip was bathed in a special magic substance. The man would fly the arrow into the rear of the woman he fancied. If she kept the arrow then he was in, if she destroyed it, he was out of luck.

The Bushmen have a very subtle religion with complex and symbolic folktales. The healing or trance dance is the most important ritual. Using repetitive dance movements for many hours the healer goes into an intense trance. Healers can induce rain or make hunts successful as well as cure serious ailments. More powerful trances put the healer in mortal danger and so filled with supernatural energy they can fall into the fire. It is said that some healers can even shape shift into animals (such as lions and leopards) and these animal forms were often blamed by the Bushman for stock theft and poaching.

The Bushmen don’t view themselves as a collective or homogeneous group, so historically they haven’t had much political clout. Traditionally there is no chief or social hierarchy in their tribal clans (usually only 3 or 4 families) and everyone gets a say, men and women, when decisions are made. Land claims have consequently been very difficult to coordinate and they have remained landless. The First People of the Kalahari and the Botswana Centre for Human Rights ( are their first politically motivated local representation.

For thousands of years the Bushman’s plight was ignored internationally. Their first advocate was Laurens Van Der Post author of The Cry of the Kalahari. He presented the Bushman as “noble savages” surviving and arduous desert life existence. You can’t help but feel that he had his own considerable ego to fuel while he was banging his drum for the Bushman. To be the man who discovered the last romantic tribe in the “Eden” desert was his place in history. He lost me as a fan when he described how he shot a magnificent eland bull straight through the heart against the sun from an impossible distance. This was a supernatural gift to the starving Bushmen who proceeded to tell him alone all the hidden secrets of their culture. The Healing Land by Rupert Isaacson is much less about the author and is more balanced. The British NGO Survival International ( champions Bushman causes and criticizes South African governments for their treatment of Bushmen.

In 1961, when Botswana was a British Protectorate, the Central Kalahari Game Reserve was set up to preserve the Bushman way of life and protect wildlife. Since then Bushman have been relocated to settlement camps outside ther reserve. The Botswana Government have given several reasons for their removal from the reserve: the lack of water and food on the reserve (farming in the area has lowered the water table) has meant it is too expensive to subsidise their lifestyle, the reserve is for animals and is not safe for the Bushman, and it is time for them to come into the 21st century. Cynics and critics argue that diamonds (De Beers have a huge vested interest in Botswana) are the real reason as there is a large cache on the reserve and it cost the government more to relocate the Bushmen as to keep them on the reserve. Some of the facilities in the new camps were provided on the reserve already and there doesn’t seem to be a reason why they couldn’t again.

In Namibia and South Africa the plight of the Bushman was not much better until apartheid was abolished. The degrading Bushman diorama in the South African Museum in Cape Town was closed down even though it was one of the most popular exhibits. The new South Africa coat of arms contains two figures from Khoisan rock art. Bushmen have settled in the remote Bushmanland that straddles the Namibia and South Africa borders. In Bushmanland, they have had some economic success running tourism programmes and educating visitors about their culture.

The Bushman is caught in a catch 22 that is not too dissimilar to other disenfranchised minorities throughout the world. They have difficulty with the imposed reality of modern society. They are not permitted to hunt and live out their traditional lifestyles in their homeland. They resort to petty crime most of which is induced by alcoholism. Diseases such as AIDS and TB are becoming far too prevalent.

N!xau, the Namibian Bushman, who starred in the 1980s film The Gods Must Be Crazy, which grossed $100 million at the box office, died last year of antibiotic resistant TB. The film, a comedy, describes how a coke bottle drops from an airplane and temporarily changes the life of a Bushman village.

The narrator of the film describes a time when the Bushmen had the Kalahari to themselves. “People avoid the deep Kalahari like the plague, because man must have water to live. So, the beautiful landscapes are devoid of people, except for the little people of the Kalahari.”

Initially the coke bottle was seen as a gift from the Gods, but in the end N!xau finding it of no particular use to him at all symbolically chucks it over the edge of a cliff and off the edge of the world. It is doubtful they would do the same with the diamonds.


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