A weekend with the Bushmen of the Kalahari


Josh-John-2In his visit to the Living Museum of the Ju/’Hoansi-San, Christopher Clark expresses the importance of learning about the first people of southern Africa, and keeping the culture of the San alive

As we arrive at the reception of the Living Museum of the Ju/’Hoansi-San, in Namibia, scores of locals gather to offer us an effusive welcome. Some are bare-chested and dressed in traditional animal skin loincloths, with a spear clasped in one hand, and a bow-and-arrow slung over their shoulders. Others look relaxed in jeans and t-shirts.

Among the welcoming party is Henry, or !Xai, as he is known in his native language of the San. He tells us that he is the main guide and host at the Living Museum. He seems to be as comfortable discussing the Bushmen’s tracking techniques as he is in discussing the lack of cell phone reception at the Museum.

Folk tales around the campfire
We set up our tents on the sand beneath the canopy of towering Mangetti trees, enveloped on all sides by dense bushveld. After dinner, Henry joins us around our campfire with another male Ju/’Hoansi elder. In a well-judged theatrical flourish, Henry substitutes his jeans and t-shirt for the more traditional regalia. He places his spear, bow and arrow carefully on the sand as he sits to translate for his companion, who in his mother tongue shares tales of close scrapes with lions and extensive hunting expeditions. Almost every word draws on one of the palatal ‘clicks’ that decorates all San languages.

A shared learning experience
The following morning Henry leads us on a guided bush walk, beginning with a visit to a model San settlement. Various members of the local community gather around the straw huts, and take great delight in watching me fail immensely at starting a fire with a few sticks and dried grass. Despite receiving encouragement from Henry, he eventually takes over and gets the fire going with perfect ease.

Throughout the day, we get a sense of the incredibly intimate relationship that the Ju/’Hoansi people have with the natural environment around them. We learn about the various plants they use for medicinal or nutritional purposes, as well as the poisonous ones that are applied to their arrowheads to ensure a swift death for their prey. The men also demonstrate how they make traps for smaller animals and birds.

A stream of younger community members follow us throughout, and they are visibly intrigued by the whole experience as we are. This is central to the ethos of the Living Museum: the experiences on offer aims to connect the younger generation of Ju/’Hoansi with a heritage that has been almost obliterated, diluted or forgotten across southern Africa.

A threatened way of life
During the colonial era, most of Namibia’s Ju/’Hoansi populations were violently uprooted from their ancestral homelands. Many groups were forcibly resettled to squalid and marginalized ghettos and townships. Other groups disappeared altogether due to the relentless onslaught of modernity.

The Ju/’Hoansi people are unique in that they continue to occupy their ancestral lands. But there are only around 1000 left, scattered across 36 small villages. Even today these villages and their inhabitants continue to be largely isolated from the rest of Namibia, and their welfare and traditional way of life is routinely neglected and undervalued.

Anyone who takes the time to veer from Namibia’s more beaten paths and decides to visit the Living Museum of the Ju/’Hoansi-San, will quickly see the importance of supporting these kinds of community-driven cultural initiatives. The indigenous people of southern Africa still have so much to teach us, and where better for those lessons to be taught than in their own backyard.

Christopher Clark travelled to the Living Museum of the Ju/’Hoansi-San with Namibia-Experience.