Into the Kalahari to visit the Bushmen

In the morning on the 24th, having recovered from the Garbage Bag Party, the group left Ngepi Camp en route to the Kalahari. It was a long, two-day drive, and the first day wasn’t very interesting at all - just an awful lot of straight flat roads through scrubby bush land, and rain all day. The rain was bad - worse than usual, I mean - because it meant that we might not be able to navigate the access road to the Bushman village that we were aiming for on the next day. We all kept fingers crossed and resentful eyes on the sky through the day. The weather cleared up in the mid-afternoon, as it turned out. There was no Plan B if the Bushman visit wasn’t possible - we’d only have spent yet another day at a campsite, doing nothing much. I wasn’t pleased with the idea - sometimes it seems as if we do nothing on this trip but go from campsite bar to campsite bar - so I went around and marshalled support from the rest for my demand to spend the extra day in Etosha National Park instead of the campground. They were all behind me, but it turned out to be unnecessary - the rain had ended early enough for the road to the Bushman village to be dry enough for the truck.

When I saw the road, I understood the concern - dirt roads are nothing new, but this was a Kalahari road, which means fine, dusty sand. A drop of rain would turn it into a deep, impassable morass of mud. The truck had enough problems with the sand - it got temporarily stuck twice on the road and permanently stuck at the very end when we reached Grashoek near the village. No amount of pushing would free it - the truck is heavy - so it had to be dug out and sand-mats put in front of the wheels to drive on. Sand-mats look like giant flat metal Lego bricks - the studded side bites into the ground and the tire rolls over the smooth side. It was touch-and-go, but there was no sense of urgency since we’d actually reached our destination.

Watching all the truck-excavation efforts was a huge crowd of ragged kids, one little puppy and one morose-looking donkey. I think we were a great source of entertainment - they were all crowding around us the entire time we were visiting, except when we were forced to shoo them away so we could eat. They were great kids - happy, friendly, joyfully enthusiastic about everything and still very polite (in their behaviour anyway, none of them spoke English and I don’t speak Khoisian, so they could have been verbally abusing us the whole time for all I know) From the instant we got out of the truck we were mobbed by at least fifty of them wanting to play, wanting cuddles and airplane rides, wanting their picture taken, and on and on. Sheryl’s pink hair was a hit, and they spent a good five minutes poking my cycling-built calf muscles, but it was the cameras they loved and couldn’t get enough of. I think they would happily have posed for pictures all day long. And taken them too - the only thing they liked more than having their picture taken was taking them themselves. I lent my camera to one boy for a couple of minutes, watching in cold sweats the whole time thinking he’d drop it. I wasn’t worried for a second about any of them stealing anything, though. They were all really great kids. I was later to learn that this sweetness of personality is a characteristic of the whole Bushman people.

Bushman child

Later in the day, after lunch, two Bushmen came to collect us and we followed them to the museum village. They were the first adults I’d seen. They were tiny - the size of most 14 or 15-year-old kids back home, and very slender with a pronounced jaw and cheekbones. Only one spoke English, so they conversed between themselves in Khoisian, a language full of coughing sounds and throat-clicks unlike any other language in the world. They took us into the “museum village” - not really a village but an open-air re-enactment of village life. Most of the tribe live in the village proper and don’t wear traditional (lack of) clothing. I really don’t think that the rest of the tribe has become very modernized, though - only displaced. The government has revoked their hunting rights in the Kalahari and so they’ve had to try and find other ways of surviving. They’re lobbying to have the hunting rights at least partially reinstated, but with no luck so far. It’s all eerily reminiscent of the First Nations situation back home. Our guide was interested in the parallels when he and I talked about it, but ultimately he just wants to move back into the bush and resume their traditional lifestyle of giraffe-hunting, although he told me that he can see the government’s ecological conservation problem.

Our first demonstration was of the traditional method of fire lighting - spinning a stick between the hands, pressing it down into another stick to set the sawdust smouldering. Afterward we got taken into the bush for a walk and they pointed out all the traditional food plants. A brief and welcome rainstorm broke the heat but we were drenched when we got back to the village. Over the next hour some of us got to make bows and the rest got to make or watch jewellery made. Sheryl was miffed because only the boys got to make bows, but nobody was stopping her, she could have made one if she’d wanted to.

Bow-making was fun. The Bushman bows are short - only maybe 60cm - and have a ten-or fifteen-pound draw, I’d guess. They’re made from a single stick of a particular tree, tapered at the ends and sealed with sand hot from the fire. The strings are braided from the fibres of a particular plant. The arrows were made for us earlier, arrow-making being considerably more complicated and involving sucking on giraffe sinew. We practiced shooting them when they were done, with the target at 20 meters or so. I didn’t hit the target, but then nobody did, not even the Bushmen themselves (though they might not have been trying very hard). I think I was closest out of all the non-Bushmen, and it would have been a complete success except for the one moment when I embarrassed myself - the bowstring slipped off my fingers and the arrow shot end over end up into the air. Nobody was hit, I’m happy to report. At least our arrows weren’t poisoned (the Bushmen make poison from worms that live under a certain bush, and it’s quite deadly).

Bushman demonstrating traditional arrow-making

In the evening a bunch of them came to our camp and sang traditional songs around the fire. I have to admit, I like the Bushmen very much, but I couldn’t stand their songs There was a lot of nasal shrieky chanting and it was very loud. They went on for ages too, at least an hour and a half - plenty of time for me to get a headache. They were fun to watch, though. All the women lined up and sang and clapped, and three men faced them and sang in counterpart. Two of the men - the younger two - did this insane vibrating-buttocks thing that I’m not even capable of describing (well revealed by their dress which was a leather loincloth and nothing else). The old man who made up the trio couldn’t do the butt-wiggle dance anymore, but substituted a back-and-forth vibrating shuffle instead, grinning like a madman the whole time. I was amazed by the energy the men had, keeping themselves at a fever-pitch for so long. They may have had some help from a paste in a little clay pot, which was described as “traditional medicine” and to which they helped themselves often. I suspect it was traditional medicine in the same sense as catnip is to cats. In any case it (or something) certainly kept them going - I was worn out just from watching them.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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