Turning off the main road between Grootfontein and Rundu, at a road sign that indicates Tsumkwe 220 km, I was feeling rather sceptical. We were heading for an area just west of Khaudum National Park in the remote north-eastern part of Namibia. The assurance was an authentic cultural interaction with the Ju/’hoan San people. Unfortunately, my experience of these cultural experiences set up for tourists has often shown them to be superficial and contrived. Turning people into a commodity, exploiting them for the visitor’s pleasure, and even indulgence, is not something I like to be part off.
However, the San hold a true fascination to me, a people full of wisdom and insight into the mysteries of the earth. My curiosity got the better of me, so I made the dusty and bumpy journey to Tsumkwe.
The San are one of the oldest indigenous people in Africa, who once lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in small family groups. They never had any desire to accumulate material wealth or personal possessions, and shared everything among their community. This lifestyle became increasingly difficult to maintain for many San in an ever-changing modern world, and most now live in towns and cities scattered across Southern Africa, often far from their traditional hunting grounds.
The Ju/’hoansi are one of the few San tribes that still occupy their ancestral land. With a population of only 1400, they live across 35 or so villages (N!oresi) in the remote area of Nyae Nyae. Their recent history has been troubled, especially since they were seen to be supporting the colonial powers. Their excellent tracking skills were recognised by the South African army as extremely valuable in a time of guerrilla warfare. Even so, the Ju/’hoansi managed to maintain part of their traditional lifestyle and pride.
Well before Namibia’s independence, they asked for outside assistance with the development of the Nyae Nyae Farmers’ Cooperative. Later, an innovative Village Schools community-based education system was developed, teaching the Ju/’hoansi children in their mother tongue (Ju/’hoan). Sadly, none of these development projects stood the test of time, leaving the Ju/’hoansi even more marginalised and destitute.
One Ju/’hoansi village, //Nhoq’ma, started working together with Nhoma Safari Camp, offering tourist activities such as veld food collection, hunting, creation of hunting equipment, traditional games, and healing dances. This enables them to earn the money necessary to survive in the modern world, while maintaining some of their traditions, beliefs and cultural heritage.
But what is so different about this cultural experience? What makes it authentic – a word that is quickly becoming overused?
This village is not a quick stop, get some pictures, and move on to the next item on the holiday itinerary. Here, you need at least a two-night stay to become immersed in the comings and goings of village life. The activities on offer are not staged. They are all part of the Ju/’hoansi daily routines and you, the visitor, fit in with whatever is the order of the day.
Women preparing dinner, painstakingly making traditional ostrich shell beads or rope. Village elders putting the world to right by a warm fire, while a group of children emulate them. When dawn falls, games are played and the whole community, young and old, becomes involved. During dinner at camp, singing voices can be heard travelling through the night, while men are preforming traditional healing dances.
The life of the Ju/’hoansi is slow and deliberate, but on a hunt this can rapidly change into a chase after a porcupine or bokkie. Joining these men on a hunt is definitely not for the faint hearted. No pretty, well-maintained paths, but tracking through the thick bush, while trying to keep up with these fit and agile hunters. My heart was racing, worried to be encountering a venomous snake or worse….. After a while we had to let them go, we were holding them back from the prospect of meat for dinner that night.
This prolonged interaction with the Ju/’hoansi gave me time to get under the skin of these beautiful people. It provided me with an opportunity to interact with some of the residents and get to know them as individuals. It enabled me to get a feel for the joys and hardships in their lives.
These proud and resourceful people lead simple and content lives. They reminded me that joy and happiness come in small packages – laughing over a simple game with friends, conversations with old friends, or quietly sitting around a wood fire.
Words and pictures: Louise de Waal