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HindustanTimes Wed,23 Apr 2014

Botswana's San Bushmen: a brief encounter with the world's first people

Geetika Jain, Hindustan Times   February 06, 2014
First Published: 19:37 IST(6/2/2014) | Last Updated: 19:44 IST(6/2/2014)

Little grows on the empty, dry, dusty Makgadikgadi Pans of Botswana in southern Africa. Underfoot, the cracks are raku-like fissures fired by the fierce sun. There's nothing but prickly dry grass and a few bushes in this downright hostile land, no water meanders for miles and the rains will be a while.

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If lost, one wouldn't survive beyond a few days, even if one managed to eat a few insects. The biggest hope would be to be saved by a San Bushman.

Treking with the San

Our encounter with an extended San family, organised by San Camp, took us back a few millennia. We met in the wilderness and the first thing that struck me was how oblivious they were to the biting wind. Apart from an animal-hide front-flap, a cape, stringy sandals and bags carrying bows and poison arrows, the men wore nothing. Women, too, were barely covered, and their beaded jewellery stood out.

These small, skinny, grizzled figures spoke using their distinctive clicking sounds, and looked different from the Africans in these parts, except for their woolly hair. Their skin was lighter, and the faces flatter with far-eastern eyes and high cheekbones. Culturally, they are hunters and gatherers, and were proud to show us their expert survival skills.

As we walked over the next few hours, they showed us the bush, pointing to a springbok hoof mark here, or a dung beetle there. A tuber was dug out, an edge shredded and thirst slaked by its water. In a landscape with little to offer, a single ostrich egg is a precious find. After the egg is enjoyed, the shell becomes a water container and when it breaks, beautiful jewellery is made from flat, circular disks. Scarcity begets invention

A man dug up a scorpion and handed it to his five-year-old son to play with. Next, he created a small, ingenious trap for ground birds using only sticks and a thread. I was encouraged to put my hand into it, emulating a francolin passing through. In a second, the noose tightened what would've been the bird's neck. Some elders started a fire with zebra dung and dry grass by twirling a stick round and round in turns, and woman blew into the smoking handful, fanning a flame. Tobacco was taken from a small pouch and a 50 caliber brass bullet shell became the pipe they shared.

The dancing flames uplifted the mood and the San sat in a circle around it. Chanting and playing games rambunctiously, they clapped and slapped their chests and thighs, laughing when they caught each other out.

There was much to learn from the San, not least of which, their responsible ways - the fire was stamped out carefully before we left, and earlier, the tuber and scorpion had been put back where they were found. There is a saying among the aborigines: "The more you know, the less you need" and the San certainly reflect that wisdom.

These indigenous people have inhabited southern Africa for over 80,000 years and chromosome studies suggest that they are the oldest people on the planet, the ones from whom all humans descended. Around 5,000 of them still live in the traditional way. Out here in God's own wilderness, had I come face to face with the very roots of my family tree?

Know them better

Visiting the San Bushmen: Various safari companies in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa organise treks with the San or visits to their villages. Watch: The Gods Must be Crazy - a 1980 comedy movie, which is about a San tribe's encounter with the outside world.

Read: Wilbur Smith's The Burning Shore and Lauren Van Der Post's novels - A Story Like the Wind, and A Far off Place.


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