Last of the bushmen: Botswana

Claire Foottit explores the last of the lost world as she searches for Botswana's bushmen

6 mins

Rradinojane’s chest rose and fell. So fine-tuned was his body, that I could see his heart beating. A leader of the Ganakwe Bushmen, he dressed in the traditional attire of the hunter – a skin loin cloth, with a quiver slung over one shoulder containing poisoned arrows, and carrying a spear. It was a rare sight in the Kalahari today, for the Stone Age Bushmen’s way of life is dying. Living in the remote Molapo region of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Rradinojane’s clan is one of the few retaining its traditional customs.

Historically, the Bushman’s fate has been a hard one. Before the arrival of the Dutch settlers in the 1600’s, Bushmen – the original hunter-gatherers – roamed extensively in southern Africa, as can be seen in rock paintings illustrating their folklore. Like the game on which they depended, the Bushmen were driven north by the settlers. The Bantu people moving south restricted their northern movement, until the only land left was the inhospitable territory of the Kalahari desert.

My introduction to the Bushmen was through the writings of Laurens van der Post whose vivid descriptions portrayed a vital understanding of the Bushmen and their endearing qualities. In the late 1950’s he brought the plight of the Bushmen to the world’s attention, and at last, if belatedly, recognition was given to a people who had suffered from merciless persecution.

Another champion of the Bushmen and also a legend within his own lifetime, is Izak Barnard, the ‘grand old man of the Kalahari’. Descended from tough pioneer stock, his explorations into the interior brought him into direct contact with the Bushmen, during which time he too hunted with them and learned about their ways. To continue his passion for exploring this vast wilderness he started Penduka Safaris 34 years ago. It was with Penduka that I got the opportunity to fulfil a dream to meet the Bushmen, inspired by the writings of van der Post.

Our expedition took us deep into the western and central Kalahari in Botswana. Distances were long, hot and arduous. Driving through heavy sand, it could take a day to travel 100 kilometres. Predominantly flat, sand dunes, eroded over millions of years, are now covered in trees and bushes, interspersed with large flat depressions known as pans. The area receives little rain and has no surface water. Wildlife, plants and people have evolved ways to survive this thirstland.

A warm welcome

Our first meetings with the Bushmen were at Ngwaatle, west of Hukuntsi. Villagers rushed forward to greet us, faces beaming with delight. Few people passed this way, and they appreciated the gifts of tobacco we brought, chattering excitedly in the rapid clicks that are the Bushman language. Crowding around, they held out traditional jewellery for sale – necklaces and bracelets fashioned from ostrich shell beads; a scent bottle made from a tortoise shell, filled with powdered herbs from the veld, to be patted onto the body with a tuft of jackal fur.

Here western influence and aspirations were already apparent: Bushmen dressed in a mixture of shabby European clothes combined with animal skins. Several had tattoos – one had tattooed a watch on his wrist, another, glasses on his face.

Sleek goats and hobbled donkeys heralded our arrival at Molapo in the heart of the Kalahari. The Ganakwe Bushmen settlement nestled adjacent to the Okwa dry river bed. Huts were thatched to ground level, and chickens scratched around in the sand. After a shower of rain, primrose yellow flowers, the ‘devil’s keys’, carpeted the land, deceptively hiding vicious thorns.

As dusk set, and the sun disappeared in a pink haze, we met women on their way home from gathering firewood. They appeared gentle and content. Their dress was authentic, made from skins. Young girls had honey-gold complexions with high cheek bones and slanting eyes. Babies on their backs peeked out from folds of animal hide. Old women had wrinkled, wizened faces.

It was with Rradinojane and his clansmen that we spent an intriguing day and were given a brief glimpse into their ability to survive the desert. Undoubtedly they possess an intimate knowledge of desert plants and animals. Walking through the bush, they would suddenly select a plant. Digging it up, a metre below the ground, revealed a tuber a foot across. Squeezing the pulp, they extracted water and used the unpalatable pith to wash their bodies. From the raisin bushes they gathered dark, orange berries, bittersweet in taste, which helped to stave off thirst. Poison for their arrows was taken from the pupae of a caterpillar living on the conifera africana bush. Their understanding of wildlife enabled them to set traps in the best locations, using whip snares made from home-made rope. And they made fire by rubbing two sticks together. Around the camp fire that evening, the women clapped while the men danced. It was a surreal experience as flickering shadows transported us to deeper rhythms and another time.

Today the Bushmen are in a period of transition

As a people, the Bushmen population is increasing, but their way of life is changing. A number of reasons have contributed to this. New inhabitants have encroached on the fringes of the Kalahari, with farms for cattle ranching allocated around Ghanzi, all areas formerly utilised by the Bushmen. As fences went up, wildlife diminished. Fewer Bushmen could be supported by traditional means. Often Bushmen worked on the farms and in times of drought their families joined them, causing a squatter problem. To alleviate this, and with support from the Bushmen, the Botswana government tried different schemes to settle them, but they met with limited success. Traditional Bushmen societies are not competitive and share everything. It is a way of survival to a nomad, but in the twentieth century, it’s a distinct disadvantage.

International donors have also aggravated the problem through pressurising the Botswana government to develop its poor people as a condition to giving aid. Even the traditional Bushmen societies are now included in a development programme. Schools, health clinics, water tanks and boreholes are all in the pipeline. Bushmen are being actively encouraged to settle and become herder-gatherers. But even this is not ideal as cattle and goats can be a liability in areas where water is unreliable.

Perhaps the most controversial of these developments is the sinking of boreholes in the Kalahari, where Bushmen settle around a constant water source only then to find that food around the area becomes scarce, a situation exacerbated by livestock which has to be within walking distance of water. The result is that they then become dependent on government hand outs. Ironically, it has been shown that wildlife ‘farming’ is more appropriate in marginal areas.

Another area of conflict is that Bushmen, like all Botswana citizens, are required to obtain hunting licences, which have restrictions. So, not only has hunting become limited due to reduced areas and less abundant wildlife, but also through legislation. In areas where Bushmen have been settled, there is little work, and many have lost their dignity. Parallels can be drawn between them and the Australian Aborigines.

Pressure from the outside world

“Today there are only around 1,000 true bushmen left,” says Izak Barnard. Speaking with a deep fondness he continued, “Time has caught up with them and with their way of living. They cannot trek around any more and utilise the desert as they used to, and they are subjected to pressure from the outside world to develop.”

The traditional Bushman way of life depended on the harshness of the environment. The Bushmen lived, albeit a hard life, one that was in equilibrium with their surroundings. As outside factors have come into play, the balance has been rocked. Their demise is being accelerated by charitable acts of often misplaced kindness.

Amongst the Bushmen I met, I was unnerved by a haunted look in their eyes. Interestingly Laurens van der Post wrote in The Lost World of the Kalahari, “At the back of his eyes is a look I found disturbing. It was not the calm acceptance of fate untroubled by hope or despair, but rather the certainty that, though he may vanish his cause remains dynamic in the charge of life.” Perhaps Stone Age man still carries an important message for the twentieth century.

“‘The Lost World of the Kalahari’ is even more lost now,” says Izak. It seems a sad and bizarre reflection of our time that there is seemingly no room in our world to accommodate the Stone Age hunter-gatherer societies. As westerners travel to seek a spiritual harmony in a diminishing wilderness, so the Bushmen who have perfected that harmony are now embarking on assimilating our culture.

The Kalahari desert spans the borders of BotswanaNamibia and South Africa. Over 50% of the remaining San are found in Botswana, the majority of the rest are in Namibia

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