Stood on the edge of the Kalahari desert in Namibia, I waited with a couple of other tourists for the San Bushmen; a nomadic tribe famous for their cave paintings that are also credited as the oldest inhabitants of southern Africa. It was explained to me that the tribe I was meeting kept to their traditional values and skills despite the modern world closing in around them.
In anticipation of finding out more about this fascinating tribe, I had my camera slung around my neck. I was not alone, we stood there like paparazzi, all jostling to take the most creative or poignant photograph.
The San approached us from their collection of makeshift huts, the village elder stepping forward from the others to welcome us to their home as a dozen camera flashes exploded around him. He shrunk back, unaccustomed to such a greeting. He was not alone, many of the village elders looked at our cameras with unease.
A boy of around 14 stepped forward and explained to us that the tribe, particularly those who grew up before tourism became a viable way to make a living, were not used to this sort of technology and were suspicious of the cameras and mobile phones that we were so reliant upon. Abashed by my arrogance I hastily stuffed my camera back in its bag.
The day was spent learning about how the San Bushmen kill animals by coating their arrows with poison made from caterpillars and beetles, their use of Ostrich eggs as water containers and the material used to make their famously colourful beads from, and how they protect themselves from mosquitoes by drinking Cinchona tree bark solution, which contains quinine.
One of the boys, who we were told had recently come of age by killing his first Eland, bent down to hack out a bi-bulb (used as a water source in the dry season) with his knife. As he did so his traditional tanned springbok skin loincloth moved with him, revealing a bright red pair of pants.
The problem with red pants is that they are kind of obvious, you can’t miss them.
In that moment the illusion was shattered, clearly this tribe were being infiltrated by modern society, and the conveniences it brings, and I wondered whether this display of tradition was now only reserved for tourists.
Speaking to locals in the Namibian capital; Windhoek over the following days, I discovered that the increase in farming and cattle rearing tribes has slowly reduced access to the San Bushmen’s ancestral land that they used to live and hunt on, and that this was further reduced by the border fence between Namibia and Botswana being erected in 1965, cutting off a large section of the traditional foraging grounds for those on the Namibian side.
The Namibian Bushmen apparently have it easier than those facing persecution on the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana, who have been placed on reserves, refused access to their traditional boreholes and denied the ability to hunt with guns on the basis of preserving the local ecology. As a result, many of the customs are being lost and prostitution, alcohol misuse and domestic violence are on the increase; a statistic found across many reserves of native persons across the planet.
In comparison the biggest issue the Namibian San Bushmen are facing is a widespread outbreak of Tuberculosis. Due to their nomadic lifestyle, and the fact they camp far from western settlements means that they cannot usually complete the required six month course of treatment.
I think if I had been told that they were still practising their ancestral lifestyle but they were now taking their first forays into the modern world that was being forced upon them I would have respected them for maintaining their traditions as far as they were able, and they would have had my sympathy. In truth, I left feeling a little cheated.
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