Penan Naikas Bushmen

A journey to the Nyae Nyae conservancy in Bushmanland to go..


“Shit!” says Jumanda as we pull over to the side of the road.

I get out and have a look and it's confirmed, we've got a flat tyre. Getting a sinking feeling I ask Jumanda:

“We have got a spare haven't we?”

“Yeees, but I have forgotten the jack!”

We had left Ghanzi one hour ago and since then had been heading north on the highway at top speed. Our destination was Tsumkwe in the Nyae Nyae conservancy over the border in Namibia.

To reach it we would have to drive north on the highway for about three hours until we reached Nokaneng and then head off west down a bumpy 4WD track to the Namibian border, the journey was going to take all day.

We had no choice now but to try to flag down a passing car to help us. Luckily we were still on the highway, otherwise we could have been in serious trouble.

Eventually some jolly black Africans in a bakkie stopped and helped us out by jacking up the car. Jumanda had also forgotten to bring the wheel brace so they had to help us out with that too.

Once the wheel was changed we thanked them heartily and off they sped.

Looking at the flat tyre I noticed that it had a big hole in it. The new tyre looked to be almost completely bald. Well, this is Africa I thought! But heading off into the desert with no spare tyre or jack was a little too African, even for me, so I said to Jumanda:

“We need to get another spare tyre, and a jack. Oh yes, and a wheel brace!”

We could drive back to Ghanzi, but that would have added at least two hours to our journey and a considerable amount of fuel too.

Luckily there was still mobile phone reception, so I made a few calls and discovered that there we no tyre places at all between here and the border. It was either drive to Maun, which would also have been a couple of hours out of our way, or back to Ghanzi.

Not wanting to drive so far out of our way and eager to get going I suggested that we just stop in the next village and see what we can arrange. Jumanda agreed and said that he knew some people in the next village, which was called Kuke (Koo-Keh) so off we went.

Kuke was a desolate dust-bowl of a place, miles from anywhere. Almost midway between Ghanzi and Maun, were it not for the highway it would be completely isolated.

We pulled up by the shop, which to me looked like a converted concrete bus-stop, and asked the fat woman sitting and sweating there for directions. She pointed over into the village, which was just a huge expanse of sand, filled with donkeys and ramshackle dwellings.

Jumanda ploughed into the village in his bakkie, paying little regard to whose backyard he was churning up, and then pulled up in front of a house.

Out the front of the house, laid up on bricks, was a bakkie that looked like it had been hit by a freight train. Jumanda was greeted by a small black guy in raggedy clothes who was sweating in the heat. After a few words he ducked inside his house and then came out with a wheel, which he generously offered to lend to us for only 100 Namibian dollars!

“What happened to his car?” I asked Jumanda.

“Got hit by a truck.”

“No insurance I guess?”

“No,” he shrugged.

“Shame,” I said, looking at the bedraggled owner.

“Were they OK?” I said.

“One died, the driver and one other were OK.”

I peered inside at the crushed cabin space, it looked horrific.

After driving around the village some more, and ploughing up several more gardens we still failed to acquire a jack, but managed to get hold of a wheel spanner.

“It will do!” Jumanda concluded, “If we get a flat tyre I can raise the car up on a Gerrie can and dig a hole.”

I did not look convinced.

“I've done it before!” he said.

What choice did I have but to trust him?

“Let's hit the road!” I said.

We reached Nokaneng without further incident and then turned off the highway onto the dirt road. We saw warthogs, mongoose and then a large monitor lizard which Jumanda got very excited about, he told me he hadn't seen one of those in years and went back to have a look at it as it crawled off into the bush.

The dirt road was mainly OK but at times deteriorated into nothing more than a bumpy, sandy passageway through the bush. The vegetation around us was burnt and monotonous, but after a couple of hours we entered a greener area of reasonable sized trees. In fact this area was positively lush compared to what I had experienced in the past couple of weeks!

As we surmounted a small rise in the ground suddenly I could see the treetops spreading out in all directions as far as the horizon.

“This is some forest”, I thought, “It's huge! Once England must have been covered in endless forests like this too. ”

I could almost imagine a black Robin Hood appearing with his band of Merry Men! Or perhaps somewhere, hidden deep inside, a band of Bushmen that the modern world had not yet discovered...

“It's not even marked on any maps,” I thought.

Unless you'd been here you wouldn't even know that this forest existed.

After about an hour of driving through these forests and mixed bushveld we came across a village, the first one we had seen along this road. This was the settlement of Gcangwa and it was entirely occupied by bushmen.

There are several other villages in this area near the Namibian border and it seems strange after hours of driving through total wilderness to find all these people living here. The road we had just travelled obviously existed to serve these villages, but why were they here?

Well the answer is that bushmen living in this area were settled here by the Botswanan government. These villages are part of a larger concentration of Ju/'hoansi San people that stretch right over the border into Bushmanland in Namibia.

In the past these people were able to travel freely over the border, but now border fences and gates have been erected and the San must acquire passports in order to cross over.

The road continues on down to a larger San settlement called Xaixai, but before we reach it there is a tiny side road to our right, and I can just make out a small wooden sign with badly hand-painted lettering saying border.

We plough through deep sand down this track that's barely wide enough for our car. I peer back at the sign just to make sure I'm not completely losing the plot, and I ask Jumanda the obvious question:

“Is this the road for the border?”

“Sure!” says Jumanda.

“Why don't they do something about the condition of the road?”

“Oh, they keep planning to, but nothing ever gets done!”

Now the vegetation was changing again to a more arid landscape with many large palm trees dotted around. We soon come to the border fences and stop outside a small chalet where the guards are lounging. As I sign the register I notice we're the first car in three days.

We pass through the Botswanan gates into no-mans-land and then enter the Namibian gates where a small hand painted sign kindly reminds us to close the gate behind us.

The fences are high game-fences that effectively sever many of the animal species in Namibia from their cousins in Botswana who they were, until very recently, free to mix with.

We go through the usual formalities on the Namibian side, to sound of loud pop music blaring from a radio on the desk, and I can't help wondering what these guys in uniform actually do all day.

The change in road conditions once we enter Namibia is dramatic, the road is long, straight, firm gravel and is in top condition.

We soon roll into Tsumkwe and I see the familiar sight of the filling station. Realising that it's too late to do anything else we decide to camp at Tsumkwe Lodge.

We meet a very enthusiastic young Japanese guy there who joins us for dinner. He's taking a few days off from working as a volunteer teacher to see some of the country. Like most volunteers in Namibia he's not allowed to drive a car, so he's hitch-hiking his way around.

We pitch our tents in the far corner of the field and notice that they have an electric fence all the way around.

“To keep out the elephants!” says Jumanda.

At first I thought he was joking, we're not in a game reserve and were right by a town, but it turns out that elephants are a big problem around here.

So, feeling safe from any inquisitive local wildlife, I turn in for the night and get a good night's sleep.


We awake to find the Japanese guy forlornly standing by his bags, the woman who was supposed to give him a ride back to civilization didn't show up.

We wish him good luck and then set off down the track to a bushman village called Dewpost (Du-poss) where a traditional healer is said to live. Dewpost is not of course San name for the village; they call it //Ua'n#hao, but let's just call it Dewpost OK?

Arriving at the village about half an hour later we find lots of women and children there but no men. The women all look like classic San people, small and skinny with tanned yellow skin and Asiatic eyes. They are wearing brightly coloured shawls and headscarves which seem to be the fashion of the bushwomen of this area.

One by one they all all drift over with their children to inspect us. Almost every woman seems to be carrying a small baby in a sling, so no problems with fertility here then! One woman has her face smeared with red ochre. There are less than a dozen women in all, so this is not a very large village. We ask where the men are but we are having difficulty making ourselves understood as Jumanda does not speak their language.

Although the San are very few in number, there being only about 50,000 of them still remaining, of which 95% live in Botswana and Namibia, they have a large variety of different languages. Jumanda knows of 15 bushman languages and can understand six of them. The others though are totally unintelligible to him, each language being as different from each other as English is from Italian for instance, but every one of their languages contains the click sounds that are so distinctive of the bushman tongue.

It is of course the norm for small bands of hunter gatherers, who rarely travel far from their home range, to speak a different language from their neighbours. The same is true in many parts of the world and would have been the case even in Europe in the not too distant past, national languages being a relatively recent invention.

So, struggling with the language difficulty Jumanda had to resort to the lingua franca of Namibia, namely Afrikaans. Despite government attempts to make English the national language most Namibians still speak this language of the old Dutch settlers, who later became the South African invaders and occupiers of their country.

Unfortunately Jumanda's Afrikaans is not very good but we do manage to glean some information. Apparently there's one boy in the village who speaks English, but he's gone into town; he should be back sometime later.

Realising that there's no option but to wait I decide to use the time to take another look at the Nyae Nyae pan. I get Jumanda to drive me down the extremely bumpy and rocky road only to find that the pans are completely empty this time; not a drop of water is to be seen! Did I dream all that water and all those animals the last time I was here? Taking out my binoculars I scan the horizon and can just make out a wildebeest and a few springbok in the far distance.

Oh well, may as well head back! We arrive back at Dewpost but the boy is still not there. We need an interpreter or we're not going to make any headway with these people!

“Let's drive back into town,” I tell Jumanda, “maybe we can find an English speaker there.”

We tell the women that we're heading into town and immediately they get excited and all start jumping onto our vehicle.

“Only three!” cries Jumanda, and has to stick up three fingers to make himself understood.

Jumanda has a long safari seat mounted high on the back of his bakkie which some of the bushwomen jump up onto, looking very pleased with themselves. Normally they would have to make the long journey into town by foot or, on the rare occasions when they do get a ride, standing up in the back of a bakkie.

We head off back to town with our hitchers. Jumanda takes it steady so as not to launch the bushwomen and their children into the air and soon we make it back to the filling station which also serves as the local shop.

I pop inside the shop and find one guy there who speaks English, but he's working so unfortunately he can't come with us. He accompanies me outside and I see that all the bushwomen are still sitting on the back of the car.

“What are they doing?” I ask him. “I thought they wanted a ride into town.”

He has a few words with them and then says:

“No, they are coming for a ride with you!”

The bushwomen smile and wave.

“What a strange bunch!” I thought.

So what am I going to do now? There's no-one here that can help us. Then I remember Aislinn telling me about the Nyae Nyae conservancy office. I think that was in Tsumkwe, but last time we came here the office was closed.

I ask directions and find out that the office is indeed in Tsumkwe, just down the road. So we drive down there, Jumanda, me and all the bushwomen and children and pull up outside. It seems like we're in luck, the office is open!

I head inside and ask if anyone speaks English.

“Yes Sir!” says the guy in charge.

“Do you have a guide here who speaks English?”

“We'll arrange it for you.. and what do you want to do?”

This puts me a bit on the spot so I find myself saying:

“I want to go hunting with the bushmen!”

This starts a long discussion about who's allowed to go hunting and what they're allowed to hunt, but the guy in charge seems to think it's no problem and says we can go hunting with the bushmen of Dewpost. I tell him that we didn't see any men there, but he assures me that there are some, so we decide to head back there.

First he introduces me to my guide who I find out is called /Ui (k'wee). He seems to speak English quite well but he speaks it very quietly and never looks me in the eye. He's a tall, skinny young bushman, with a droopy, pock-marked face, wearing dirty t-shirt and pants and a floppy woollen hat. As he squeezes into the front of the car between me and Jumanda I can't help noticing his very strong body odour. As we speed off I open my window wide and take a breath of fresh air.

Arriving back at Dewpost /Ui jumps out and strolls off into the village, meanwhile the bushwomen jump down off the back of the car and meander back into the village chatting like they've just had a Sunday outing.

We wait around for a while but there's no sign of /Ui, he seems to have disappeared.

Then suddenly he appears with five bushmen in tow. They are all traditionally dressed in leather loin cloths with the addition of brightly coloured beaded headbands, necklaces and waistbands; a more recent addition to their traditional attire which is seems to be the fashion in this area.

Three of them are men of very advanced years while the other two men look very young and almost effeminate.

The three old men are called /Kumta (KUM-ta), Kaece (ka'EKK-eh) and //'Ao (k'ow).

Old man /Kumta turns out to be the healer that I had come here to meet. He's a flabby looking bushman with grey hair and a small grey moustache. He doesn't really suit a loin cloth!

Old man Kaece is slimmer and easily identified by the fact that he has only one arm, the other arm he lost when he stabbed himself with a poison arrow.

Old man //'Ao is thin and wiry with every muscle showing and not an ounce of fat on him. He is taller than the others and has white hair.

The young men are called Kxaora (Kza'ora) and confusingly another /Ui. Kxaoro is the taller of the two but they both look very much alike and both wear simple, small silver coloured earrings.

I greet them all with the traditional southern African triple handshake, which involves a regular handshake, followed by one with the thumbs pointing up to honour the ancestors, followed by another regular handshake.

I notice that they're all carrying a selection of weapons; bows, arrows, spears and clubs, with the exception of Kaece who just has a spear tucked under his stump. A couple of the bushmen carry hunting bags to carry their weapons in, traditionally these would have been made of leather but /Kumta's bag seems to be made from a pair of old denim jeans!

And so I head out into the bush with the bushmen, Jumanda and our guide /Ui, feeling fortunate because the sky is so cloudy, were it not for the clouds it would have been unbearably hot.

Very soon the bushmen stop to browse on some small yellow fruit that are growing on a nearby bush. The fruit are called n!hun-!'uuni in the Ju/'hoansi tongue and although they have a bitter taste the bushmen just can't seem to get enough of them. Every few hundred yards we seem to be stopping to eat more fruit or some berries. The berries are dark red and dry, they taste better than the fruit but are full of large hard pips.

It's quite fascinating to watch the bushmen. They are paying absolutely no attention of me whatsoever and are acting like they do this every day, which of course they would have done until recently. Being a hunter-gatherer was about much more than hunting, it was also about, well, gathering too! Or constantly snacking which is what these bushmen seemed to be doing.

In a strange way it reminded of the times I've been riding an elephant, or a camel, as they are always wanting to stop and eat too; or more accurately it reminded me of a band of foraging meerkats or baboons. They say that the bushmen are the most ancient race on Earth, more closely linked to our ancient past than any other, and I could just imagine a group of primitive hominids spending their days like this, constantly on the move, helping themselves to whatever food they could find along the way.

We weren't being very lucky with the hunting though, we had seen no spoor at all except for a day-old duiker track. After an hour the bushmen decided to sit down under a tree and have a smoke.

“What are they doing?” I asked /Ui.

“They are having no luck. So they take a break and have a smoke in the hope that when they begin again their luck will change.”

And it worked too! Within minutes of taking a break the bushmen suddenly sped off into the bush on one side and young Kxaora thrust his spear into a small, leafless bush. From where I was standing he didn't appear to have struck anything so I wondered what he could have been going for, but as I drew closer I saw that he had pierced a large monitor lizard through the back. The monitor lizard was still trying to crawl away but Kxaora had it pinned to the ground; it was about two foot long and quite strong so Kxaora was having to use both hands and all his weight to pin it in place.

/Ui, the other young bushman, tried to get in to deliver the killing blow but was obstructed by the bush, so Kxaora had to drag the lizard out of the bush then /Ui, using a long iron club, delivered a mighty blow to the lizard's neck which I can only assume must have broken it. The lizard lay there lifeless with it's long forked tongue sticking out to one side, it only needed a pair of crosses for eyes to make it a cartoon caricature dead lizard!

/Kumta then proceeded to wrap the lizard in straw while old //'Ao straightened and sharpened the spearhead using a nearby rock and a file. Once he'd finished /Kumta popped the lizard into his bag to take home for supper.

“Do you eat lizard?” I asked out guide /Ui.


He looked quite disgusted, but the others seemed quite pleased with themselves and happy for their good fortune.

After this the bushmen wanted to go home but I was disappointed, we'd seen no tracks and no big game. I told them I wanted to see a real hunt. /Ui said that they were not allowed to hunt by Nyae Nyae pan where the big game was.

“Why not?” I asked quite annoyed.

“It's the conservancy rules. Game wardens pass by there and they'll be punished if they're found there.” he answered.

He also told me of plans to make the Nyae Nyae pans into a game park. Now it was Jumanda's turn to get annoyed.

“How are these people supposed to hunt if they make all the best hunting areas into game parks!”

He was right, and the same situation was occurring all over Africa. Wherever there is lots of game they make a game park; the animals soon learn that they are protected there and so flock there and stay away from areas of human settlement. This means that the now settled bushmen are left with nothing to hunt and consequently nothing to eat.

“There must be somewhere we can go that still has game,” I said.

Our guide /Ui and the bushmen had a chat and then /Ui said:

“OK, we can go to the pans on the other side of Nyae Nyae, but it's a long way!”

“How long to get there?” I said.

“Two more hours walking.”

I looked at Jumanda and his pot belly, and I also realised that I was the only one who was carrying any water.

“Are you up for it?” I asked Jumanda.

“Whatever you want,” he said.

“OK let's do it!”

We continue on into the bush and soon I can see a large baobab tree ahead. As we get nearer old //'Ao starts to make a strange hissing sound.

“What's he doing?” I ask /Ui.

“There's a leopard who lives here,” he replied, and then explained “He's afraid of it!”

We reach the tree without encountering any leopards but then I notice a strange droning sound which seems to be coming from the very heart of the tree. As we walk around the tree I see a hole in the base of it which seems to have been enlarged using a hand axe and looks just big enough for a small bushman to crawl inside. //'Ao peers inside as the droning gets louder.

“Bees?” I ask.

“Yes, there is honey there.”

//'Ao decides not to try sticking his hand inside.

“What's wrong with him?” I asked disappointedly, “I thought the bushmen loved honey!”

“Yes, but the bees have gone too far inside. He'll come back another day and make the hole bigger.”

Meanwhile Kxaora has picked up a fallen baobab fruit and starts to break it open with his chopchop and eats the white, dry-looking flesh inside.

After that we leave the baobab tree behind and continue. The bushmen soon stop and start picking big globs of clear resin off a nearby bush which I recognise as the same resin I saw in Grashoek which they use to bind their bow strings and other things. I'm sure they use it for that here too, but the stuff is also edible so the bushmen just proceeded to eat it instead. I decided to have some too, the taste is not bad, but it is like sucking on a lump of dried glue which very slowly dissolves again in your mouth.

We approach another large baobab tree but they don't seem to be worried about leopards this time, instead they start looking all around for tracks. Again there's a large hole in the base of the tree, but no bees this time.

“OK what are they doing?” I ask.

“Porcupines,” /Ui answered simply.

OK, so there's porcupines living under this tree and right now they seem to be out. The bushmen scout around for tracks and point a few out; they like a tasty bit of porcupine but it doesn't look like they're going to find one here so after a while they give up. Instead /Kumta picks up a couple more baobab fruit and tucks them into his belt.

We head off and take a slightly different direction.

“Where are we going?” I ask.

“We're near to the pans now, we need to approach from upwind!”

As we get closer I can just make out the flat, empty expanse of the pans ahead. Suddenly all the bushmen crouch down and I follow suit.

“What is it?” I whisper.

/Ui just points ahead and on the edge of the pan I can just make out a black shape. A wildebeest! Silently and very, very slowly old //'Ao and the two young bushmen head off to our right to stalk the wildebeest. There's nothing the rest of us can do except wait and keep quiet.

From where I'm sitting I lose sight of the bushmen but I can still see the wildebeest grazing. He looks up! Has he spotted them or got scent of them? No, he starts grazing again. It's a very tense moment as we all have our eyes on the beast when suddenly he looks up again, leaps into the air and charges off! After a few paces he stops and turns around, then he charges off again across the pans, his thundering hooves throwing up clouds of dust. Once he's a safe distance away he turns and looks around again, but then once more thunders off into the distance. Finally I see the three bushmen walking towards the place where the wildebeest had been.

“Did they hit him?” I ask.

“No,” /Ui replies, “otherwise they would be chasing him.”

I feel kind of relieved that the wildebeest got away, I got to see a hunt which is what I wanted, but I didn't really need to see all the messy business afterwards when they butcher it. In any case, if they had killed it I would have felt responsible and I didn't really feel like that animal had to die. I know it's naïve, and I know that animals are a lot better off being hunted in the wild than being brought up in factory farms to make tinned spam, but the reality is, that in the 21st century these bushman do not need to hunt in order to survive. If it had been a matter of survival that would have been an entirely different matter. Maybe they are right to protect all the animals in national parks, but isn't the traditional bushman way of life worth protecting too? Well it would be, if it still existed.

//'Ao and the two young bushmen stoop to retrieve their poisoned arrows. If they had hit the wildebeest they would have had to chase it until the poison took effect, which could have taken an hour or two.

“Why did they miss?” I asked.

“The wildebeest recognises the sound of the bow,” /Ui explained, “at the last moment he will jump into the air so the arrow misses him.”

He said it matter-of-factly but I had a hard time believing it. OK these animals have been living with the bushmen for tens of thousands of years so maybe they've evolved such a skill, but it's unlikely that this particular wildebeest has ever been shot at before. How could it know what to do? Was it instinct? Or just a bushman story? I was too far away and obscured by bushes to notice if the wildebeest actually jumped so unfortunately I couldn't say.

We decided to head back to the village now anyway. The bushmen were starting to get thirsty and /Ui said that we would visit a natural spring on the way back. Jumanda seemed pleased by this but not so pleased when they said that it was a bit out of the way, it would be a 12km hike! It was already getting late in the afternoon so I asked what would happen if we were stuck out here after dark.

“No problem,” /Ui said, “they usually travel after dark anyway. It's cooler then!”

Apparently these bushmen knew the bush so well they could find their way home at night-time. Unfortunately though, night-time is when all the predators are out on the prowl, but I trusted that these guys knew what they were doing so I wasn't too worried.

As we're walking across the grassy pans I suddenly notice that we're a bushman short. Looking back I can see old //'Ao lying face down on the ground. I tell the others and /Kumta and one-armed Kaece amble back to see what's wrong with him. There doesn't seem to be any sense of urgency and no-one seems very bothered.

Kaece spits on his hand and then places his hand over //'Ao's liver. He repeats this several times and then //'Ao continues walking, but soon he's back on the ground again. /Kumta produces some mother-in-laws tongue from his bag and hands it to //'Ao. He crushes some of it and then rubs it onto his liver and out of the remainder he fashions a belt which he ties tightly around his middle. After that he seems OK to walk.

“What's wrong with him?” I ask /Ui.

“He hurt his liver on a previous hunting trip,” he answered.

Jumanda seems to think his problem is caused by all the fruit and berries he ate earlier, whereas to me it seemed like it was the exertion of the hunt the brought on his problem.

Realising that //'Ao needs to rest we decide not to visit the spring and take the shortest way back to the village. //'Ao is still not feeling well and finally collapses on his front again, digs a hole in the ground and starts spitting into it. We're not far from the village now so /Kumta tells us to go on ahead while the old men look after //'Ao. Just before we set off Kxaora notices a large tortoise just at his feet. He points at it smiling and then picks it up. It seems like it's his lucky day!

Tired and aching we manage to make it back to Jumanda's bakkie before sundown. The bakkie is parked under a large baobab tree just outside the village. I get the young bushmen a cold drink out of our cool box and me and Jumanda sit down for a rest on a couple of rocks. Kxaora meanwhile prefers to sit on his tortoise which looks a lot more comfortable than the rough rocks we're sitting on.

The tortoise sticks his head out to see what is going on so Kxaora gets up, grabs the tortoise's head, and then tries to break it's neck! He's putting all his strength into it and I'm sure that he must have killed it, but when he puts the tortoise down again it just blinks as if nothing had happened. Unable to break it's neck Kxaora contents himself with poking it in the eye with his finger instead.

I'd been told before that the bushmen have no empathy with the animals that they kill but it was disturbing to see it demonstrated so vividly. Had the bushmen always been like this? Or is it only since they lost their close connection with nature that they became like this? Anyway it bothered me.

Eventually //'Ao and the old men make it back and suddenly the whole village turns out to greet us. The women are carrying necklaces and other items that they want to sell, but I tell them that I am too tired right now and will have a look in the morning.

As the sun goes down me and Jumanda set up our tents, cook some food to the distant sound of whooping hyaenas and then fall heavily asleep.


As we wake up in the morning and start packing away our things the villagers stroll over to watch us. Soon most of the village is sitting there, mostly women in their brightly coloured clothes and one bushman in a broad-brimmed, black cowboy hat and sunglasses! He reminds me of a 60's pimp or a tacky B movie extra.

The women are carrying various wares that they're hoping to sell but when /Ui arrives I tell him that I want to go over to the village to talk to the healer. He says OK so off we with the remainder of the villagers in tow.

We arrive at one of the huts, which like all the huts in this area is not made to a bushman design but is a copy of those used by their black neighbours; square and made of upright sticks daubed in mud with a grass roof. I'm offered a piece of dilapidated garden furniture to sit on and as I sit down the guy in the cowboy hat sits opposite me and takes off his hat and sunglasses. It's /Kumta the healer!

I'm a bit taken aback as he looks at me expectantly. Suddenly I'm on the spot and have to think of something to ask him.

“How did you become a healer?” was the first thing I could think of.

/Ui is sat next to me translating, he said that in the week before /Kumta became a healer he got this strange feeling which /Ui translated as feeling “nice and sweety”. I wasn't sure what he meant by that but it sounded like some kind of feeling of ecstasy. Apparently this was enough to convince the current healer at the time that /Kumta was to become a healer after him. He then had to go through a week-long initiation where he was only allowed to eat certain kinds of foods, namely foods that came from plants with fresh shoots. For instance, if a shoot had just poked through the surface then he was allowed to eat the vegetable beneath it.

Then /Ui said something that left me baffled. He said that at the end of the initiation /Kumta died. He was dead for two days and they were about to bury him when his grandfather arrived. Somehow is grandfather revived him and he came back to life, as a healer!

I had to make sure I had heard it right.

“He was dead?!”

“Yes,” said /Ui.

He was very matter-of-fact about the whole thing as if it was obvious..

“Do you mean he was in the spirit world?” I said, “Could he see the spirits of the ancestors?”

“No,” said /Ui, “he couldn't see anything. He was dead.”

I found this rather disturbing and all the more so because they were both being so dead-pan about it.

I tried to corroborate some of the information I had heard from the bushmen of Grashoek. They had told me that during the initiation the healer travelled to the spirit-world but meanwhile his body would lie still, as if it was dead, and they had told me about things that might happen while the soul was journeying in the spirit-world. But I was getting none of that here, /Ui just said that he was dead and knew nothing. I seemed to be getting nowhere with my questions about the spirit-world.

“Do you know what I mean when I say spirit-world?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied.

But when a few minutes later I asked him:

“Does he meet the spirits of animals in the spirit-world?”

/Ui replied, “What do you mean spirit-world?”

“The place where the ancestors live. The ancestor spirits!”

He looked confused and the answers I had been getting to other questions I had asked /Kumta seemed to bear no relation to the questions I was asking either. We were clearly having language difficulties when dealing with these complex issues.

Realising that I was making no headway I decided to change my line of questioning. After seeing the cruelty inflicted upon the tortoise I wanted to get some idea of the bushmen's attitude towards animals.

“Do animals have spirits?” I asked.

He looked at e like I'd asked an odd question:

“No,” he said slightly baffled.

By this time several other villagers had gathered around and they started butting in and discussing with each other. One old man, although I couldn't understand him, appeared to be talking very confidently and knowledgeably. Something told me that this was the guy I should be listening to. I didn't catch his name so I'll call him The Old Hunter.

“What did he say?” I asked /Ui.

“He said that when the oryx have a baby they will dance around like we do.”

Not really the answer I was looking for, but interesting nonetheless.

“Do animals sometimes help you?” I asked.

“They help by letting us kill them,” he answered, still translating /Kumta's replies.

“They let you kill them?” I said, “What do you mean?”

This stared a big discussion amongst the people gathered around, which by this time was most of the village. //'Ao was there and he insisted that the kill was all down to the skill of the hunter. The Old Hunter disagreed and this started a heated debate which our guide /Ui soon joined in too. I had no idea what was being said so I tried to interrupt to ask /Ui what was going on, but he was too wrapped up in the argument himself to speak to me. One particular woman was arguing quite vehemently with The Old Hunter.

“What did she say?” I asked /Ui loudly and insistently so he'd take notice.

“The Lord provides animals for us to eat.”

The Lord? Suddenly the penny dropped.

“Is she a Christian?” I asked.

“Yes,” /Ui said.

“And is he a Christian?” I said, pointing at //'Ao.


“And are YOU a Christian?” I asked.

“Yes, I am a pastor at the local church!” /Ui answered.

I could have slapped myself on the forehead! No wonder I was coming up against a brick wall!

“And what about him?” I said, pointing at The Old Hunter and knowing what the answer would be.

/Ui didn't answer.

“He's not is he?”, I said, “Ask him!”

/Ui asked him.

“No,” he said reluctantly.

“And what about /Kumta the healer?”

/Ui didn't seem to know so he had to ask him.

“He used to be a Christian but then he became a healer.”

I just had to ask the obvious question:

“So how do you explain his powers if you're a Christian?”

/Ui looked at /Kumta and then at me. He shrugged. I really wanted to know what he believed so I asked him a more simple and direct question:

“Do you think his powers come from God?”

He glanced at /Kumta again and had to admit:

“I don't know.”

The interesting thing was that despite being a Christian and a pastor he did not doubt the powers of the healer.

“Tell them that me and Jumanda are not Christians either,” I said.

/Ui obliged and the Christian woman told us:

“You are devils!”

It was not said in a nasty way, it was like she was half-joking.

“Yes, we are devils!” I said smiling

“And so is he! And him!” I said pointing to The Old Hunter and then to /Kumta.

None of this seemed to be taken too seriously, there was almost a party atmosphere with everyone discussing loudly.

The only one who seemed to be slightly annoyed was Jumanda who butted in and asked /Ui:

“Why are you a Christian?”

/Ui, being quite an introvert person, didn't say anything. I didn't want to push the issue any further but Jumanda continued:

“Why do you take the beliefs of these foreign people? Why don't you honour and respect the ancestors?”

Again /Ui remained silent while all around people were still discussing with each other quite hotly.

It seemed like the discussion with /Kumta was over so I decided to wrap things up. I thanked /Kumta for talking to me and gave him some tobacco as a gift. He was overjoyed by this and stuffed it in his pocket greedily with a giggle before his wife could grab it off him.

It had been interesting to talk to him and I did manage to corroborate some of the information I had heard in Grashoek, such as the practice of the healing dance, the eating of special foods during initiation and the locating of game while in trance; but I felt like I had missed out on much by having a church pastor as an interpreter, a mistake I was determined not to make again.

As me and Jumanda returned to the bakkie the whole village followed us very excitedly and then they all started climbing into the back! //'Ao was still sick and we had promised to give him a ride to the clinic in town but now there were at least a dozen men and women in the back of the car plus uncountable numbers of children. The atmosphere was one of excitement, like they were all going on summer holiday. Unfortunately Jumanda did not share their enthusiasm and was getting frantic.

“Maximum FIVE people!” he shouted, “My car can't take any more!!”

He pointed to the suspension which was nearing the floor.

Very reluctantly and slowly they started to get off, one by one, acting like rather spoilt children.

“I am pregnant!” one of the women protested pointing to her belly.

“Tell her she counts as two then!” Jumanda said without any humour.

The woman was not amused and got off in a huff.

/Kumta meanwhile had managed to get prime position on the high seat in the back and was ignoring the commotion aloofly, looking ahead coolly in cowboy hat and shades.

After much stalling and stubbornness we managed to get it down to seven adults in the back plus children. Reluctantly Jumanda decided we'd better go before they started climbing back in again.

Slowly and steadily we started driving back to town with Jumanda carefully avoiding any bumps in case his suspension decided to give way completely. He was still ranting about Christians and I couldn't help but agree with him. In my opinion the church was just another insidious network of control designed to infiltrate these remote societies and assimilate them, thereby saving the government the trouble of having to do so.

Having taught them to wear proper clothes the next task is to get them to eat proper food and become part of the cash economy. Be respectable, get a job, earn some money so that you can spend it on Western consumer goods such as Coca-Cola and tinned meat, and thereby in your own small way help to make some big fat rich person in the West just that little bit richer. A truly admirable goal, don't you think?

When we arrived back in Tsumkwe we dropped all the bushmen off at the filling station and waved goodbye to them as they wandered away. They were intending to sell their hand-made crafts at a shop in town and judging by the mood of them were probably going to have a party afterwards! All except old //'Ao who was making his way to the clinic still clutching his abdomen. We filled up our tanks and all our spare Gerry cans with fuel and I paid /Ui for his services and bade him goodbye.

Next we intended to visit Djokhoe, another nearby San village. The old women there could speak Setswana, the language of Botswana, which meant that Jumanda would be able to converse with them.

Near to Djokhoe are a couple of very large baobab trees which, being a local tourist attraction, we managed to find easily. The village itself however was not so easy to find. We drove round and round the area twice until eventually Jumanda found a tiny side track which led to the village.

As we approached Djokhoe across a wide open sandy area I could see huts laid out in a roughly semi-circular pattern all facing towards us. Most of the huts were of the usual square construction with stick and mud walls, their grass roofs had blankets thrown over to protect from the rains; but one hut near the centre was made in the traditional San style, a small wooden beehive construction covered entirely in dry, yellow grass. It was outside this hut that Jumanda parked the bakkie.


The sound of the familiar Setswana greeting. Although they are all Ju/'hoansi San in this village the older people come originally from Botswana. Before the rules were changed they were free to travel across the border and visit their relatives, but now that they need a passport they are stranded here in Namibia.

As usual our arrival is greeted with curiosity as the whole village slowly ambles over to find out what is going on. There are a few old women there who all speak Setswana, one old man, and lots of younger woman and children.

They all sit down to listen to our conversation, even though most of the young ones do not understand any Setswana. As I look at the faces of the young women I am struck by how Mongolian they look with smooth yellow skin, wide faces, very high cheek-bones and narrow slits for eyes.

I wonder where all the men are though.

“Are they out hunting?” I ask.

The eldest woman who lives in the traditional bushman hut answers:

“No, they do not hunt. There are too many elephants around!”

Too many elephants around! That doesn't sound right. The Okavango delta is full of elephants but that doesn't stop people going out in the bush so why should it do so here, even if some of the elephants are aggressive. I just don't buy her story and I explain why.

“Well,” she admits, “the old men are too old to hunt now; and the young men are not interested, they are all in town getting drunk!”

This sounds a lot more plausible! The old men who were brought up in the traditional bushman lifestyle are now getting too old, the middle-aged men are either drunk or dead from AIDS, and the young men are just not interested and want to live a Western lifestyle and wear Western clothes.

Could it be that the old bushmen that I had been fortunate enough to meet talk to were the very last of their kind? Could it be that their unique skills, culture and whole way of life would soon die with them?

I asked the old man why he did not teach his skills to the younger men.

“They are not interested. They just want to go to town and get drunk!” he answered.

It seemed like the people of this village had just resigned themselves to their fate. They had no drive or ambition, they just lived each day as it came, in poverty. It was quite depressing and looking around the village at the skeletal dogs, sad donkeys and discarded garbage did little to raise my spirits.

“Don't you realise that you can make a lot of money by keeping your skills and traditions alive and demonstrating them to the tourists?” I said.

This started a lively discussion which I can only hope inspired them to actually do something about their plight, but unfortunately the San people simply do not have same mentality as we do. They don't plan ahead, they just take each day as it comes, so unless someone organises it all and actually brings the tourists to them I doubt that anything will change here for the better.

Deciding that this village had little more to offer us we headed off back to the main road and then turned right towards the border. Driving back through the blazing hot bushveld and palm trees a herd of female kudu crossed the road in front of us. Huge antelope with curling horns that can gracefully leap over fences with ease.

“A tasty meal for any bushman who can be bothered to go out and hunt,” I thought.

Kudu are not endangered and in fact have even increased their range in recent years.

So why do the bushmen not hunt, even when they are allowed to? Have they just become too materialistic? Is meat for the pot simply not enough reward for a day's work? Due to conservation concerns and strict laws they are not allowed to sell animal products for profit, so if there's no money in it, is it worth doing in the modern world? It would seem like the answer for the modern bushman is “No.”

We have this romantic image of the bushman lifestyle, living out in nature, being completely free and taking each day as it comes. Maybe long ago it was like that, before they were tainted by the corrupting influence of other cultures, but today the bushmen are people just like you and me. We might enjoy a day out in the bush hunting with the bushmen, but could we live our whole lives like that? Could we relinquish all possessions? Relinquish all Western goods and food and just live off what nature provided? For the rest of our lives? Throw ourselves at the mercy of mother nature, hoping that somehow she will provide for us and our children? If we couldn't do that, then how can we expect the bushmen to do that? Today they are no different from you and me.

This still leaves the question of why they hardly bother to go hunting at all. If we were in their situation we'd do it for recreation or because it's our cultural heritage, right? Maybe we would, but I think that the young bushmen of today are still dazzled by the novelty of Western culture. Hunting was something their grandfathers did and is therefore something old fashioned and boring. Nowadays they would much rather earn a bit of money, get drunk, chat up some girls, buy some fancy clothes etc. Sounds familiar? I'll say it again, they are just like us. Many of us are financially secure enough to afford expensive, time-consuming hobbies; the bushmen are not.

The transition occurs when they stop honouring tradition and instead turn to fashion. Fashion is the opposite of tradition. In a traditional lifestyle you learn from your grandparents and honour them for their wisdom, in a fashionable lifestyle you're constantly looking looking for what's new, what's in, which automatically excludes anything that your grandparents or even your parents were interested in.

In this sense the only traditional bushmen I had met were the very old ones, and even they had been corrupted by Western clothing and lifestyle, and sometimes even religion, the very last remnants of a lost culture.

We arrive back at the border gate and let ourselves in. There is no one around so we have to shout for the guards before we can fill in the forms and get our passports stamped.

We head back the way we came until we reach the San village of Gcangwa and decide to pay them a visit. From a distance the village looks like any other traditional village in Southern Africa with houses cobbled together from sticks and grass, but as we get closer we can again see the distinctive looking features of the San people with small frames, yellow skin, curved backs and large behinds. Again we are greeted by women, children and old, old men.

“Where are all the young men?”

“In town. There are bars there!”

The same old story. We passed on greetings from their relatives over the border in Namibia. They were happy to hear from them but sad because they missed them so much. They hadn't seen them for many years now and without a passport there's no way that they could.

The passports themselves are not that expensive, but with the long drive into town, the photographs etc. it all adds up to more than they can reasonably afford. These people are after all destitute. So it's yet another case of an arbitrary line on the map, drawn by Europeans over a hundred years ago and thousands of miles away, becoming a barrier that splits a native tribe in two for ever and leaves them at the mercy of the governments of their respective nations.

Jumanda has visited this village before when he was working for the FPK. His job was to map out the boundaries of their traditional hunting grounds in order to get some idea of the land that these people could lay claim to. However these Botswanan Ju/'hoansi San have no hunting rights at all. They must learn to live like their black neighbours by planting maize and raising cattle and goats.

We look around the village for a suitable campsite but eventually decide to drive on and camp out in the bush instead. Continuing on down the road we pass back through the lush forested area and return to the burnt and parched bushland.

Eventually we find an old campsite by a disused quarry. The workers must have camped here when they built the road. Me and Jumanda set up our tents and then cook food before the sun goes down. I wander over and inspect some large red flowers that have just come into bloom beneath a bush, no doubt encouraged by the recent rains.

Suddenly I hear a shot in the distance and then hear a car approaching. As a bakkie comes into view I realise that we'd make an easy target for a robbery.

“What are they doing?” I ask Jumanda.

“Hunting game by the road,” he says.

From our elevated position about 100 metres away we watch as the bakkie continues on by.

Calming down again I watch weaver birds returning to their nests, their chirruping joining with the endless chirruping of the cicadas. A distant storm adds some thunder and an sunset rainbow to the tranquil evening scene.


We awake in the morning a head off back onto the sandy track. The night has brought heavy rains and soon we're edging slowly around huge flooded depressions in the road, each one seemingly deeper and broader than the last. At times we have to leave the road completely to avoid the water.

After a while the pools get smaller and less frequent. Heavy rains will often concentrate on just one area, leaving a nearby area completely dry. The Bushmen were of course aware of this and would follow the game to areas of recent rain and fresh green shoots.

Soon I notice that we're following in the tracks of a large predator, it's pug marks stretching away along the road ahead of us.

“What's made those tracks?” I ask.

“Hyaena!” Jumanda replies.

We follow in his tracks for maybe ten or twenty minutes, but catch no sight of him. Eventually his trail leads off into the bush on our right.

With a hint of regret we eventually leave the old world behind as we enter the new world of the modern highway. Now there's nothing to do but sit back and enjoy the ride as we speed back to Ghanzi. We're both exhausted and looking forward to the comforts of the modern world, but our journey is delayed as we're stopped at checkpoint after checkpoint. Our car is searched for raw meat, the wheels are sprayed against the spread of foot and mouth disease and like wise our shoes have to be sterilised. After the third or fourth checkpoint Jumanda refuses to get out of the car.

“We've just been sprayed five minutes ago!” he exclaims to the guard.

“OK,” he says, and just waves us on. They're very laid back in Botswana but the poor sods have to at least look like they're working I suppose.

Back in Ghanzi I check straight into a hotel and sleep deeply. Feeling refreshed by my siesta I decide to drive out of town in the evening to Thakadu lodge and have dinner.

The proprietor Chris listens patiently to the tales of my adventures.

“You've really done the Bushmen now haven't you?” he says, “I don't think anyone's seen as much as you have.”

“I suppose,” I say, “but it's a pity they don't live traditionally any more or dress in their traditional costumes. Even the nomadic bushmen of the Central Kalahari wear modern clothes nowadays.”

“Did you hear about the farm near Kuke?” he asks.

“No,” I say, intruiged.

“There's a farmer on a remote farm west of Kuke, he says he saw wild bushmen come to drink at his waterhole.”

“When was this?”, I ask.

“Two or three years ago.”

Could this be true, I thought. Surely not. Could this be true, I thought. Surely not. I look at the map on the wall and a huge area west of Kuke is still just a blank space on the map, it's about the size of the north of England.

“Could it be a hoax?” I ask.

“Well I know the guy and he's got no reason to lie about it.” Chris replied.

And he's right, the farmers here don't like the bushmen, the bushmen set traps on their land, kill the farmer's game and steal their cattle. As far as they're concerned the bushmen should be a thing of the past, they're nothing more than pests and should be exterminated like all other pests.

To emphasise the point Chris had shown me a few wicked looking spring traps that the bushmen had planted on his game farm, after climbing over his fence. A couple of the traps were store bought but one was cunningly handmade using thick wire.

“They certainly don't have any empathy with the animals they kill,” he told me.

I can see his point, but why can't the farmers see it from the bushman's point of view also?

The bushmen have been driven from the land that they've been living in freely for millennia without having any detrimental environmental impact to it. They've then been forced to settle down and live in resettlement camps. After hunting out all the game living near their camps they're not allowed to follow the game as they used to and are left with nothing to eat. The governments response to this has been to blame the lack of game on the bushmen and ban them from hunting game altogether. They're then been forced to try to farm unsuitable land or live off handouts. Very soon all the vegetation near their settlements has been stripped bare and only a dustbowl of sand remains. The men turn to alcohol and the women to prostitution. By now most of them have AIDS and will not live to see old age like their forebears.

As if this were not bad enough they then have to endure the sight of seeing their old hunting grounds fenced off by rich white and black farmers. Many of the farms are game farms where massive areas are fenced off to enclose the game that lives there. These animals are now considered the property of the farmer and are managed by him for the purpose of providing meat to expensive restaurants.

One night a hungry, disenfranchised and disillusioned bushman decides to climb through one of these fences and set a trap in an attempt to provide some food for the pot of his hungry family.

Who can blame him? Really?

“Those are not bushmen!” the farmer will counter, “They're just thieves and poachers!”

“The real bushmen,” he says, “They no longer exist.”

The photos on this page were all taken by the author during this trip.

The bushmen head off into the bush on a hunting trip

Old man //'Ao carries a denim hunting bag

Picking n!hun-!'uuni fruit. My guide /Ui in the backgroud joins in.

They really like these fruit

They just can't get enough

One armed Kaece browses on a Kalahari raisin bush

/Kumta takes care of the freshly killed monitor lizard

//'Ao straightens the bent spear tip on a rock

/Kumta wraps the lizard up in dry grass

Looking for honey in a baobab tree, the bees can be heard droning inside

Heading home after narrowly missing the wildebeest

Jumanda makes camp on the last night

Sunset rainbow

A weaver bird nest

Jumanda makes a fire to cook dinner


Jumanda is based in Ghanzi, Botswana

Tel: +267 71909972

Email: fpkbotswana@fastmail.fm

Activities: Jumanda can take you by four wheel drive to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Bushmanland, Tsodilo Hills or any Bushmen village you like.

He speaks good English as well as Setswana, several bushmen languages and several other local dialects.

Rates: 450 Botswanan Pula per day. You must provide all your own food and drinks, and be completely self-sufficient.

You can contact me for more information: robt@jelldragon.com

Copyright © 2008 Robert H Taylor