Penan Naikas Bushmen

Living with the Ju'/Hoansi San Bushmen of Namibia..


In the Land Rover with me were three middle aged women, stereotypically American they were loud, drawling and full of themselves. They were working in Namibia as Peace Corps volunteers teaching AIDS awareness by travelling to remote villages and sliding condoms onto broom handles. What the locals must have made of them I can't imagine. They had a few days off from their work, so like me they were travelling to the Ju/'hoansi San village of Grashoek to get a taste of Bushman culture.

The north-eastern corner of Namibia in an endless, flat, open expanse of bushveld called, appropriately enough, Bushmanland which extends over the border into Botswana and is the home of the Ju/'hoansi San or Bushmen. It is a sparsely populated area of arid scrub savanna containing no permanent ground water. Water is either obtained from boreholes or from the seasonal pans as they fill with water after the rains. The monotony of the endless flat expanse of bush and shrub is broken only on the Botswanan side by the huge, dessicated and eroded knolls of rock known as the Tsodilo hills and the Aha hills.

Grashoek is situated on the western edge of Bushmanland just inside the veterinary fence which separates the Bushmanland wilderness from the cattle-ranching areas further west. Cattle ranches now cover most of southern Africa, the remaining wildlife being squeezed into ever smaller areas and being isolated by fences set up either to enclose farms, parks and reserves or to prevent the spread of foot and mouth disease (So called veterinary fences). Animals that can cross or burrow under these fences are either poached out by the local inhabitants or shot by over zealous farmers eager to protect their herds and their grazing land.

The inevitable consequence of this is that one day soon all of the large game in Botswana and Namibia will be confined to protected areas such as national parks, game reserves and game farms, and in fact this is what has already happened throughout the whole of the Republic of South Africa. This islandisation of Africa's big game means that in many cases breeding populations are no longer viable, and only further human intervention, usually involving the transportation of new animals into the reserve by road, can prevent the animals from becoming inbred and degenerating. An example of this inbreeding is the white giraffes of Zambia's Mosi-Oa-Tunya National Park.

I had left my car at the police station, which lies just inside the veterinary fence in the village of Rooidag, and had hopped into the Land Rover with these American women who were taking an organised excursion to Grashoek from Roy's Camp, the nearest tourist lodge some two hours drive away on the main road from Rundu to Grootfontein. The police station was actually just a fenced compound containing a couple of breeze block houses and occasionally a bored looking man in uniform reclining in the shade. It wasn't possible to drive my car down the 4WD track to Grashoek village so it was the nearest and most secure option.

We drove the 6km down the bumpy, sandy 4WD track until we arrived at the museum just outside Grashoek village. The driver of our Land Rover, Christian, went to fetch the Bushmen while we waited in the shade of a mopane tree. The museum is a community run project designed to attract tourists and simply consists of a couple of temporary Bushman shelters tucked away into the bushveld and what looks like a small enclosure made of stick fences. Because Grashoek has no communication with the outside world there is no way to arrange a visit, you just have to turn up there and hope that that the bushmen will rouse themselves. The usual procedure, after making contact with a guide, is to wait around at the museum for about half an hour while the Bushmen get dressed up in their traditional garb and make their way over from Grashoek village where they actually live.

Although it is pure theatre the sight of the Bushmen emerging from the bush in their age-old costumes is something to behold. They wear their costumes so well and seem so natural in them that it is hard to imagine that they do not actually wear these kind of clothes anymore, and you're left wondering why they prefer their shabby, dirty, worn-out old western clothes to this much more aesthetically pleasing and practical traditional garb. The men are wearing leather loin cloths which show off their large behinds, the Bushmen being known for having slender frames and large buttocks are always depicted as such in their ancient rock art. The women are wearing nothing more than leather skirts, revealing breasts and naked bodies in all stages of development from teenage girls to old crones. Some of the women are carrying babies in leather slings and occasionally breast feeding. They all seem perfectly at ease in their near nakedness.

The only thing that taints the illusion of this staged encounter with the past is the dark skin, large frame and pot bellies of some of the participants. The bushmen of old were known for being small and dainty with not an ounce of fat showing on their tanned apricot-yellow skin. They had high cheekbones, strangely Oriental eyes and tiny, little dark tufts of hair on their heads like widely spaced peppercorns. The difference between them and the black migrants who entered this area later in history could hardly be more striking. These black pastoralists with their herds of cattle and goats were of large muscular build, dark-skinned and tall with thick woolly hair and large round eyes. But nowadays, after many generations of intermixing the bushman is not so easy to distinguish from his black counterpart. To see someone of seemingly pure bushman blood is rare and most now show at least some of the features of their black neighbours, with others looking so much like their black neighbours that's it's only when they start to speak in the strange clicks of the Bushman language that you realise that they are actually bushmen!

Tagging along with this oddly assorted bunch of Bushmen is, rather unexpectedly, an English student called Aislinn. She met the Bushmen at Grashoek a year ago on an overland trip and liked it so much she decided to come back and stay for a couple of months! Leaving the American women to croon at the Bushmen as they start to demonstrate some of their ancient crafts, to the sounds of “Oh my gosh!” and “Isn't that amazing!” I make the break and accompany Aislinn back to the real Grashoek village.

A short walk through the bush brings us to a large open area of sandy ground with the occasional tree dotted around for shade. Very spread out and widely separated are little clusters of huts made of sticks and mud with grass roofs. The bushmen have no tradition of making permanent settlements so these huts are copies of those used by their black neighbours. Apart from the huts and the odd tree, the monotony of sand is broken only by the occasional pile of dung or piece of western trash. As I approach the settlement I notice an odd and unpleasant smell which I have now grown quite accustomed to and come to associate with these bushmen villages. The smell is unique but I can only describe it as a mixture of stale sweat, urine and rotting garbage.

Aislinn leads me over to one of the huts which she proudly proclaims is her house. Unfortunately her house isn't finished yet, the widely spaced apart sticks and grass roof simply providing a shady pavillion so far, so nearby she has erected a modern dome tent where she currently resides. A short way past her house the bush resumes, a sparse covering of shrubs criss-crossed with garbage filled pathways that you must negotiate each day in order to make your toilet somewhere in the bush. All modern facilities in Grashoek being conspicuously absent!

I duck down under the entrance and enter her small, 2m sq. house and say Hello to the family that is gathered there, a pretty bushman woman with tanned apricot-yellow skin and perfect round breasts left alone to look after an assortment of babies and small children in various stages of development covered in dirt and snot, as her husband Morris is out guiding with the American tourists. Morris, of course, is not his real name, but the black officials in the government of Namibia don't like to deal with the bushman language so all the bushmen are all given western names which they have to use on official documents, passports etc. It's also handy to have a nice, easy-to-pronounce European name when dealing with tourists!

After dumping my tent, sleeping gear and coolbox in Aislinn's house we make our way back to the museum. The bushmen had just finished a bushwalk with the Americans and one of the bushmen was now demonstrating a snare made from sticks and plant fibres. As he placed the plant fibre string around four sticks placed in the ground one of the American women was forced to exclaim “Will you just look at that there! Isn't that just amazing!” After the bushmen had finished the Americans were saying “Thank you for showing us how you live! Now that we've seen how you live I hope we get the chance to show you how we live one day!” The bushman looked perplexed so she repeated “I said I hope to show you how we live one day!” Trying not to cringe too much I left them behind and made my way over to the stick fence enclosure whose purpose was now apparent, it was a shop!

The bushmen were draping all kinds of hand made crafts over the stick fences while one of them stood at the entrance with a notebook ready to jot down any sales. The crafts were impressive, all hand made in the traditional way by the bushmen of Grashoek. There were sets of bows and arrows, love bows, chopchops, spears and ostrich-egg jewellery galore! The wooden bows had plant fibre strings and came complete with a quiver made of bark with an attached leather shoulder strap. Inside the quiver were a selection of arrows made from grass stems with either metal or bone tips attached with resin and sinew. Some of the quivers also contained fire making kits composed of a couple of sticks, one of which had grooves burnt into it where it had been used. The love bows were miniature bows with tiny, blunt, bone-tipped arrows that a young man was required to loose at the buttocks of his intended. Her response to this brazen act was meant to indicate the suitability of the match. The chopchops were axes identical to the ones I had seen in the Okavango delta, but here I also learned that the blade could be taken out and inserted sideways in order to transform the axe into an adze, or the blade could even be removed completely to turn the chopchop into a tobacco pipe! The spears were not so impressive and looked like they had been cobbled together as tourist souvenirs as the heads kept falling out. The many bracelets and necklaces were mostly made of ostrich egg shells and seeds, patterns being made by intermixing the drilled seeds or dyed ostrich-egg beads into the necklaces, or by lacing the beads in various intricate patterns.

Browsing around the store I noticed that each item had a paper tag on it with a price and a bushman's name which usually contained at least one of the click sounds written as !, /, // or #. After enquiring I discovered that the money for the goods went to the person who had made the item, hence the name tags. I thought this a very good system as it encouraged quality craftwork and ensured that all the profits went to those responsible, so I decided to purchase a bow and arrows, love bow and chopchop. I thought they were excellent items of craftwork and was happy that my tourist dollar was helping to keep these crafts alive.

After asking about the materials used and where they had come from I discovered that the bushmen in this area were no longer allowed to hunt. The leather and sinew that were used in the construction of the quivers had to be donated from an abattoir, even the ostrich egg shells now had to be donated from the conservancy and they were rapidly running out of them. Asking about the hunting laws I discovered that nowadays in order to obtain a hunting licence you needed to own a high powered rifle, a safe to store it in and a fridge to store the meat, all expensive items that the bushmen would never be able to afford. So ironically, while at Roy's Camp it was possible to order game steak on the menu, these bushmen who had hunted the game of this area for countless millennia would no longer know the taste of wild game.

We walked back to Grashoek village and as the sun started to dip lower and the heat started to abate the bushmen graciously allowed me to put up my tent in their village. Morris's wife cooked us all a meal which was the standard fayre for the bushmen of Grashoek nowadays, boiled packet rice with packet soup and tinned meat something akin to spam. Aislinn also drank a food supplement which she mixed with the local tepid borehole water, her doctor had advised her to drink it to avoid getting malnutrition while living with the bushmen. The bushmen supplemented their diet with berries and roots from the surrounding bush, but this was the height of the dry season so pickings were very meagre indeed.

Of course the one thing that nobody talked about was the poaching. Many of the older men in the village remember the time when they were allowed to hunt freely, and old habits die hard.. However the game around Grashoek was now severely depleted and you would be lucky if you found even a small steenbok or duiker (both kinds of very small, solitary antelope), so you could say that I was a little disappointed and had been hoping to see something of a more traditional lifestyle.

I told Aislinn that I'd like to go to a place where there's more game, take some of the bushmen with me and maybe do some tracking. She informed me that on the other side of the conservancy there is an artificial water hole called Tjeke where occasionally the rich people with high powered rifles like to go to hunt, that should be a good place, but it's a long way so we'd have to drive there. “Let's do it then!” I said.

First job was to assemble our team to go there, we needed one of the old hunters and an interpreter. Aislinn suggested /Gau as the best person to take, but there was a problem, /Gau was currently banned from working by the conservancy. I should mention here that the conservancy is the organisation that manages the whole area, including the museum and the hunting camp at Tjeke. They get their money mainly from foreign donations and do their best with meagre resources to keep the place going and ensure that each of the bushmen gets a fair share. One of their rules is that the bushmen are not allowed to beg for money (A splendid rule which I wholeheartedly agree with after being pestered in many a place in Africa!) Unfortunately /Gau had recently broken this rule by asking for some some payment in advance from Aislinn for some work he was going to do for her. His punishment, which I thought was rather harsh and unfair, was that he was not allowed to earn any money for the next three weeks. This meant that whenever some tourists came to visit the museum he was not allowed to dress up and join his team at the museum (The teams work in rotation, each one taking a turn at the museum and earning a share of the profits from the visit).

So /Gau told us that he couldn't come with us as he was afraid of receiving further punishment. Aislinn said it was a pity as he was the best man for the job, so I suggested that we have a word with the conservancy to see if we could OK it with them. We managed to convince them that this was a private job not related to the conservancy, so thankfully they agreed that it was OK for /Gau to join us. Later on I learned that /Gau had acquired most of his skills from his father N!aici, and that his father was still alive and living in the village, “Let's bring him along too then!” I said.

Next problem was how to get to Tjeke. Our first thought was to ask the Kovango woman who runs the store in Grashoek as she had bakkie. We made our way over to the other side of the settlement where stood the only modern building in the entire village, a breeze block shack with a corrugated iron roof that served as the village store. All kinds of people were hanging around both outside and in, some standing and chatting, some sitting, some just staring. Inside it was hot, dingy and smelled of sweat. Apart from the boxes stacked up at the back the only goods on display were on three small shelves behind the counter where stood the fat sweaty Kovango woman. The shelves contained the modern bushman's basic daily diet of rice, macaroni, tinned meat, packet soup and a handful of other daily essentials, along with a few luxury goods such as tins of Coca Cola, Fanta, and boiled sweets sold singly, but occupying most of the back of the shop were box after box of Carling Black Label beer!

Now you could say that this Kovango woman was providing a vital service to this isolated village by bringing in essential supplies that the bushmen would otherwise have a hard time acquiring or, a more cynical person might say that she's exploiting these poor innocent people by milking them of what little money they have, getting them addicted to Western junk food and pissy lager. Either way she cashes in every day and then drives off back to her own home leaving drunken bushmen behind in her wake who now can't even afford to feed their families. We asked her about driving us to Tjeke but the usurious bitch wanted a ridiculous sum of money so we decided to explore other options.

My car was only 6km away near the veterinary gate, maybe we could just hitch a lift to my car in the morning, drive down the main road, and then hope that my car would make it down the dirt road to Tjeke. After making more enquiries we heard that the road to Tjeke was negotiable by 2WD (probably!) so we decided to give that a go, but could we get a ride to the gate? There was only one other person in the village who owned a bakkie and that was a beaten up old rust bucket that had no fuel, so no luck there! That left.. The donkey cart. Could we convince the donkey cart rider to give us a lift in the morning? But we were to be out of luck again, the donkey cart was needed to fetch water in the morning. Grashoek currently had no water as the pump for their borehole had stopped working, they had to fetch water by donkey cart from the next village every day. Yes, this was the Third World all right!

So there was no other option, we would just have to walk to my car in the morning.
“What time should we get up then?” I asked /Gau.
“First chicken!” he answered.


We got up before dawn, but well after first chicken, and off we set on foot down the sand track. We were an odd looking bunch, me a tall dark-haired Englishman in safari shorts, t-shirt, safari hat and sunglasses, Aislinn in jeans and t-shirt, and three small bushmen. Aislinn is tall and skinny with short sandy hair and a freckly face that gives her a Celtic look to match her name.

/Gau was also wearing a t-shirt and long pants but with the addition of what looked like a floppy ravers hat that a German tourist had given him some time earlier. I never saw /Gau without it. He looked to be about 50 years old, with lined and heavily tanned yellow skin and narrow eyes, his demeanour was almost childlike, he grinned often and with hunched shoulders made many subtle but expressive movements with his hands. I'm sure he would have looked great at techno-rave!

His father N!aici must have been at least in his 70's and wore an extremely dirty and shabby white blazer with matching white trilby hat with a black band. His face, like his sons, was a tanned yellow, and his small peppercorn hair was grey. Hobbling along about 10 yards behind us with his walking stick he was a comical looking character, with a Charlie Chaplin-like gait he looked like an ageing jazz musician. The bow, quiver and chopchop slung over his shoulder looked oddly out of place.

Keeping up with me and Aislinn at the front was our interpreter Steun who was enthusiastically translating everything the bushmen said in such a thick African accent that I needed a further translation from Aislinn in order to understand him. He was more black African looking than /Gau and his father and he wore a blue football shirt and shorts, and had a wisp of youthful moustache.

As we walk through the bush it starts to rain gently. /Gau tells us that this type of rain is called male rain; when the real rains come and it pours down in buckets then that's called female rain. /Gau is being very expressive, pointing at the sky and ground while gesturing with his hands. Steun's translations seem to fall a bit flat and contain none of the colour and flair of /Gau's expressive movements, but he manages to convey to us the meaning of the rain dances and how they can summon the rains if needed, occasionally consulting with N!aici on points of detail. Aislinn tells me that she's witnessed a rain dance and on that occasion it seemed to work, she shrugs as if to tell me don't ask me to explain it!

/Gau then proceeds to roll up and smoke one of the roughest looking cigarettes I've ever seen, large black flakes of tobacco coiled up inside a strip of newspaper. The bushmen have been smoking tobacco for centuries, even before the white men came they would obtain tobacco from traders who purchased it from Arab merchants. They seem totally hooked on the vile stuff and when they can't get tobacco they smoke some local herbs mixed with rabbit droppings instead.
“Does it have any effect?” I ask Aislinn.
“No,” she shrugs.
“Why do they smoke it then?”
She shrugs again, the ways of the Bushmen are seemingly a mystery!
As if in confirmation N!aici lets out a large bronchial cough from some way behind us.

We reach the car after one and a half hours to discover that N!aici has lost his bow somewhere along the way. Steun runs back to look for it but without success.
“Never mind,” he says, “we can make another one in half an hour!”
We all pile into the car, me and Aislin in the front and the three little bushmen in the back and drive for an hour or so up the main gravel road in the direction of Tsumkwe, before turning off to the right down a dirt track towards Tjeke. As we drive down the tiny track the sand starts to get deeper and I'm starting to get worried, if we get stuck here then nobody is coming this way to find us for a long time!

Just as I'm about to give up and turn around we see the concrete waterhole ahead which is simply a large, raised cylinder which water is pumped into from a borehole. We get out of the car and as I approach the waterhole I notice a bad smell, climbing up and peering inside it's instantly apparent that there's no water there but what are all those bumps on the bottom and what's that vile smell! Then suddenly it all comes into focus, the bottom of the waterhole is covered in hundreds of tiny, rotting dead birds! How they came to die there is a mystery, did they drown, or die of thirst, or poison? We could only guess.

Anyway there was no water here, not a drop, and that meant no game. The hunting camp appeared abandoned, nobody had been here for months. We wandered around wondering what we should do now. /Gau pointed to an old elephant path and said we could follow that and look for tracks. We found a few tracks of small animals such as porcupine and duiker and then after a while saw the spoor of a larger antelope. N!aici looked down at the tracks then looking up at me with a big smile on his face he stuck two fingers up at me! Now I'm guessing that he wasn't trying to be rude, so I thought he must mean that there were two antelope.
“What does this mean?” I asked, sticking two fingers up at Steun.
“Ah, Oryx!” he replied.
So this was how I learned that the bushman have a different hand sign for every animal. Two fingers stuck up facing outwards meant oryx, facing inwards in meant eland, making a paw shape by tucking in all your fingers meant lion etc. No doubt they used this sign language while silently stalking prey. Apparently the oryx had come here looking for water, found none, and so had moved on.

A bit further on I noticed N!aici breaking up the occasional piece of elephant dung with his walking stick. Is this some strange way of tracking I was wondering? Then he crouches down and starts picking things out of the dung.
“What is he doing?” I ask.
“Oh, mangetti nuts,” says Steun.
The elephants eat the mangetti nuts but can't digest them. The old man was collecting snacks for the journey!

Meanwhile /Gau is reaching under the parched and leafless bushes to collect mother in laws tongue leaves which he collects together into a bundle and then splits one of them to cunningly fashion a cradle and handle so he can carry them like a handbag. When he gets home he'll use the leaves to make bow strings. Then he spots a bush, which being blackened and leafless looks exactly like all the other bushes to me, and starts to dig a big hole next to it using his hands. After digging about two feet down into the sand he finally reaches the roots and finds what he's looking for, a small, dark-red chrysalis. After inspecting it he throws it away.
“No good!” he says.
The chrysalis, when fresh, is what they use to make the deadly poison for their arrows.

We wander round the bush a bit more and one of the shrubs is exuding knobs of clear resin from its joints. /Gau proceeds to pick them all off and put them in his pouch. The resin is a glue and is used amongst other things in the construction of their bows and arrows. It can also be eaten and has a most peculiar taste!

We soon decide that this place has little more to offer, but what should we do now? If we go back to the main gravel road and continue to the end we'll get to Tsumkwe in the Nyae Nyae conservancy. There's meant to be lots more game over there and hopefully also some pans full of water. In any case I'm now getting low on fuel and Tsumkwe has the only filling station in the whole of Bushmanland so that decides it, back in the car and off we go!

The nearer we get to Tsumkwe the more the road seems to deteriorate and the bigger the potholes get but we arrive in one piece and I'm relieved to find that the filling station is open. The only problem now is how are we going to get to Nyae Nyae pan, it's a serious 4WD track so there's no chance of reaching it in my car. After making enquiries at Tsumkwe lodge we manage to find a guy who's willing to hire his bakkie out to us, so it's game on!

Just for fun I tell Aislinn that she can drive if she wants and laughing madly off she goes! As each bump sends us flying off our seats it only seems to make her laugh more.
“Do you think we're crazy?” she asks N!aici.
“I don't care, so long as you pay me!” he replies.

After about an hour we reach a large dried-up pan.
“Is this it?” I ask feeling very let-down.
N!aici who's never even been here before is not even bothering for a translation, he's just making forward pointing movements with his hand from the back of the car.
“Seems like he thinks we should go on,” so we decide to follow his advice and continue.
Shortly I notice a bright band on the horizon.
“What's that?” I ask, thinking it's a mirage, but as we get closer it becomes obvious, it's water! Lot's of it!

After driving through the desert for days it was an almost miraculous sight! Water as far as the eye could see! And it was teeming with birds, plovers patrolling the shore, flocks of black-and-white avocets with their up-curved beaks joining their cousins the stilts to wade in the silt, white faced ducks bobbing on the surface, and farther out glossy ibis. It was like we'd found a little paradise in this parched land! In the distant haze I could just make out a line of pink; reaching for my binoculars it confirmed what I hardy dared to hope, flamingos! Hundreds of them! It was my first ever sighting of wild flamingos.

The road turned to the right to follow the edge of the pan and as we drove on a bit further we saw a large herd of springbok to our right while to out left were two tawny eagles in a tree. We pulled over and rolled out of the car, the eagles eyeing us warily and the springbok even more so. The bushmen were excited to see so much game and I'm sure they would have loved to bag one for supper.

As we wander down to the edge of the lake the spoor tells the story of the comings and goings of the day as it criss-crosses over the mud; oryx, hyaena, the strange two-toed print of ostrich and then the clearly defined pad of a lion! N!aici is starting to look a bit nervous now! He points over his shoulder at the car, indicating that it is a long way away.
“He doesn't feel safe here, this is not his land!” Steun says.
So Aislinn heroically volunteers to go and get the car while we carry on walking.

She catches up with us and we pause for a photo opportunity by the pan, just me and the three small bushmen with the pan behind us, before hopping back in the car. I was hoping to get a closer look at the flamingos but the road doesn't seem to be heading that way so we decide to turn back, the sun is getting low and it's not a good idea to be stuck out here after dark.

After a bumpy ride back to Tsumkwe lodge we pause for a cup of tea while the bushmen drink cans of coke. They look oddly uncomfortable and out of place sitting there in the dining room of the lodge. We then drop off the 4WD and the owner seems quite surprised to hear that there's water in the pans which makes us feel fortunate for our good luck! We then squeeze back into my Opel Corsa for the long drive back to Grashoek, an uneventful journey except for when I notice two trees growing in the middle of the road! I'm sure those weren't there when we drove up here! Looking perplexed I finally realise that some kind soul has planted them in two of the biggest potholes to warn people against driving into them!

It's after dark when we arrive back at the veterinary gate in Rooidag and now we have to find a way of getting back to Grashoek. After a few enquiries in the local houses the bushmen manage to arrange a ride for us for only 60 Namibian dollars. Arriving back at Grashoek I tell the driver to come and collect me the next day at 12:00 as that is when I'm planning to leave. We did have a plan to bring some fuel for the guy in Grashoek with the rusty bakkie, but the filling station at Tsumkwe was closed by the time we got back there and in any case we had nothing to put the fuel in.

Grashoek village is dark and silent as everyone has already gone to bed. Deciding that's it's best not to disturb anyone, and because we're all so tired anyway, we all go to bed without supper.


As the chickens usher in a new day we get up and sit around the fire with the bushmen and eat breakfast. Moving over to Aislinn's house Morris's wife and family start to make an ostrich egg shell necklace, chipping the beads to shape between two rocks and then drilling a hole through them using a hand drill of ancient design. As we play with the children and practice more of the animal signs /Gau arrives. I had promised to give him a lift to Grootfontein to visit his wife who is in hospital there, so he sits down and chats to us as we wait for my ride to arrive.

We start to talk about the healing dances and he explains to me about the ancient eland dance where they enter a trance and talk to the spirits of the ancestors. /Gau is talking enthusiastically and using his hands very expressively while Morris is translating, and although Morris's English is very good again I feel that much is being lost in translation as Morris's descriptions seem very short and bland compared to /Gau's expressive enthusiasm.

He explains that the Christians amongst them have invented a new dance called the elephant dance though how it differs from the eland dance he did not say. The eland is the most ancient and sacred animal of the bushmen and also their favourite meat! In the bushmen creation myth all the other animals were created from the body parts of a butchered eland.

In the village there is only one healer and his name is /Kumta. If someone is sick then they will perform one of their healing dances. Although the whole village will join in, with the woman clapping and the men dancing, he says that it is only /Kumta who can heal. They will dance until /Kumta says that the work is done, this can sometimes mean dancing all night.

I ask /Gau if he is able to talk to the spirits too. He says that sometimes he does when he is dancing and also sometimes in his dreams the spirits will tell him where to look for game. He tells me that sometimes it's difficult to know if a dream is just an ordinary dream or if it has come from the spirits. If he sneezes in the morning his wife will tell him, “That's not the right one!”

After a while /Kumta comes to join us and he tells about how one is initiated to become a healer. He says that during the initiation the healer must only eat certain foods and how after a few days he will journey to the spirit world and stay there for four days. During this time it will appear like he is sick and his body will be lying in bed hardly moving but his spirit will be journeying to the land of the ancestors to obtain the secrets of healing. During his time in the spirit world he will encounter ancestor spirits who will want to keep him there, dead relatives who do not want him to return to the land of the living. In order to avoid these spirits he must make himself small and hide under tree bark or inside grass stems for instance.
“What will happen to him if he gets caught?” I ask.
“He will die,” /Kumta replies simply, meaning that his spirit will remain with the ancestors while his body will cease breathing.
I ask /Kumta if he is training anyone to become a healer after him. He says yes, there is one youth but he has not yet undergone the initiation.

More than anything I would like to see one of the healing dances and it seems like I am in luck because there is one woman in the village who is sick and they intend to do a healing dance tonight!
“How often do they perform the healing dance?”
“Just whenever it is needed, but not more than about once every month or two.”
Lucky indeed, but I had promised /Gau a lift to Grootfontein so I was not sure that I would make it back in time, the dance was due to start as soon as darkness falls, and now it seems like the ride that I had booked the day before was not going to show up. In desperation I had to ask the Kovango woman from the shop and she offered to take me to the road for 80 Namibian dollars, despite the fact that she was going that way anyway and was on her way home! Left with no other choice I hopped in the back of the bakkie with /Gau and about half a dozen other bushmen and off we went.

We soon arrived at the road where I transferred back to my own car and set off for Grootfontein, the nearest commercial centre. The town is 180km from the gate at Rooidag and not only does it house the nearest hospital and bank but it is also where the bushmen's occasional items of mail gets delivered to. So anyone wanting to receive a letter has to wait until one of them happens to be making the long journey into town.

As we sit in the car /Gau tells me about his wife. Until now I didn't even realise that /Gau spoke English, but using a limited vocabulary and much sign language he manages to make himself understood. He says that his wife's left arm and side wend dead. Sounds like a stroke, I thought. Then he proceeds to tell me about how he thinks that the doctor's are poisoning his wife! Aislinn told me another story about he thinks they cast black magic on her. Either way he does not trust the black doctors and thinks that they don't like the bushmen. He also told me about his plans to go to Germany with his wife and proudly showed me his passport. They are being paid to go there to give lessons about survival in the bush.

We arrive at the hospital to be greeted by a stern looking doctor and ward sister. After checking their files they start to berate /Gau for not contacting them.
“How can he contact you? There is no phone in his village,” I say.
They haughtily take us through into the ward and indicate where /Gau's wife is lying unconcious. They call her name and she opens her eyes, but she cannot see anyone and looks totally drugged up. /Gau is of course very upset, the hospital staff are still being indignant and aloof but I manage to get them to confirm that it's probably a stroke caused by high blood pressure and that she's got worse since she came to hospital. They say that she might get better with long physiotherapy and that her current state is caused by the drugs they've given her. Beside her bed lies her two month old baby.

/Gau is overwrought and says that he needs to stay in town to be with his wife. I give him a couple of hundred Namibian dollars to tide him over, and wish him and his wife good luck. There's nothing more I can do so I set off back to Rooidag.

Arriving back there a couple of hours later it's already getting dark. I check the house by the gate to see if I can get a ride to Grashoek but the owner is out. I'm assured that he will be back soon so I wait. As I sit in my car storm clouds gather and the wind whips up to throw dust into the air, soon followed by thunder, lightning and rain. Has the rainy season started already I wonder? After waiting for almost two hours the guy finally shows up, and after apologising for not turning up to give me a ride earlier in the day, he takes me back to Grashoek.
“When is the rainy season in England?” the driver asks me.
“Hah! All the time!” I said.
“Oh! That is good!” he exudes.

Thinking that the dance should still be going on I arrive in the village to find it totally silent and deserted. Everyone has gone to bed already! Aislin tells me that the dance was cancelled due to the bad weather, and that she sent the sick woman to bed with a couple of paracetamols instead! Seeing no point in sticking around I head straight back to Rooidag and then make my was over to Roy's Camp to spend the night.


At breakfast I meet a Dutch couple called Vim and Annette who've heard that I've been to visit the bushmen. I tell them about my experiences and then about the dance that was cancelled the night before.
“They'll probably be doing it tonight instead,” I say.
So we all decide to go back to the village again.

Arriving at Rooidag in Vim's car we are faced with the same old problem. Vim only has a 2WD car and there is no 4WD available. Visiting a local farm we find a fat, moustachioed Afrikaans farmer who's willing to allow one of his black servants to drive us there in his bakkie if we pay him 100 Namibian dollars. Luckily for me Vim and the Afrikaner were able to understand each others dialects and so we made a connection that way.

Back in Rooidag we pick up several bushmen who are hitching a ride and continue on to Grashoek. Sitting in the back of the bakkie under a blue sky filled with cotton-wool clouds, the bush all around us and bushmen talking to each other in their strange click sounds is a true African experience!

Arriving at the village we roused the bushmen and then headed over to the museum. This time I decided to tag along with Vim and Annette and watch the bushmen as they performed their age-old crafts, bushwalk and dancing performance. Again they were dressed only in skins and were almost naked. It was a different team from the one I had seen the last time, but the impression was the same, of bushmen feeling and acting perfectly naturally in their natural surroundings, and it was fascinating to watch what it was possible for them to make from these seemingly lifeless surroundings.

A bow was quickly shaped from a branch while another bushman made a string using mother-in-laws-tongue leaves. The leaves were stripped of their pulp leaving long fibres which were then twisted together into a very durable twine. The string was then attached to the bow using sinew and some resin from a local tree to act act glue. Another bushman was making arrows from grass stems with bone arrow heads attached with sinew and resin. While the men were making hunting weapons the women were making jewellery from ostrich egg shells as I described earlier.

They then demonstrated how to make fire, using just two dry sticks from specially selected trees they took it in turns to rotate the upright stick vigorously between their palms, adding a little sand for extra friction. Once a small pile of blackened coals had been produced the coals were then transferred to some dry grass cupped between the palms, a few breaths into the grass and then hey presto, fire!

Next came the bushwalk where they showed us how to obtain the items they had just used. They also found a tiny green plant, dug down deep and then produced from the earth a huge tuber the size of a small melon. Scraping some shavings off it with a knife they then squeezed these shavings in their fist and let the water run down their thumb into their mouth. The tuber produced a surprisingly large amount of water that had a bitter taste which the bushmen of old were said to have preferred to regular water which they said was too sweet! In any case these tubers had frequently kept the bushmen alive in times of drought.

Finally the bushmen performed the fire dance, which was a kind of healing dance. All the woman stood in a semi-circle and started to clap and chant rhythmically. In front of them and facing them stood three men who started to dance, but the dance was like nothing I had ever seen, the men hardly seemed to be moving but their whole body was vibrating. The rhythmic clapping of the woman now seemed to have a strange effect, the clapping was extremely precise with each women clapping out the beat at exactly the same moment. It reminded me of the drumming of the Siberian shamans whose rhythmic beat was designed to help the shaman enter an altered state of consciousness. I was also told that not only did the rhythm help the practitioner to enter the spirit world, it also was meant to guide them back again too. Therefore the women could not just stop clapping, they had to continue on and on, perhaps all night, until the healing dance was over.

After a while the man who seemed to be playing the part of the healer started to rub his hands over a fire which had been lit behind him and then rubbed his body and, cast away with both his arms into the far distance. It was as if he was taking the evil spirits and casting them out over the horizon. He then did this with the other male dancers, touching them and then casting the spirits out. As he did this they seemed to vibrate even more. The whole thing was so captivating that I had a hard time comprehending that this was not the real thing and was only a show.

After performing two or three songs the clapping abruptly stopped and the healer went to each of the women in turn, blowing three times on their forehead, once to each side and once above, he seemed to be blowing the evil spirits and diseases out of their heads.

After their performance the men seemed to be totally exhausted, they were still shaking and were covered in sweat, which seemed kind of odd as they had hardly appeared to have moved. I was then told that one of the young men who had just performed the dance was in fact the apprentice healer, so shortly he would be performing these kind of dances for real, but whether the performance I had just witnessed was real or not I certainly got the feeling that they all benefited from it in some spiritual way.

We head back to Grashoek village to have one last chat with the bushmen. Steun is there and thanks me heartily for the excursion to Nyae Nyae pan which he says was a special experience for him. I give them the news about /Gau and his wife and exchange other gossip. Meanwhile Annette is getting anxious because it's getting dark and yet again our life has failed to show up. I tell her not to worry, something always works out somehow. Aislinn goes to look for a bakkie and after a while we can hear the sound of a car approaching. As last light of day drains from the sky we say goodbye to the village and the bushmen of Grashoek.

The photos on this page are all sourced from the internet (I left my camera behind) and show the bushmen of Grashoek acting out their ancient lifestyle and dressing up in traditional costume.

The women return from collecting wood

Bushman woman with child

Part of a healing ritual

Bushmen making fire the traditional way

Two bushmen ready to go hunting. The one on the right is /Kumta.

Breaking ostrich eggshell into manageable pieces.

Drilling a hole through an ostrich eggshell bead.

A woman threads an ostrich eggshell necklace.

Women making necklaces. The woman on the far left is Morris's wife.

Map showing the location of Grashoek between Grootfontein and Tsumkwe.


There are no communications of any kind at Grashoek, therefore it is not possible to arrange a visit in advance, but the bushmen there are well organised and ready to receive visitors at any time of the day. Simply turn up at the village and a guide will come out to meet you. You will then have to wait half an hour while the bushmen get dressed up in their traditional attire and walk through the bush from their village.

To reach grashoek you will need your own transport, preferably a four wheel drive. Driving along the Grootfontain to Rundu road turn east down a broad, straight gravel road towards Tsumkwe (Here you will also find a logde called Roy's Rest Camp). After 80km you will reach the veterinary gate in the small village of Rooidag. Wait for the attendant to open the gate and then drive through. The turnoff for Grashoek is well signposted on the left. If you have a two wheel drive car then it is recommended that you leave it in Grashoek and try to arrange a ride in a bakkie with one of the locals, who will take you the 6km down a sandy track to the village (The first house on the left after the veterinary gate has a bakkie).

Another alternative is to arrange a day trip from Roy's rest camp, although this is expensive, especially if travelling alone. Price $1250 Namibian dollars for 1-7 people for transport only.

Activities: Traditional craft demonstrations which you can join in. Gathering in the bush with the bushmen and learning the uses of all the plants. Traditional singing and dancing (healing ceremonies). Shopping for tradional crafts.

Rates: $400 Namibian dollars per person for a half-day's activities (For this price you get at least a dozen bushmen and women to demonstrate for you!)

For more information contact robt@jelldragon.com

Copyright © 2008 Robert H Taylor