Connecting to the Past with the Xai Xai Bushmen of Botswana
A recent safari guest describes her interactions with the San Bushmen of Xai Xai deep in the Kalahari of Botswana. As part of our Botswana Culture & Wildlife Safari, this small group spent two days with the San learning about their culture and everyday lives. Here, Bonnie relates her experiences with the San and her connection to a nearly extinct way of life.
The plane from Johannesburg to Maun Botswana carried a full load of people, all dressed in shades of khaki. The conversation onboard was full of banter among the tourists, with the seasoned travelers in wrinkled garb giving advice to the newbies in freshly purchased shirts and safari hats. Their groups were traveling northeast, to the camps in the Kalahari to view wildlife. These great game destinations comprise more than 17% of the country and our group would eventually end up there. But first we would take the less traveled route and head west, deep into bushman country.
“We will travel to a remote San Bushmen village (which few tourists see) and spend two nights interacting with the villagers, learning about their customs, daily lives, and the challenges of living in the harsh Kalahari Desert.” - Grasstracks Safaris brochure
Yes, indeed. We piled into a bus for the bouncy 6 hour journey to our camp deep in the bush in the far west of Botswana near Xai Xai, and discovered just how remote the village was. This was our first night camping in the bush, and we arrived to find the tents set up and tea awaiting us. In a few hours, we would meet the Bushmen who inhabit this land, whose ancestors lived a nomadic lifestyle that few westerners can imagine.
During the 1950s, the acclaimed filmmaker John Marshall recorded the lives of the San Bushmen in Namibia. His unique style of reality filmmaking gave him access to the day-to-day existence of these hunter-gatherers. While documenting the changes in their lives over time, he became more than an observer. He became a friend and eventually an advocate, returning again in the 1980s to live among the people also known as the Ju/'hoans.
In today’s environment, the few remaining Bushmen are no longer able to support themselves in the ways of the past, and now provide educational bush walks and cultural experiences. To do this, they leave their village and set up a temporary camp about a quarter mile from our tents, inhabiting a circle of small traditional thatched huts for the two nights we spend together. They are a group of about 15 of mixed ages consisting of men and women, several elders, a baby and small child. We were looking forward to seeing how they would pass on their skills and knowledge, and I recorded a series of images that will forever remain with me.
The Goat Head
On our first visit to their camp, I was not surprised to look up and see the carcass of a goat hanging from a tree. Our guide Steve had alerted us that we were responsible for providing a goat for their sustenance. What I was not prepared for was watching one of the Bushmen squatting on the ground, picking at the remains of the goat head, casually eating the meat. It was a lesson that they do not waste any part of the animal and picky eaters would not survive in the bush.
The Bush Walk
We met early in the morning, before the heat of the day, heading out into the savannah. In single file, we followed their lead. Like dousers searching for water, the Bushmen were always reading the signs of the vegetation. They took turns explaining as they went along. A young man stopped near a bush and showed us one of the plants used to treat a cold. Two women carried simple digging sticks, which they used to dig up a huge tuber that they would later roast. An elder demonstrated how to make fire. One lithe bushman disappeared down a hole to search for porcupine, meat prized for its fatty content. He came up with hands empty but smiling. Each one unveiled a special skill as the walk progressed. We spent the whole morning foraging and learning.
Bushmen are known for their sense of humor and love of games. The women showed us a simple game of catch using a gourd, passing it backhanded to the next in their circle, singing while they danced. Another game called “Steenbok and Lightning” pit old vs. young, and was very similar to our game of Rock-Paper-Scissors. There was much laughter as they faced off, three youths across from three elders, each taking turns in a complicated ritual of hand signs.
The Trance Dance
After sunset, the sound of singing filtered through the bush, luring us to their campfire. Using our headlamps, we walked in silence to their camp and joined them in a circle. The women were singing and chanting. The men wore rattles made of seeds on their legs, and circled the fire in a slow rhythmic dance. Through rhythm and song, they attempt to enter a hypnotic state for inducing healing, a form of bushmen therapy. I don’t know whether it was the jet lag from travel or the throbbing rhythms carried by the cool evening air, but I surely felt a peaceful vibration in the air lulling me into a trance that evening.
The Bushmen sat in a semi circle facing us, as the elder began his story in their expressive click language. He told of going off on a hunt with his friend, when they stumbled upon the fresh carcass of a kudu. Little did they know there was a lion nearby. The lion attack was swift, and the bushman showed us the scar where the flesh was missing. But how did you survive such a vicious attack, I asked. Well, he said, my hunting companion fended the lion off. He took me back to camp, where John Marshall transported me to the hospital. That same John Marshall who filmed the San People many years ago is still remembered in stories today.
Most safaris to Botswana advertise glowing reviews of wildlife sightings. In a few days, I would go on to experience my share of those. But I was lucky to be one of the very few visitors who began their trip traveling west instead of east. Deep in the bush in a remote corner of Botswana, I had found a connection to the past.
Bonnie J. Fladung specializes in nonfiction and adventure travel writing with a focus on nature and wildlife. She is the co-author of the award-winning book "When Eagles Roar: The Amazing Journey of an African Wildlife Adventurer" which focuses on African wildlife, community relations, environmental concerns, and the impact of AIDS in Africa. The book was recently selected as "One of the Best Wildlife Books of All Time" by Book Authority, and “What to Read Before You Go” by National Geographic. The first book in her new illustrated picture book series “The Elephant’s Euphonium: A Little Tusker’s Adventures in Africa” brings attention to the plight of the remaining large tuskers in Africa. Bonnie also teaches courses on Africa with a focus on wildlife through the OSHER program at Dartmouth College. To learn more, visit Bonnie's website.
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I think I met you a couple of years ago at Dartmouth, via Bonnie Fladung, who recently told me about her trip to the Xai Xai Bushmen of northern Bostwana. I am interesting in making a similar trip. I would be particularly interested in getting into the Nyae Nyae area of Namibia to see the !Kung; but if that isn’t possible I would like to know about other possibilities. Although I would be interested in making this trip alone, I might also be interested in adding on a trip into the Okavongo Delta accompanied by my wife and possibly two friends as an add on. Could you give me some suggestions and price estimates?