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Thursday, 15 August, 2002, 16:10 GMT 17:10 UK
Botswana Bushman fights for survival
San (Bushmen) family
President Mogae has said Bushmen are 'stone age creatures'

In Botswana the Bushmen, or San, face destruction as a separate ethnic group.

The only concession most San made to the 21st century was wearing clothes

President Festus Mogae once described them as 'Stone Age creatures' for whom there was no place in the modern world, and the Botswana Government is chasing them off their traditional hunting-lands.

Diamonds, the curse of modern Africa, have been discovered there.

But when I travelled to the distant north-east of Namibia, bordering Botswana, I found conditions there rather better.

Not that the San are entirely safe - an Australian mining company thinks it has found diamonds under Tsumkwe East, the area where the Bushmen have found their safest sanctuary in Namibia.

But at present they are able to live and hunt in their traditional ways, after a century of being hunted and forcibly removed, first by German colonists, and then by the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Safe distance

I had heard the usual depressing stories, but in Tsumkwe East the San are far enough away from towns to be fairly safe from alcohol and AIDS.

The main threat comes from tuberculosis, but a British aid agency, Health Unlimited, has scored what it believes is a world first in Tsumkwe East by treating the Bushmen in their own villages instead of taking them to hospital.

As wanderers, they find it impossible to stay immobile for six months. Health Unlimited claims an 84% cure rate there.

The Bushmen are being chased off their traditional hunting-lands
Travelling from one small group of grass-covered huts in the bush to the next, I found that the only concession most San made to the 21st century was wearing clothes.

Otherwise they hunt enthusiastically in their ancient fashion, with small bows and tiny, unflighted arrows whose barbs they smear with poison from the larvae of Chrysomelidae beetles.

Often they chase a kudu or an eland for four or five days before it becomes exhausted and can be quickly despatched.

Hunting is exciting and dangerous, and for this reason the teenagers and young men of the San prefer it to drifting off to the nearby towns.

Hunting music

I came across a couple of San boys who told me they played in a band: I was even more depressed when they told me that one of their group played the guitar.

But when I asked them what music they played, they said 'Songs about hunting kudu and eland.'

They themselves hunted three days a week, they said.

Most of the San people in Tsumkwe East are from the Jo/'hoansi tribe (the name means 'the right people', or 'the real people').

The Bushmen have sought sanctuary in Namibia
Like other Bushmen, they have four complex clicks in their language, which can only be expressed in writing by using the kind of characters you usually press by accident on a computer.

Some ethnologists believe that although the Bushmen have always been persecuted ever since the first dominant African groups spread to southern Africa between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago, even groups as powerful as the Zulu gradually incorporated the Bushmen clicks into their own languages.

Healing dance

One evening in the village of Djoxkho I watched a dance of healing for a man whose back had been injured; perhaps while hunting.

A circle of 10 women, young and old, gathered round a wood fire and began singing a gentle, complex song while clapping their hands in a completely different set of rhythms.

Half a dozen men, one in his 90's and one a teenager, danced in slow and stately fashion around the circle, singing and chanting.

Then the oldest man, his baggy shirt hitched up round his waist to show his legs, scrawny yet still tough, went into the circle and grabbed two handfuls of burning embers in his bare hands, apparently without harm.

By now in a deep trance, he dropped the embers and went over to the injured man, throwing his arms around him.

All the while, as the fiery sun went down and the stars of the Namibian bush came out, startlingly bright, the women kept up their chanting.

It was, I felt, like listening to the sound of the Stone Age.

And unlike the President of Botswana, I mean that with the greatest respect.

See also:

29 Apr 02 | Europe
18 Mar 02 | Africa
18 Jan 02 | Europe
06 Oct 00 | Africa
26 Feb 02 | Country profiles
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