Our first stop of the country was to meet the Bushmen in Botswana, so we made our way to a campsite near a town called Ghanzi. A bushman tribe called the San are indigenous to this area, and we were set to do a walk with them to experience the San Bushmen culture and lifestyle first hand.
We were thinking it might be like our ‘bushman walk’ a few days ago in Spitzkoppe, where we walked to some rock paintings and learned about the history of the fascinating African bushmen people. But, we were very wrong! This time we were in for a far more immersive experience into the life of bushmen hunting, religion, and more.
We found this out when we saw two men approaching the campsite dressed in loincloths made of animal skins. One was carrying a big leather bag on his back, almost reminiscent of a quiver, but with different lengths and sharpnesses of sticks inside it. We all looked up in silence, confusion, and awe, wondering what we were to do.
Our tour guide was not far behind, wearing a button-up and a hat, but was conversing with the bushmen in their native clicking tongue (the language actually has different types of tongue clicks in it). He motioned for us to follow.
A Walk with the San Bushmen in Botswana
Around the corner there were even more traditionally clad bushmen and women, two with little babies clinging to their backs within leather sarongs. After following them all in a line into the bush, still in the same slightly confused and awe-struck silence, we gathered together. The tour guide gave us a little introduction; he translated that the bushmen welcomed us to the tour and they were to show us some of their traditional San Bushmen culture and lifestyle. He encouraged us to take photos and ask questions to him to ask them; they spoke no english but did adorably attempt to repeat our names when we introduced ourselves!
So, we made our way into the bush, following their bare feet and short wrap clothes with our closed-toed shoes and long pants. They took turns digging up certain roots to show us, explaining things all in their native tongue which were soon translated by our guide.
There were certain roots and plants that they used to: heal a stomach ache, help diarrhea or constipation, ease a headache, wash their hands (a certain root even produced soapy suds!), help to become pregnant or more fertile (get me away from this root please 😉 ), clean their teeth, and even a root to chew for a month that would prevent malaria for the season. Wow!!
They were all clad in traditional clothing made of animal skins, softened and waterproofed by a certain process they use with a root after drying the skin out. Even their bags were made of animal skins as well.
They carried ostrich shells in makeshift sling bags as well, because this was their main way of carrying water. When it rained they would set out as many ostrich shells as possible to save up water for themselves.
Along the way they would all stop occasionally to dig out roots or insects from the ground. They would usually show these to us, explaining in their clicking language what they were. To this day they still use all these roots and plants for healing purposes. If you think about it, the ‘root’ of the whole pharmaceutical business is in nature anyway! The way they know their way around every single plant in the bush is a fascinating aspect of San Bushmen culture and lifestyle.
One of the Bushmen women disappeared for a few minutes, only to return with four or five large shiny beetles in her hand. As she opened her hand to show us, one attempted to fly away and she caught it back in her other hand in a catlike instant reflex, hardly stopping her explanation or even looking away. It was so clear how familiar they were with life in the bush! She went on to explain (translated by our guide) that to stop them from flying away, you must remove their legs. It was a bit gross for us but we watched her expert skill preparing them to eat.
When they need to mix a medicine, they tend to carve out one of the melons that grows around here and use its watery insides to mix it up. These are also a source of water for them!
If they want to hunt, the bushmen dip their arrows in the poison of a certain plant, hunt and shoot the animal with it, and wait a few days for the poison to kill them. They just have to make sure not to eat the meat that was hit by the poison arrow!
At the end they demonstrated their traditional Bushmen way of making fire, by rubbing sticks together. They would place one long stick within a little rut carved into another stick, on the ground in a pile of grass. The three men took turns quickly turning it back and forth until smoke appeared, soon to be putting the little pile of grass up in flames. They used the fire to light a little pipe, which they puffed and passed around!
Modern San Bushmen Culture and Lifestyle – How They Are Today
We came to understand that the traditional San bushmen tribes were forbidden from hunting and were moved into settlements in 1994, in a government effort to preserve the sacred African wildlife and to encourage education (and to some extent westernization) of its people.
So, their fully nomadic way of life was pretty much completely curtailed only 22 years ago. This means they no longer wear the traditional animal skins (they’re hard to come by because they cannot hunt) or really live in the wild; they are given jobs in their settlement to make money to live. Our walk and experience of the san bushmen culture and lifestyle was more of a demonstration of their old way of life.
It is still a bit unnatural to these people to be forced out of nomadic living (how they lived for thousands of years) and into a permanent residence. And not all of them are able to be given jobs in their settlements. So, many help by doing these traditional San bushmen walks. This helps them to earn some extra money, and helps the younger tribe members to learn from the elders how their way of life used to be. The older man in the walk was a real bushman legend; he, along with another older woman, really did live that way many years ago. It was clear that they appreciated teaching their rituals and techniquesof the original bushmen culture and lifestyle to the younger ones born in the settlements. So, all in all, these walks are a great way to continue their amazing culture, and to show travelers as well.
A San Bushman Tribal Dance
The walk was not the end of our experience with the culture of the san bushmen in Botswana! After dark we got to see a traditional tribal dance of the bushmen!
It was incredibly fascinating. The women sat and clapped and sang around the fire while the men, wearing strings of maraca-sounding seeds around their ankles and calves, would come toward the fire while stomping, clapping, and singing/yelling in perfect unison.
Each song is about something different. There are healing songs, hunting songs, celebration songs, and entertainment songs. The hunting or celebration songs can be about any animal or food they had caught or wished to hunt – like a woodpecker, python, bustard bird, truffles, anteater, antelope, elephant, etc.
The most fascinating to me were the healing songs. Apparently, when they are doing these ceremonies for real (which they still do each Friday and/or Saturday night!) they continue their ritual from sunset to sunrise. If someone needs healing, they will sit and clap around the fire like this for hours until one by one they enter a ‘state of trance.’ When someone enters this point, they will stand, continuing the song and dance. They proceed to put their hand on the injured, sick, or hurt, summoning a higher spirit to heal them.
Apparently when they enter this state of trance, they are almost in an out-of-body experience because they begin to even dance on the fire. The true mark of an elder entering trance is if you enter their home the next day, or more politely the next afternoon because they will still be sleeping from exhaustion from dancing all night. If they have blistered and burnt feet, then that confirms their trance.
One of the bushmen, to all our astonishment, actually did set foot on the fire at the end of a song near the end. This is when our guide/translator told us he was on the brink of entering a trance. This was SUCH a cool concept to me and left me wanting to learn more about this trance and the san Bushmen culture and lifestyle!!
Here’s a quick audio of what one song sounded like:
Reflections and Takeaways from the Bushmen in Botswana
Witnessing ways of life like the bushmen in Botswana, where the only important things are what is truly important for survival, really makes you think about the societal constructs of Western society. These people need to have food to eat, water to drink, and different medicines to aid various ailments they may have like stomach aches and headaches. If they are feeling fine, are quenched and full, and reproducing effectively, all is right in the world. They are totally capable of living off the land; they know each plant, root, and insect like the back of their hand and can easily find whatever they need.
Looking at these simple sand people smiling and laughing, carrying babies on their backs and digging holes with sticks, really makes you reflect a little bit. When did society start to evolve around corporations and money? How has life as we know it been framed and shaped by the expectations of our predecessors? We’re all just humans after all – animals like the rest of them, albeit obviously far more advanced.
This experience with the san bushemen culture and lifestyle is the kind of cultural experience that makes my brain turn the most; it is fascinating to see how people live this way, and almost more so to compare it to my life. As I sit here typing this note on my iPhone 6, I think about how the bushmen used to be… living in little huts, befriending the insects and expertly hunting large animals by dipping their arrows in poison and maybe doing a ritual around the fire. When did we completely lose touch with spirituality and the nature that we came from? Can we ever hope to return to any degree? Anyway, these questions of course don’t have answers, but it’s nice once in a while to question the ‘real world’ we live in… whatever that really means😝
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