Welcome to Botswana – you can drink the water

But the internet coverage is still very poor. I’m sorry for building up expectations but I’ll not be able to post very much for the next few days. We have been keeping well and seeing some magnificent sights in this lovely country. I’m looking forward to posting more about the San (Bushman) people whose traditional way of life seems to persist here alongside the availability of modern education and medicine. (Conclusion now added below).

A long drive due East from the capital of Namibia took us to our next stop at the Naro San Lodge, situated somewhere out in the huge, featureless bush with only the occasional ostrich and having our passports stamped “Kalahari” at the border to lighten the boredom. We are doing this part of the trip with an organised group, booked through a company called Peregrine which seems to have been taken over by one called Intrepid who have subcontracted to another called Peak Adventures. Well, I just hope that one of them can get us home in an emergency.

We are thirteen in total: a disparate group of world travellers, all white and mostly of an age to be collecting souvenirs for the grandchildren but much enlivened by the presence of a delightfully enthusiastic 14 year old Canadian visiting Africa for the first time with his dad. Unusually, our guide and driver, Lynn and Ken, are a wife and husband team from South Africa who entered the tourism trade fairly late in life. I was to find that their love of the African culture, peoples and wildlife put a lot of the arrogant, ex-pat “Saffers” we meet in London these days to shame.

The bone shaking dust-magnet that we are all traveling in is apparently the usual type of vehicle for such trips and comes complete with the standard absence of aircon, electrical recharging points or spare fuel tank. The latter is probably a blessing in disguise because the two-hourly refuelling stops at least make it unnecessary to take comfort breaks behind a bush while surveying the nearby ground for lion tracks. The roads themselves, however, are of good modern construction and (cheers!) built by the Botswana government and not by the Chinese as is happening in so much of the rest of Africa these days.

Grahame and I had found out a little bit about the San (or Bushman) culture in the Owela Museum in Windhoek before joining the tour but were quite unprepared for the encounter that awaited us. Yes, we’d seen it in the itinerary but previous experience has taught that these interludes can be at best embarrassing and at worst downright insulting: remember the short, fat “Maasai warrior” in Kenya? Almost as soon as we had got down from the bus a slim, almost naked chap armed with what looked like nothing more than a few lightweight sticks was introducing himself and inviting us for a walk in the bush.

Goau-ha, whose proper name is an unpronounceable collection of clicks and consonants, spoke a gentle, sighing variety of English as he explained his tribe’s traditional hunter-gatherer ways during our late afternoon walk. The Naro tribe of the San (they prefer this to the term “Bushmen”) keep no livestock, nor even dogs to help warn them of predators, but exist by means of an intricate knowledge of the behaviour of wild animals and the nutritional and medicinal properties of native plants. Well, I suppose that comes of having walked these lands for longer than any other race on earth.

Before I get onto any discussion about whether this is a true assertion or not, I’ll just explain that our guide was a representative of a few nomadic families who come and go around a small village about 20k outside the lodge. The Dqae Qare game reserve and the converted old farmstead was donated to the local San people by the Dutch government in 1993 and is managed by a trust. Do the San participate in this management? Well, Goau-ha and most of his generation went to government run schools and he told me that some have even been to university.

The integration of traditional nomadic lifestyles into the modern world is never easy. First there is conflict over land use with the local pastoralists (who may be settled nomads themselves), then there is the conflict with governments over mining and water usage, social media now brings these poor people to the attention of ever more remote environmental pressure groups and how could we forget the army of foreign academics, all fighting for an opportunity to enhance their own prestige like African vultures alighting on fresh meat. A glance at the online search engines tells us that the government of Botswana has done wonders for most of its population (of which more later) but has failed its nomads nearly as badly as everyone else.

Nonetheless, I should really only write about what I observed and that gave every appearance of being a success story. Goau-ha really did use traditional fire sticks and know which roots from which to suck moisture in a drought but at the same time his lean body was upright and healthy and his skin remarkably unmarked for a man whose age was somewhere between thirty and fifty. After the walk half a dozen of us sat around in the firelight to see the obligatory evening performance of traditional dancing and storytelling. A group of San women also sat around with their children and babies and joined in the ceremonies with what certainly seemed like genuine enthusiasm. At the end they went off to their nearby huts and no-one seemed embarrassed to wrap up in modern nylon blankets against the cold of the desert night.

So are these people of the Kalahari the remnants of our earliest ancestors as so many of the first white visitors to sub-Saharan Africa believed? An amazing amount of offensive rubbish has been written about them by my countrymen in the past (although I think it was a German who went around sticking straws up their noses in the early twentieth century so he could take plaster casts of their faces) so it is probably wiser to take a restrained approach. The DNA of the San is the most diverse of any people on the planet which means that all the while the rest of us have been spreading out and colonising the farthest regions of the globe the Bushmen have been adapting to the environment of the lands of our first progenitors. Wherever they have been and whatever they have been doing, they have succeeded at it for longer than all the world’s so-called civilisations put together.

Categories: Africa

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