A view into a not so distant past

by Lindsey Stein

The bushmen are the indigenous people of Africa. They are hunters and gatherers, wandering the bush and avoiding lions to survive.

About 30 years ago, the government mandated that all citizens get an education. The bushmen were given the choice to stay living where they were in the national parks and forgo an education, or move into government subsidized settlements near the schools to participate. They chose the latter and so, everyone under the age of 30 speaks English in addition to their native language.

The native language of the bushmen is as varied as their tribes. Literally every tribe, of which there are hundreds, has its own language. All include a variety of clicking sounds, most of which occur mid-word. It’s very difficult to replicate.

As the rest of the community are non-English speakers now living in settlements, money has become problematic. Cattle herders is generally the best bet. Alcoholism is a threat. One tribe had the idea of offering walking tours as a way to share their culture with others, and so for three months a year, the bushmen move in to the Kalahari to make extra money.

We meet a group of about a dozen bushmen: men, women and children. They show us the plants they use to make poison for their arrows, how to start a fire using zebra dung, and how to dig up scorpions for entertainment value. We end the night watching the men play a game while the women chant a cheer.

It’s easy in this moment to be struck by the significant differences between the bushmen and ourselves. The adults are dressed in animal hides, but we must remember that this is a representation of how the Bushmen used to live. When they get back to their temporary settlement, they’ll put on Western clothing, not wanting to overwear their leather as these items are irreplaceable during the hunting ban. (The only exception to the ban is small game for bushmen only, as hunting is so core to who they are.) Every place has its indigenous population, and these people are often grossly mistreated. From our Western point of view, it seems that the government and people of Botswana have given the bushmen freedom to own the choices made about their future. The transition though, is new and only time will tell how it all unfolds.