All over the world, tribal communities are facing a balancing act as they try to preserve their ancient cultural past while adapting to a modern world. In the Nyae Nyae region of Namibia the Ju/’hoansi Bushmen are changing the perception of their people from a primitive curiosity to the protectors of ancient wisdom.
The “Old Man,” as he is known in the village, stopped only briefly to examine a small dent in the sandy soil or inspect the trace of a passing animal. He moved gracefully over the inhospitable land with a confidence that comes from centuries of accumulated knowledge. We followed at a distance as he scanned the horizon, silently tracking something in the immeasurable distance. “Kudo,” announced our young English-speaking Ju/’hoan-San guide, pointing to a wooded area silhouetted against the strong glare of the morning sun.
Known around the world as Bushmen, this derogatory term referring to the African hunter-gatherers of myth and legend, has recently lost much of its negative connotation. The San Bushmen are one of the oldest populations on Earth and one of the most thoroughly studied groups of indigenous people in the history of anthropology. Once called “living fossils,” by nineteenth-century western scholars and advertised as the last link to our ancient hunter-gather existence, the San have been a fascination and curiosity ever since the first stories and pictures of small, nearly naked Africans circulated the world a century ago.
Today, there are approximately 85,000 to 100,000 San living in six southern African countries, where they have been largely marginalized from the modern world. Ju/’hoan is a branch of the click language, Khoisan, which is spoken in northeast Namibia and the northwest region of Botswana (/’ refers to a click sound in the language). The Ju/’hoan of the Nyae Nyae region, as they prefer to be called, are the second largest group of San Bushmen in Namibia and continue to reside on a small portion of their ancestral lands near the Botswana border.
It didn’t take long for our cool morning walk to turn into a scorching trek across the sun–beaten savanna. Barefoot and standing no more than five feet tall, the Old Man was remarkably fit. His hair was mostly gray and his leathery skin exhibited scratches and scars acquired through years of battle with the desert. As we walked, he identified several of the nearly 100 species of edible plants, nuts, fruits, and tubers that were the staple foods of his ancestors.
Dressed in an animal-skin loincloth, and carrying a bow and quiver of arrows, the Old Man was in fact leading our small group on what the tourist program described as a “Hunting Trip.” Presented as a full day of walking in the wild trying to catch warthog, kudu, springhare, or “whatever might be so careless to cross our way,” it was one of eight experiences available to visitors at the Living Hunter’s Museum of the Ju/’hoan San in the Nyae Nyae Conservancy.
As we stopped for a short break from the mid-day sun and warm Kalahari wind, it was becoming apparent that our bush experience would be more about tracking than actually hunting. “There are not as many animals anymore,” noted our young guide. Resting under a large baobab tree, this realization brought an end to the hunt and gave us a chance to ask the Old Man about his life in the Kalahari and what modern San refer to as the “Old Way.”
The Ju/’hoansi who live in the Nyae Nyae Conservancy are the only San officially allowed to hunt in their traditional way on their ancestral lands, but it has been over a half century since bands roamed freely living off the land throughout the Namibian Kalahari. While their ancestors had been traveling through the veld hunting and gathering food for tens of thousands of years, prior to Namibian independence from South African rule in 1990, the San had few rights to land, resources, or wildlife.
As the young nation grew out of the ashes of nearly 70 years of oppression under apartheid, the Namibian government demonstrated a strong commitment to further the rights of historically disadvantaged indigenous people. They initiated programs to deliver educational support, water development, food, and pensions to the elderly.
After years of conversation and debate, legislation for a new natural resource management structure known as a Conservancy was passed in 1996. It allowed for local communities to form conservancies to both manage and benefit from wildlife and tourism that took place on multi-use communal land. In June of 1998, the Nyae Nyae region became the first conservancy in Namibia, and for the first time a small group of former hunter-gatherers had the right to make decisions about the use of their ancestral lands.
Our small group sat in the shade under the baobab tree for quite a while talking with the Old Man through our translator guide. It was a forward thinking San named !Amace who had initiated The Living Hunter’s Museum in 2010 after studying the success of Namibia’s first living museum, which opened a few years prior.
With the help of the German-Namibian organization, Living Culture Foundation Namibia, the community at //Xa/oba entered the tourism industry. “We were very poor,” !Amace later told me. “Now almost everyone in the village is a part of the museum.”
In addition to the hunting experience, programs at the Museum include learning to light a fire, making ropes and snares, shooting with a bow and arrow, searching for bush food, traditional singing and dancing, and storytelling around a campfire. Each experience has an associated price.
In addition to hunting, our group had also selected traditional dancing and storytelling. After a short rest back at our campsite, we made our way through the bush towards the distant sound of song. Nearly half the village was waiting in their traditional dress (or more accurately mostly undressed) at the replica village of their ancestors. I mounted my camera on a tripod as the sun began to set.
Following a short introduction by !Amace, several generations of Ju/’hoansi sang and danced in the soft sand. The Old Man and the village healer sat quietly by a small campfire. Naked children ran, jumped, and wrestled at their parent’s feet. Several women nursed infants as they clapped to the desultory ballet. The campfire scene had all the romantic and exotic flavor of a first contact with an ancient lost tribe. It was an intoxicating display.
While the large group danced and enjoyed themselves as if our cameras weren’t there, this was clearly a performance inspired by our tourist visit. I was happily clicking away, taking pictures of “small, nearly naked Africans” just like those that inspired foolishly considered comments like “living fossils” so many years ago. I also understood that without proper context my images could easily perpetuate the myth that the descendants of some of the earliest humans to inhabit Southern Africa were still living idyllic, isolated lives untouched by history.
On the surface, images of Ju/’hoansi dressed in their traditional costumes might appear to perpetuate the antiquated and insensitive narrative of the uncivilized African savage suspended in a perpetual state of nakedness, but the story isn’t quite that simple. The Ju/’hoan “actors” performing in pseudo tourist events are only one generation removed from the lifestyle they depict.
Their authenticity is raw and comes from a renewed pride in their culture of antiquity. They are naked by choice. They have chosen to perform for tourists and in doing so are changing the perception of their people from a primitive curiosity to the protectors of ancient wisdom. The youngest children I photographed had no understanding that they were a part of a tourist performance they were simply dancing with their brothers and sisters, just as the members of their tribe had done for generations.
“Sadly,” “unfortunately,” and “regrettably” are all terms recently used in modern media to refer to the fact that the Bushmen of the Kalahari can no longer live the life of hunter-gatherers, implying that the San of today would be content with the ways of the past. But when I asked the Old Man what it was like to live the Old Way while we were sitting under the baobab tree, he said without hesitation, “living in the bush is hard. The children were almost always hungry.”
“Life is better now,” he added with a nod.
For the Ju/’hoan elders in the village of //Xa/oba, the Living Hunters Museum is a positive and authentic recreation of their old way of life. They say that their old ways give meaning to their lives and connect them through generations. The Museum is a workplace and entrepreneurial business that they own and control. The profits are shared among the community. !Amace says the tourist performances and storytelling are also “a way for us to pass on our culture without it being lost forever.” San children from all over the region come with their schoolmates to learn about their long and fascinating past.
The oral history and traditions of the San are being recorded by elders in their native tongue and written down for future generations. Even the word Bushmen is being ennobled by the Ju/’hoansi themselves to refer to their great environmental knowledge and bush skills.
It is easy to embrace the romantic notion that indigenous cultures should be preserved and that tribal people, even those on the edge of existence, should be allowed to live in peace like their ancestors have for centuries. But for communities who live hard lives in inhospitable places, more abundant food, clean drinking water, better medicines, less infant mortality, education, and a longer life expectancy should not be interpreted as unfortunate effects of modernity on a romanticized indigenous culture.
All over the world, tribal communities are facing a similar balancing act as they try to preserve their ancient cultural past while educating their children to compete in a modern, digital world, wearing trousers and skirts instead of loincloths. Increasingly, indigenous tribes are taking control of their tourist product and the image of their culture that is presented for tourist consumption.
Although the Ju/’hoansi remain very poor by most international measures, the Conservancy has supplied jobs and income for many in the community, and has allowed the Ju/’hoansi living in the Nyae Nyae to have a choice about their future and a voice in how their destiny unfolds.