Getting there – facing challenges in conservationNovember 8, 2016
Ongava Research Centre part of new initiativeNovember 17, 2016
Text Sharri Whiting De Masi |Photos Paul van Schalkwyk
NAMIBIA IS KNOWN FOR ITS INKY NIGHTS, BUT THE SKY UP HERE IS EVEN BLACKER THAN USUAL. THE MOON ISN’T IN RESIDENCE YET TONIGHT, BUT THE STARS ARE PUNCHING HIGH-CONTRAST HOLES IN THE DARKNESS.
We can hear the Ju|’hoansi singing through the woods just 300 metres away. A child is feeling poorly and the whole village has come together for a Healing Dance.
We retie the knots on our kudu-leather boots, grab a flashlight each and find the sandy path in the shadows, following the sound of the music to the village where today we watched hunters preparing to go out into the bush. We have been gifted by the huntsmen with tiny poison-free arrows with sharp metal tips, made by wizened men while sitting on their haunches in the dust.
Tonight these same men dance almost naked around a fire that acts as a strobe light, casting long shadows, then bright flashes across their bodies and the faces of the semi-circle of women, dressed from head to toe in long-sleeved blouses and ankle-length skirts.
LIVING GREEN WITH THE JU|’HOANSI
The Ju|’hoansi (pronounced Dju-kwa-si) community at N//hoq’ma village in the Nyae Nyae Conservancy in north-eastern Namibia on the edge of the Khaudum National Park, invites visitors to share their lives between July and October at Nhoma Camp, a joint-venture partnership initiative. They are still active as hunters because their traditional way of hunting is allowed on the land.
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The men wear a kind of leather apron, set backwards on their hips. There are rattles clustered across their backsides, which give off jingling noises when they shake their buttocks or shimmy their legs. The women are clapping in a kind of flamenco rhythm, sharp and fast, singing almost atonal melodies one after the other.
The focus is a feverish little boy, about five, who is nestled in the lap of the chief before the fire. The men dance over and mutter magic phrases in his direction, turn around, shake their rattles and dance off. Some reach the state of kia, a kind of trance they believe brings healing power. A few people from the village sit in the sand at the dark edge of the circle to watch and clap, their legs crossed like grasshoppers, forming chairs where small children rest.
They are the original green people. If the world had noted more carefully the habits of the Ju|’hoansi and taken them to heart long ago, there would be no need for a Kyoto Protocol. Protection of the environment would not be an issue – it would be a given. Isn’t it logical to take care of the earth, when it is the earth that provides such a harvest of fruits, berries, nuts and tubers to eat, to squeeze water from, to treat high blood pressure, coughs, heart palpitations, lung problems? Isn’t it natural to practise game conservation when the birds and animals are the gift that keeps on giving?
We have flown up here from Windhoek, a two-hour trip in a four-seater aircraft. Far below, vast and empty, Namibia rolls out like a carpet of jute, broken by seams of green where heavy spring rains have filled ephemeral creeks and dips in the landscape have become natural dams.
We swoop down and around to spot the landing strip, then make a low pass to shoo some cows off the end of the runway. Impressions flash by: tall trees, rounded huts, the village. Our host, Arno, is waiting with Kaesje G/aq’om, also called Bertus, a Ju|’hoansi guide, who learnt English as a tracker for the South African army during the struggle for Namibian independence in the 1980s. We will sleep within a cluster of tents built by Arno and the Ju|’hoansi; the tents have teak floors, real wooden doors and huge bathtubs, though we aren’t sure we should use the water necessary to fill one.
After lunch we walk through the forest to the village to be introduced to the inhabitants. Arno and these people go back a long way; they allow a few people to visit, making enough money from their share of the income from the accommodation and the sale of handicrafts to pay for school expenses. One meal per day is largely enough for the self-sufficient Ju|’hoansi, who think nothing of walking 40 or even 100 kilometres in a day to hunt, look for honey, find wild edibles, or even visit the in-laws.
A group of men crouch under a stand of tall trees repairing their bows and making arrows. We watch for a while as they hone their delicate missiles. Arno explains that they won’t put the deadly poison on the metal tips, where they themselves might be nicked while working with their weapons, but rather on the shaft just behind the tip.
We know these arrows don’t go in deep – they are designed as carriers of the poison to slow down and eventually kill a great beast.
The slender Ju|’hoansi are strong and sinewy, possessing great energy for running and highly developed skills for tracking. Once an arrow strikes home, they are ready to follow their prey for long distances.
The hunters stand up, ready to go. We are to travel together in the truck to a wide grassy plain, where we will follow the men into the bush. Our leader is an elderly man, about 75 years old, but listed by the government as only 45 and, therefore, ineligible for an old-age pension. Decades before independence, when Ju|’hoansi had no birth certificates, he was assigned an incongruous birth date by visiting officials. No matter, he has the vigour of a baby boomer and is eager to start the hunt.
We climb into the bakkie, spears and bows sticking out of the back like porcupine quills, and bump down the road to the jumping-off point. The tall grass is yellow in the afternoon light and the sky is crystal blue. The men are tiny, perfectly formed, glowing soft brown in the sunlight.
They scan the horizon and set off. We follow. This is probably not the day to hunt giraffe; it is an opportunity to dig up roots that smell like Deep Heat, to find medicinal plants. We stride across the plain, grass to our waists, lost in a world where the only tweets come from birds, and the leopards are alive, not electronic. We experience a deep nostalgia for a life we have never really known, but can only imagine: something basic and deeply satisfying.
Later we find a group of women sitting under those same trees in the village, making jewellery from ostrich eggshells, which they carve by hand, one by one, in tiny round sequin shapes. One bracelet can take hundreds of these tiny disks, which are matt on the edges, have been shaped by a stone, are shiny on top, and which were the outside of the egg. The resulting necklaces and bracelets are displayed for sale, hung on a string stretched between the trees. We buy too many, overwhelmed at the idea that each and every bead has been made by hand here in the dappled shade.
The morning after that throbbing night, the little boy is feeling fine; if not, his family would have taken him to the doctor fifty kilometres or so away. But, the Healing Dance has performed its work, as it has done for at least 30 000 years. Power of suggestion? Simply a passing virus? Magic?
This article was first published in the Flamingo June 2010 issue.