Namibia: San Bushmen revive ancient skills

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Most of the 6,000 residents of north-eastern Namibia’s Bwabwata National Park count themselves as the descendants of the world’s first peoples, known collectively today as the San Bushmen. 

For thousands of years they lived throughout southern Africa as hunter-gatherers with a subsistence lifestyle that made little impact on nature.

In the last 1,000 years, the San Bushmen have shared a history of oppression, persecution and loss of their land, leading to social disintegration and the erosion of their traditional values and skills.

MET as partner in children & youth training. Photo: Friedrich Alpers of IRDNC

MET as partner in children & youth training. Photo: Friedrich Alpers of IRDNC

In much of southern Africa, their descendants are struggling to retain some of their land, their ancient bush-skills, as well as their dignity.

But in the small strip of Namibian soil sandwiched between Angola and Botswana, a group of San Bushmen elders are determined to work with their youth to regain some of the skills they have lost, in the hope that these skills will renew pride in their identity and culture, but also create opportunities for youth to obtain employment in Namibia’s fast-expanding tourism and trophy hunting sectors.

With support from WWF and other donors, the Namibian NGO, Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC), has worked with this group of passionate San elders to establish the Tekoa Training Programme (which will soon expand into a Training Centre) which has already trained 60 youth how to track wild animals in the biodiversity-rich woodlands of their home in Bwabwata National Park.

Despite an alarming increase in elephant poaching over the past year, wildlife numbers in Bwabwata are thriving; to the extent that the wild animals are increasing their ranges into the once depleted parts of southern Angola.

The success of Bwabwata lies in the way locally-employed community rangers have carried out a local natural resource monitoring system for the past two decades, and are now using the bush skills they have learned to pass on skills to their youth that cannot be taught in modern schools.

It is December 2012, on a humid morning in the park. Alfred Tcadau and Benson Kupinga, two of the San tracker trainers, look at the milling group of school kids, ages between 6 and 14, all excited, standing on a fresh large male elephant track, looking ahead into the thicket as the vegetation closes the distinct and clear path.

Alfred organizes the group into a single file, and there is silence and anticipation as the next three hours reveal much more than sighting a large elephant bull.


Children and youth training. Photo: Friedrich Alpers of IRDNC


During the walk the kids are taught and exposed to

  • signs and trails of millipedes,
  • trap-door spider hideouts,
  • the evidence of a now-sleeping scorpion’s nocturnal activities,
  • an ant-lion seeking a new site for a trap,
  • a spider wasp drugging and then dragging a fat caterpillar for four feet and burying it into a carefully crafted hole with newly laid egg inside,
  • an impala ram scent marking his territory by the scent particles rubbed onto a grass tuff,
  • a tree gecko catching a moth for last nights’ meal,
  • a porcupine and not a honey badger, as the clearly defined track of the porcupine shows its claws closer to its toes and the clearly padded hindfoot,
  • a puffadder snake winding across the track,
  • a small spotted genet with clearly rounded toes,
  • a sable antelope male herding his group,
  • then the emerald spotted wood-dove criss-crossing the path’s early morning trail looking for food,
  • the dikkop (yes very clear, as it has no rear toe),
  • the tree squirrel with its clear leap gait and its two rear feet aligned,
  • then finally the spotted hyena… no, it is a leopard on last nights’ prowl as the toes are evenly spaced and the claws are drawn.

This continues until the children are saturated with information overdose, the two elder trackers stand back satisfied and smile, no more questions and the sun is warming as the group head back to camp, to share, reflect and share stories of the animals and their behavior.

This morning 26 different species were recorded, all based on recognizing the signs of each of the animals movements.

Not one live animal was seen but all were accurately identified by the unique signs and trails left behind from the previous night.

The kids are beaming with enthusiasm and eagerness to continue to explore and learn, the never ending rich knowledge, the skills development of tracking, the learning of animal behavior ecology, the monitoring of endangered wildlife, such as cheetah, wild dog, roan antelope and other rare species found in their park home.

These children are being given the opportunity to develop tracking and ecological management skills that are critical to preserve our natural system and the environment.

Over the next few months the programme’s two main donors, WWF and USAID, will make it possible for more than 200 young rural children in Namibia’s remote north-east to learn the skills of their forefathers, and to apply these skills to obtaining work and to contribute to finding sustainable solutions to the environmental challenges our planet faces.

Article written by Karine Nuulimba | Director – Caprivi and Trans-Boundary Programmes – Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation



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