by Ron Swilling
Twenty Bushmen from the Ju/’Hoansi-San Living Museum in Grashoek joined a handful of members from the Living Culture Foundation Namibia (LCFN) on a 12-day safari around the country, visiting different ethnic groups along the way. The Bushman Safari was a celebration of the fifth anniversary of the Ju/’Hoansi-San Living Museum.
One of the highlights of the trip was an intercultural meeting with Himba at a village outside Opuwo. The two cultural groups asked questions such as “Who is your wife?” and “Why did you bring only one?” They gave demonstrations and watched each other’s song-and-dance routines. The dances gave each group, in turn, much reason for amusement, the Himba giggling over the Bushmen’s ‘buttocks-shaking’ healing dance, and the Bushmen (and others) awe-struck by the Himba women’s powerful performance of hand-clapping and twisting in the air, a dance that was emulated for the rest of the trip.
In the searing heat, in an amphitheatre of granite boulders and a rustic mopane-pole fence, a visit with the Damara near Twyfelfontein provided an educational intercultural exchange. The Bushman males showed the Damara ancient metalworking skills, the know-ledge of which the Damara group has lost, and the females demonstrated the making of ostrich-eggshell jewellery. The groups delighted each other with their dances and the chance to share information, the Damara taking the group for a bush walk during the hot Damaraland day and the Bushmen giving a mock hunting display. The Damara women’s laughter pealed through the green butterfly-leaved landscape as they stepped gingerly on the hot sand and the leader of the group strutted along in his traditional attire looking like a regal African chief.
The members of an Owambo family offered the group accommodation in their traditional homestead outside Okahao in north-central Namibia, where the group slept happily, surrounded by a mopane palisade under the twinkling stars of a warm friendly night.
The Bushmen donned traditional loincloth gear and performed at various lodges along their route, promoting their Living Museum in Grashoek and selling their well-made hand-crafted jewellery.
Day entrance into Etosha given by the NWR was a treat for all. Although the elephants proved to be elusive after the end-of-year thundershowers, a group of lions was spotted sitting languidly in the shade of a tree. Sleep was punctuated by lion calls and hyaena whoops.
The Living Museum of the Mafwe near Kongola in the Caprivi afforded the two Living Museums the chance to meet, the newer Mafwe Museum showing the Bushmen their very different culture centred round the seasons of the river. The Mafwe’s energetic dancing, in which they swished their reed skirts with accentuated pelvic movements to drum beats, rattles and the clipped sounds of pieces of hardwood banged together, had everyone mesmerised. The music continued deep into the night, floating through the baobab grove under heavy clouds until a rain shower chased everyone to bed. The women in colourful fabric wraps sang the bus on its way as it left the warm heart of the Singalamwe village.
The safari provided opportunities for groups that had expressed an interest in becoming a Living Museum to meet the Bushman group from Grashoek, to exchange knowledge, and to chat to members of the LCFN.
The Ju/’Hoansi-San Living Museum, although initiated by the Living Culture Foundation, is run entirely by the San themselves.
The museum is accessed from the C44 on the way to Tsumkwe in the Otjozondjupa Region in eastern Namibia. Visitors are welcome at any time with no need (or way) of communicating beforehand. The Bushmen meet guests at a reception point to discuss their activities, which include bushwalks, games, singing and dancing, crafts, and a day spent with them. Their open-air ‘shop’ exhibits a range of ostrich eggshell, seed and wood jewellery, handcrafted knives and axes.
A rustic campsite provides ‘wild camping’ for those equipped to spend the night. The entrance road to the Living Museum is sandy, suitable only for four-wheel-drive vehicles. For those with sedan cars, a visit can be arranged with Roy’s Camp.
Visiting the Living Museum is an opportunity, at a destination not too far off the beaten track, to experience this extraordinary culture with a group that still is very much in touch with its roots. The San honour this connection and are happy to be called ‘Bushmen’, as in ‘men of the bush’. Although hunting is not allowed in their conservancy, the hunter-gatherers still retain their hunting knowledge and ability to use bow and arrow.
As their culture recedes into the recesses of history, it is delightful to partake in the Bushmen’s light-hearted energy, to be shown the wealth lying unobserved in the plant world and to revere their connection to the spirit world, long lost to westerners.
This article appeared in the April/May ‘10 edition of Travel News Namibia.