A journey with the San

By: JAY NAIDOO Originally published at: http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2015-06-29-a-journey-with-the-san

South Africa’s coat of arms makes a special recognition of the San way of life. There’s a reason for this, which becomes all too clear when one spends any length of time living with the San people.

Writer’s note: !Gubi’s beloved wife, Oma, died just as I was finishing this column. I wish to dedicate it to her gentle grace and grand spirit.

I am deep in the Kalahari Desert in Namibia in a San village. I am here with Pops Mohamed, an iconic, world-renowned South African musician, who has spent much of his life studying the San music, culture, ceremonies and way of life. He is welcomed with open arms, which are graciously extended to all of us. I watch his seamless transition into their world. He finds a deep connection here with the San. It fills a void and connects him to the source.

I am here to learn about this and what the San ancient wisdoms have for our modern times. After all, we all come from here. The San, the earliest hunter-gatherers in southern Africa may hold the key to our future survival. Science has now proved that the Khoe-San are the descendants of the original Homo sapiens (modern day man) who occupied Southern Africa for at least 150,000 years. Geneticists say that the oldest gene pattern amongst modern humans is that of the Khoe-San. It dates back to about 80,000 years ago.

A journey to the timeless expanse of the Kalahari Desert, a large semi-arid sandy savannah in southern Africa, covering much of Botswana, parts of Namibia and South Africa, to live and learn about the San culture, has always been on my bucket list.

All of us in the world, with our different colours and races; physical characteristics from eye colour, hair type, nose shape on the planet, are descendants from this original gene type. In fact we are all 99.9% identical as the human race.

So if we are to understand our present and how to solve many of the interconnected crises we face because of human activity, it would be instructive to go back as far as we could in living human history; to attempt to understand how the wisdom of the San and other indigenous peoples could help us think about the future choices we need to make to save both the human species and our planet. After all, the San revere Mother Nature as their god and leave virtually no carbon footprint.

I was not disappointed. Travelling with Pops Mohammed is both educational and inspiring.

The !Gubi family homestead is bare, its simple mud and wood frame dwarfed by the immense solitude of the “great thirsty” red-sanded Kalahari. The goats, chickens and the famed Kalahari dogs saunter around searching for those scraps of food that rarely fall. The main means of transport still remain the donkey cart. It is winter, a fire burns continuously and the temperature plunges as the star studded night sky unveils a dazzling spectacle of the vast universe.

!Gubi is a shaman and one of the last remaining San knowledge holders. Now a wizened 86 years, he feels that the San traditions and culture are disappearing, “We are the First People of God. Humanity is losing its way. We do not hold each other together and feel that we share one human race. God is sad that we do not respect Nature, the forests, our land, water, the wild animals and our plants.”

I reflect on this. It is true. We have divorced ourselves from Nature. We feel alone even when we are in a crowd. We feel disconnected even when technology makes us the most connected generation in the history of humanity. Something is missing and we keep trying to replace it with materialistic consumption. But we still continue with emptiness in our lives.

Photo: San Elder !Gubi with his wife Oma in their home. Oma, sadly, died since this photograph was taken.

Even here deep in the Kalahari Desert the onslaught of our modernism is manifest. Plastic and glass bottles are strewn around and the local trading store does a roaring business in beer and junk food. Blaring music drowns out the melodies and sounds of this deep San ancestry of Africa.

!Gubi worries that the San way of life is being rapidly eroded, pushed back in the name of progress and civilisation. Private companies and governments wanting to commercially exploit the space for cattle ranching and mining, encroach their ancestral hunting lands they freely traversed. Pushed more into the arid grasslands of the Kalahari into reservations they share with the more dominant tribes of Herero and the Tswana, barred from hunting and cut off from their sources of food, they find themselves in desperate circumstances.

!Gubi was born in Botswana in 1929, and is a highly respected traditional healer who learnt his crafts as a young man studying medicinal plants. His family is today separated across Namibia and Botswana and he feels that culture, dance, music and the traditional folklore stories that binds them together as a family is threatened.

One of the nights I witness a trance dance ritual in which !Gubi and his grandson John, clad in leopard skins, circle a burning log fire as the women clap to the rhythm and sing special medicine songs. It is a visceral connection between human and Nature, and creates an altered state where communications with the divine and ancestors becomes possible.

I ask !Gubi later what the trance dance means. “God is in our dreams. We communicate with God through the trance dance. We enter the spirit world. As the intensity increases of the chanting and dancing a powerful energy takes over the mind and trance state is achieved. We talk to our ancestors during that time. We heal the ill and fight off the bad spirits. They show us the good medicine. They lead us to the right plants. The experience brings about a healing energy that restores peace and harmony.”

Living in harmony with Nature is the key theme of our conversations. !Gubi explains, “We use a hand bow and arrow to hunt. It is a sacred act; talking to the animal being hunted; running with it for hours until it wears down. It is assured that no part will be wasted; that its sacrifice will give life to the San community. A holy prayer is recited and a poison dart guarantees painless and quick death.”

I can see his pain. They are prosecuted today for hunting. He has seen all the radical changes in his life. Borders, fences, passports, nationalities and notion of private property do not exist in San culture. Yet we have imposed our laws and norms of modern civilisation on them. We have taken the freedom away and his travel, even to his sons who live in Botswana, is restricted today.

I offer to cook for the crew and the community while I am there. It seems that this is the only regular meals they have while we are there. It is simple and rewarding and such a joy cooking communally with the San. And they loved the subtle taste of Indian spices. I was able to catch a glimpse of the intimate lives of our most distant living relatives as a human species. It was sobering microcosm of the struggles of indigenous peoples across the world.


Experiencing the deep love between !Gubi and his wife, the regal and stately Oma, as he patiently massages her feet to reduce the swelling and pain; the love kisses and hugs he regularly showers on her; seeing him chastising his grandchildren, and chasing the hungry goats keen to nibble on the wood of his home with his stick. I felt privileged to be here.

Teaching our children how to live of the land, building an unbending respect for each other, our environment and respecting our diversity of languages and culture is a good start. I watch the growing youth anger, frustration and discontent at the marginalisation they face and know the values of San – simplicity, empathy and harmony – are missing in our world. Here we see the San perilously holding on to values.

As my son Kami (22) said, “I felt the Earth connection the San have with the land. While we need expand the tools of our modern-day world; especially in health and education we should see the reciprocal value of these ancient wisdoms for our modern times.”

As our world population grows and our human activities exceed our planetary boundaries and threaten the future of our human species, I feel that we will have to return to villages like these to learn how to live in peace again. Africa remains the “storehouse” of humanity. Everything that makes us human, from walking upright, cognitive thinking, language, art and even the earliest technologies in fire, tools and even agriculture.

South Africa’s motto, written on the SA coat of arms, is a /Xam phrase: !ke e: /xarra //ke, literally meaning: diverse people unite. Perhaps it time we understood why we have made this profound recognition of the San way of life. DM

Jay Naidoo

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