Discovering indigenous bush traditions in Namibia's borderlands

Travellers who venture to the country’s northeast can engage with the history and lore of indigenous Ju/’hoansi people in the Nyae Nyae Conservancy, learning about natural medicines and wayfinding on a bush walk.

By Emma Gregg
Published 4 Feb 2021, 08:22 GMT
A Ju/’hoansi (San Bushman) cultural guides demonstrates the traditional way to make fire, Nyae Nyae Conservancy, ...

A Ju/’hoansi (San Bushman) cultural guides demonstrates the traditional way to make fire, Nyae Nyae Conservancy, near Tsumkwe.

Photograph by Emma Gregg

How do you keep lions at bay when you’re sleeping in the Kalahari without a tent? With lion repellent, of course. The trick is to keep your fires burning and spike them with roots that produce the type of pungent smoke that big cats can’t abide.

The roots of the nondescript-looking shrub I’m peering at are ideal, apparently. “Put those on the flames, and the lions will run away in disgust”, says Tsamkgao !I/ae, my Ju/’hoan interpreter. This is exactly the kind of wisdom I’ve travelled more than 450 miles northeast from Windhoek to Otjozondjupa to hear.

My tutor on this sun-bleached, dust-frosted morning is /Kaece, a Ju/’hoansi elder. We met beside a semi-circle of grass huts on the outskirts of Tsumkwe an hour or so ago. Summoning my best click-consonants, I attempted a greeting (‡Xáí, /Kaece!), and he replied, generously, with a grin.

Overland travellers rarely spend more than a night in Tsumkwe. Close to the border with Botswana, it’s seven hours’ drive from the city of Maun. The wildlife hotspots of Etosha, Khaudum and the Okavango Delta are all, in long-distance safari terms, tantalisingly close. But for me, this unprepossessing town isn’t just a stopover: I’m here to learn about an ancient way of life that’s all but disappeared.

/Kaece, his wife //‡Oro and their extended family are cultural guides who invite tourists to walk with them in the wilds of Nyae Nyae Conservancy. They dress in hand-cured skins and beads and carry traditional weapons and tools since, in many ways, what they offer is a historical re-enactment. It’s been half a century since hunting and gathering defined the Ju/’hoansi, a sub-group of southern Africa’s San Bushmen; these days, they live settled or semi-settled lives, wearing western clothing, tending livestock in the arid, tree-dotted grasslands and doing odd jobs.

This transition was forced upon the Ju/’hoansi by the pre-independence apartheid government, which pushed them out of their wildlife-rich hunting grounds and confined them to Bushmanland, an unwanted block of semi-desert in present-day Otjozondjupa. Marginalised and sometimes exploited, either overtly or covertly, many Ju/’hoansi struggle to stay afloat. Nyae Nyae, Namibia’s first community-based conservancy, was established during the nation’s first decade of independence, the 1990s, and remains the only place where it’s legal for Ju/’hoansi to benefit from traditional practices such as hunting antelopes and birds with arrows, spears and traps and gathering plants and honey, alongside farming, commercial hunting and ecotourism.

Land rights aside, the Ju/’hoansi’s most valuable assets are their ancestral knowledge and bushskills. To my inexperienced gaze, Nyae Nyae appears more or less trackless, and now the sun is high overhead, I wonder how on earth the locals navigate. It turns out it’s all down to observation, memory and, occasionally, natural stimulants.

“If we lose our way, we find some Kalahari currant leaves and chew on them”, says/Kaece. “That helps us focus.”

“We call it the San GPS”, adds Tsamkgao.

As our bushwalk unfolds, /Kaece and his family coax me into viewing the Kalahari through their eyes. Where I see swathes of near-identical grasses and shrubs, the Ju/’hoansi see medicines, poisons, tools, nutritious seeds, fruit-bearing bushes and hidden sources of water. Their lore identifies more than 400 botanical species with practical uses, from leaves that will soothe inflammations to moisture-stuffed tubers. Some have commercial value as natural remedies: devil’s claw roots, for example, are snapped up by international buyers and turned into joint pain tablets that are sold in health food shops, worldwide.

Towards the end of our walk, I ask /Kaece whether he’s nostalgic for the old ways. “Some of the changes are for the better,” he says. “But we’ll always honour our traditions. They remind us who we are.”

How to do it: Audley Travel can arrange a bespoke safari in Namibia including a stay at Tucsin Tsumkwe Lodge, a good base for bushwalks with Ju/’hoansi guides.

Published in the March 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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