Michael and I have been researching the First People for our third Detective Kubu mystery. And I have to say that the process has been very mysterious.
The first mystery is what to call these remarkable people who have inhabited the southern part of Africa since long before the Blacks and Whites arrived. Each name that is used seems to be based on a pejorative viewpoint. The first Whites to encounter them called them Bosjesmans or Bushmen. In many circles today, particularly academia, the name Bushmen is shunned. San is another word often used – but it derives from a derogatory Khoi Khoi (another aboriginal group) word depicting the First People as scavengers. Some of the First People – mainly from Namibia – have accepted San as the word by which they want to be referred. But other First People groups hate the word. Within Botswana, the First People are commonly called BaSarwa, but since there is no love lost between the black Batswana and the First People, this word too is often found to be derogatory.
What is the problem? you may ask. Why not use the word the First People use for themselves? Our reading suggests that they do not have a word for themselves – each of the various groups refers to themselves as “us” and everybody else as “them” or the equivalent of “the bad guys”.
After much soul searching, we have decided to use the word Bushmen. I am sure we will have plenty of flak for that.
The second mystery is how the Bushmen have discovered certain things. The one that always fascinates me is one of the poisons they use in hunting. They use the venom of snakes, like the mamba, as well as poisonous plants. But in the northern Kalahari, the most commonly used poisonous substance for arrows is that derived from the larva and pupae of chrysomelid beetles in the genus Diamphidia. The amazing thing is how the Bushmen ever found this poison. Basically this nondescript beetle is reasonably widespread in the Kalahari. The larvae work their way several feet underground near the roots of the tree.
1: How did the Bushmen ever find these larvae? They are underground and hard to see anyway.
2. Second, how did they know that carefully crushing the larvae causes this hemotoxic poison to be formed?
3. How did they then know that this poison could be used on an arrowhead to bring down the greatest of antelopes – the eland?
4. And how did they know that they could eat the meat of the eland or other antelope they had killed using the poison?
Of course our interest in the poison is that it is poorly researched and has no known antidote. You get nicked and you are dead! Do you think there is a murder plot emerging here?
In the Bushman world, this poison is akin to nuclear bombs in the west. Bushmen are reticent about fighting within their clans because everyone has access to this (and other) toxins that are invariably fatal. Starting a fight has the potential of the parties resorting to the use of one or more of the toxins. Not a good idea!
A third mystery is how the Bushmen discovered such things as the hoodia plant that both suppresses appetite and provides energy. The Bushmen would eat the hoodia before embarking on a hunt, where they be required to run for several days after their prey. Today western pharmaceutical companies pay royalties to the Bushmen so they can use the hoodia plant in dietary suppressants. Some scientists think that the Bushmen are among the greatest botanists around. Of course, most Bushmen just say they know of these things. It has always been that way, they say.
I forgot to explain the term First People. The Bushmen think of themselves as the First People on the planet Earth. They think they have been around longer than anyone else – in Africa they probably have been around for 100,000 years. But it is difficult in a book to refer to an individual as a First Person. So we have resorted to the sometimes unacceptable term of Bushmen.
I realize this posting is somewhat incoherent! Perhaps it is something to do with the fact I have just been tasting a fine South African cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc blend. At a cost of $5 a bottle! Including VAT!
Stan - Thursday