Thursday, August 8, 2019

A walk with the Bushmen of the Okavango

Michael - Thursday

Most people think of the Bushmen as a nomadic people of the Kalahari, adept at living in the harshness of that arid environment. Actually, in the past the Bushmen were widespread over southern Africa, with strongholds in many parts of the region. Wonderful Bushman rock art is found in the Drakensberg along the eastern escarpment, in the Cape, Namibia, Botswana, and many other locations where suitable rock formations and caves are available. Not all Bushmen were nomadic either. Some groups lived more or less sedentary lives, hunting their home range as well as growing crops. An example is the Bushmen tribes of the Okavango delta in Botswana. Their migration was with the rise and fall of the water. Fishing was an important source of food, although they apparently learnt the technique of the dugout canoe mokoros from other neighbouring tribes.

Okavango from the air
I wrote about the Okavango and the wonderful visit that we paid to Bushman Plains Camp there in The Okavango delta. But I didn't say much about our hosts. One of the important features of the camp is that the concession is owned and managed by a group of the local Bushman people who live not far away. The guides have the remarkable talents and understanding for the bush that enabled their people to survive there in the past. Hunting was hard. Certainly, it’s easy enough to see the tracks of a Lechwe antelope in the mud near the water, but when it reached the surrounding baked mud and grassland and thicker bush, it’s a different story altogether. Our tracker would spot things that none of us could see even when he pointed them out. It’s true that the two game-viewing vehicles would communicate by radio, and the guides knew where animals were likely to be, but their ability to find them was uncanny.

These were educated men and women who spoke excellent English and had guiding and other qualifications. One had worked as a geologist for a period of time. When asked what had brought them back from the comfortable lifestyle of modern Botswana, the answer was, “Because we love it here.”

One afternoon our guide, Taylor, appeared in a hide loincloth and announced that that afternoon we would walk with the Bushmen. I was a little dubious. Nothing, it seems to me, is as embarrassing for both parties as people acting out a past they’ve left behind as an entertainment for tourists—and that, of course, was what we were. Tentatively, I asked what the theme of this walk was going to be. Taylor looked me in the eye. “Many people,” he said, “write and talk about the life of the Bushmen. Yet the Bushmen don’t tell their own story. Here we tell the story of how it was then, how it still is in places. It will end, but we will remember. And we hope the people we teach will remember too.”

Taylor on the left uses a fly whisk of Wildebeest tail hair to point something out.
Ya Ya looks a bit puzzled by the whole affair.
He then introduced us to Ya Ya, an elderly man from the local village. While Taylor had Bushman features, his ancestors had clearly mixed with the other African tribes that lived in the area. In contrast, Ya Ya was almost a stereotype of a Bushman, diminutive, with a face like a walnut. “Ya Ya speaks no English,” Taylor told us. “But he will walk with us, and I will interpret.”

Taylor saw this Spotted Eagle Owl deep in the shade branches.
Did he know it rested there? Perhaps, but then again perhaps not.
From time to time, Taylor stopped and explained many things to us, the uses of plants, the tracks we came upon, and features of the kit he and Ya Ya wore.

Here Taylor points out Ya Ya's headdress of a local red bean.
For decoration, of course, but also the beans bring luck.

Taylor discussing the arrow.
He also has an ostrich eggshell water gourd and a hunting bag.
Like all the Bushmen we've met or read about, the traditional hunting approach was with a bow - Taylor carried his over his shoulder - and a detachable arrow with a poisoned tip. Taylor told us that the bow was not very powerful, and that the arrow might well catch on a branch and pull out of the animal as it ran through the bush. To avoid this, the shaft detaches from the head, drops to the ground, and can be recovered later, while the poison remains.

I asked about the poison because it seems to vary between tribes and areas. Some use snake venom, some highly poisonous plants, and some a beetle lava that lives underground. In the case of the Okavango, the poison comes from the caterpillars of the monarch butterfly that's common in the area.

“What about lions?” someone asked, a little nervously.
“You must look hard,” Taylor replied with a small smile.

As the sun went down, Ya Ya sang us songs of the animals in the bush, imitating their movements.
It was a magical and moving afternoon.

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