“I woke to the sound of a lion ripping the door off my lodge. ‘But wait!’, I thought,’ that can’t be right!’. I drifted back to sleep. In the morning, I discovered that very close to the lodge was an enclosed game preserve with lions in it. The sound of a wild lion close by is a terrifying thing. They don’t sound like they do in a zoo.”
Robin Bliss Wagner, founder of the Earth Connection Outdoor School in Santa Cruz, CA, went in 2012 for 10 days to spend time with the Nharo bushmen through a program facilitated by Nicole Apelian and Jon Young called “The Origins Project”, through Ecotours International.
I asked my friend Robin if he’d be willing to share stories from his experience with the bushmen of the Kalahari. I want to meet indigenous people, and the next best thing to doing the thing is to hear stories about the thing. Robin agreed to share his experiences, and these are stories that he told me over skype one day.
Robin arrived by bush plane into the Kalahari with a small tour group at the Grasslands Lodge. The owners of the lodge have lived on that land for generations and run the lodge and a game reserve. They have a relationship with a group of Nharo bushmen and hire them to take tour groups out in the bush to show them the plants, animals, tracks and the bushmen’s traditional ways of living .
Everyday the bushmen and the visitors went out wandering the land, gathering plants and tracking. Not only did the men and women of the tribe go out, but so did the elders, children, and even the babies, on the womens’ backs. Everyone went out together, learning, playing, gathering food and water. While out in the bush, the children were very quiet. Even the babies did not cry. This they learn very quickly because if they cry, the wild lions or leopards will find them.
Even though the Kalahari is one of the harshest climates on earth, it supports incredible wild life. Robin was able to track and see some of these animals: Elands, as big as cows and able to jump 20 feet up into the air (so say the bushmen), brown hyenas-the rarest species of hyena, lions- the males with big black manes, warthogs, wildebeest, kudu, ostrich, giraffes and others.
For the conservation of this rare eco-system, all hunting has been banned in the Kalahari, even for the bushmen. This completely changes their traditional way of life, as does diamond mining causing forced relocations of villages, the drought that has been going for years, and the livestock farmers grazing their cattle where once it was wilderness. This is why the Nharo bushmen can be found leading tours now. They need money for food and water, when previously they hunted and gathered for all their needs. Check out this fantastic organization that helps Indigenous people of the world stand up for their rights: http://www.survivalinternational.org
Robin watched with fascination the first time the bushmen demonstrated making fire with a hand drill (2 sticks rubbed together). Robin, a naturalist and outdoor educator, has spent many years perfecting hand drill. But the Nharo bushmen broke all the rules he had learned. Instead of using a flat board for the base, they used a round branch for the fireboard the same diameter as the spindle, using them interchangeably. And instead of having only one man work up a coal, the nharo worked together, each taking a turn to spin the spindle and then passing it on until, communally, fire sprang to life. (You can see a short clip of this on the video below, at 1:16)
photo from expertbotswana.com
At one point, Robin asked the Nharo if they ever used or had seen a bow drill, which is another technology for getting a fire going, where there is a bow, spindle and fireboard–more complicated than the hand drill, but easier to get a coal with, especially in a cold or wet climate. The Nharo said no, they hadn’t seen such a thing.
Robin and another tour member, Jeff, quickly whipped up a bow drill kit, rough but useable. The bushmen watched closely, amused at how complicated the whole thing was. When the bowdrill kit was producing a lot of smoke , one of the bushmen, Guta, ran off into the bush. Robin was perplexed and asked the guide why Guta had run away. The guide said it was to be polite. Guta had run off to laugh by himself in the bush, because such a ridiculous and complicated contraption had actually worked. The bushmen could not understand why one would make something more complicated than it needed to be.
Every afternoon for 2 hours the bushmen would sit in the shade, avoiding the fearsome heat of midday and preserving energy and much needed moisture. While most everyone was resting, Robin and his friend Jeff decided to make the most of their 10 day trip and instead of napping, go tracking in the heat of the afternoon.
“We would start following tracks in the sand and follow them until suddenly the owners of the tracks would be right in front of us. Wildebeest, warthogs, even an ostrich.”
The bushmen were quick to laugh, and play was a way of being, and of teaching the little ones. They could become an animal, thinking and moving like the Kudu moving carefully down it’s hidden pathways. Official games that were presented as a welcome to the visitors, such as a kind of jump roping game and a game where one throws a thin stick with the flick of the wrist and pierces a mound of sand, were only for the adults. The children had to sit and watch. “Imagine if you were a kid and were only allowed to watch the adults do something really cool. What might you do when the adults weren’t watching?”
Robin came away from his experience with the bushmen with a strengthened enthusiasm and motivation to integrate the way the bushmen teach their children by asking lots of questions, by playing with them, and taking them out at a young age into the bush. Robin saw that the bushmen were deeply connected to their land. They always were having fun, and though they were playing and relaxing, Robin saw that there was a lot more than meets the eye in the way they choose to live.
I asked Robin if there was anything that he regretted about the trip. He said that he didn’t get to sleep out in the bush with the Nharo. He was required to stay in the lodge provided. He never got to see how the Nharo live at home, what their village is like, what life looks like for them in their community.
The Nharo told Robin that the visitors through the Origins Project were the first white people to sit in the sand with them and share stories. Robin said to the bushmen, “There are a lot of people back home who admire what you do very much. They will ask, ‘What do the bushmen have to say to us, what is their message to us?’ Is there anything you’d like to tell us?”
One of the Nharo elders replied, “Come back and visit. Always think of us. We will think of you. Bring more people next time.”
Thanks Robin for sharing your experiences!! If you are interested in learning how to be a native on your own land, check out Earth Connection Outdoor School.
This is a video showing a little of the Origins Project and the actual bushmen that Robin spent time with.