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Bushmen of the Okavango

You may recall 'Backroads of the North', the newsletter I wrote this time last year. It was an account of the 4*4 journey Rachel and I took along the lesser known roads and dry river beds of the Kalahari desert, crossing the famous red dunes via the mighty Augrabies Falls and such unlikely isolated settlements as Terra Firma, Middleputs and Bokspits.

On that trip we crossed into Botswana at a dusty town with legions of donkeys called 'Bray'. From there we drove on, accompanied by a memorable sunset, to our friends Mike and Katrin Taylor in the village of Gabane. I was looking forward to seeing them, Mike had finished his PhD on the River Bushmen of the Okavango Delta. Bushmen! The Okavango! These words had fascinated me for many years. In spite of books, pictures and documentaries the names had only become more mysterious, exotic and tantalising. I hoped that Mike could give me a better sense of the Delta and how the River Bushmen were now living.

The Okavango DeltaThe Okavango Delta has been described as a miracle. It's name is high on any list of the world's most extraordinary places. The Okavango River rises in Angola, flows inland south through the Caprivi Strip in Namibia and spreads out into a gigantic delta amidst the arid, flat lands of northern Botswana. What would otherwise be a dry semi-desert, is, in consequence, a wonderfully rich forested region of rivers and lakes. Naturally this attracts game from across the region. The River Bushmen are believed to have lived and hunted in the area for tens of thousands of years.

We were delighted to discover that a young Bushman leader, named KB, was staying with the Taylors. We had never met a Bushman before. He was short, but darker and taller than I expected, but he still had the high and defined cheekbones, the tightly curled hair, the aversion to eye contact and the winsome sense of humour for which the Bushmen are famous. What amazed me was that he was equally confident whether speaking about facing down lions or attending academic conferences, speaking in English or the clicks of his Bushmen dialect. It transpired that in his remote village he was chairman of a legally constituted Trust that was administering tourism concessions over a large area. Far from being satisfied I was more intrigued than ever, and when he said we would be welcome in the village we resolved to plan a trip to the Delta.

That is how we found ourselves, a couple of months ago, driving north, via the flowers of Namaqualand and the stunning dune landscapes of Namibia, toward the Okavango. Our attempts to contact KB had not succeeded, but on our way north Mike gave us the cell number of KB's village chief, Marafe. It is not everyday you have the opportunity to phone a Bushman Chief on his mobile phone.

After some frustrations we made contact and got some basic directions. 'Go to Maun, head north to Shorobe village, then find the break in the trees ('the cut line') and head due north. Follow this break for 60km, ford the Khwai river ('watch out, it is deep in places and there are crocodiles') then head west along the river for an hour and you should find the village'.

Elephant in the OkavangoThe journey proved interesting. The cut line was not a road at all, rather more like a fire break. The forest was stunningly beautiful with autumnal colours that reminded me of New England. The 'road', however, was deep sand and tracks forked off it, without any indication of their destination. At one point we came to a herd of elephant in the forest, and were charged by a Bull Elephant. We drove on. The Khwai river proved, indeed, to be very deep. The water was (briefly) over the bonnet, but - bless Land Rover - we made it to higher ground before she spluttered to a temporary halt. Turning to the west, driving along the river, we saw spectacular game, including lion. We also realised that we had a slow puncture, but the idea of getting out to change it gave us reason to press on! It was with some relief that we found Khwai village as darkness was falling. KB greeted us and directed us to camp in a disused lodge, where a herd of buffalo were grazing and mischievous monkeys stared down at us from the trees.

The term 'Bushmen' is a colonial invention, a collective term for the original inhabitants of Southern Africa. Terms like 'Khoe' and 'San' have also been used, although the Bushmen themselves simply use their clan names, such as the /Gwi and the !Kung. Quite probably they are the direct descendents of the first modern humans, of whom the earliest evidence has been found near Cape Town and dated at 117,000 years old. That would date Bushmen culture at twice the age of the Australian Aborigines. They have traditionally lived by hunting and gathering, only incorporating herding in the last two thousand years. They were eventually pushed back by the advance of the Bantu (blacks) from the north from 300AD and then whites arriving at the Cape from 1652. Warfare, disease and colonialism have reduced them to small remnant populations, principally in the Kalahari (the Desert Bushmen) and the darker, taller River Bushmen of the Okavango.

Indigenous populations around the world have tended to become marginalised, with an unfortunate spiral into patterns of dependency and alcoholism. But at Khwai we found an encouraging story. The young men of the village have taken the lead to secure their future and bridge the gap between their heritage and the modern world. These young people were educated in Maun, the nearest sizeable town, where adults from the village worked and provided the youth with lodging and support so they could go to school. With the benefit of this education a generation of villagers has emerged that speaks English, and, more importantly, understands the modern world. Their education has challenged their traditions, and they are more sceptical of ancestor worship and herbalists, and more open to Christianity and western medicine. But their sense of commitment to their village and their heritage is very strong, and they are determined to retain their identity and ensure a sustainable, dignified future.

Bushmen of the OkavangoIn 2008 these young leaders established a Trust and reached an agreement with the government by which extensive areas north of the Khwai river are now administered by the Trust. In particular this gives the Trust revenues from land rents paid by two upmarket game lodges and a hunting concession. In the first year this revenue amounted to over US$200,000. They used this money to clear roads and develop the hunting concession, which not only generates income but enables the continuation of tracking and feasting. The government does not allow Bushmen to hunt anymore, but the concession for foreigners to hunt means that Bushmen can once again track and use the meat for traditional feasting, with dances and stories. They had held an elephant BBQ just before we arrived!

The Trust has the power to draw up new leases as the old government ones expire. They intend to continue to auction hunting rights annually and lease areas to private lodges, but they also intend to start their own campsite that will integrate safaris with cultural tourism.

Tin House in the OkavangoConditions in Khwai are still rudimentary. Huts are made of mud, supplemented with cans. Many people are very poor and shy of strangers. But the future lies with the young men like KB, Brown, Marafe and their friends who are deeply rooted in their culture and proud of it, but have email addresses, mobile phones, and the ability and confidence to make agreements with government and tour companies that will secure their future with dignity. It was an inspiring experience to meet such men.


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