| 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 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
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'.
The 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,
In 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.
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.