Cultural activities in Nyae Nyae
It's worth being realistic from the outset of your visit here: if you're looking for 'wild Bushmen' clad in loincloths and spending all day making poison arrows or pursuing antelope, you will be disappointed.
The people in this area have been exposed to the modern world, and often mistreated by it, for decades. None now live a traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Walk into any village and its inhabitants are more likely to be dressed in jeans and T-shirts than loincloths, and their water is more likely to be from a solar-powered borehole pump than a sip-well.
However, many of the older people have maintained their traditional skills and crafts, and often their knowledge of the bush and wildlife is simply breathtaking.
Those that I met appeared friendly and interested to show visitors how they live, including how they hunt and gather food in the bush – provided that visitors are polite, and ask permission for what they want to do, and pay the right price.
This kind of experience is difficult to arrange without a local guide who is involved in tourism and speaks both your language and theirs. Without such a guide, you won't get very much out of a visit to a local village. So even if you have your own 4WD transport, start by dropping into Tsumkwe Lodge or, if it is open, the new conservancy office in Tsumkwe. Ask for a local guide to help you, who can travel around with you. You can pay them directly, around N$50 per morning or afternoon, and this will open up many possibilities at the villages.
None of the village activities is artificially staged. They are just normal activities that would probably take place anyhow, though their timings are arranged to fit in with your available time. However, because they are not staged, they will take little account of you. As a visitor you will just tag along, watching as the villagers go about their normal activities. All are relaxed. You can stop and ask questions of the guide and of the villagers when you wish. Most of the local villagers are completely used to photographers and unperturbed by being filmed.
Ideally, for a detailed insight, spend a few days with a guide and stay beside just one village. If they are happy about it, see the same people for an evening or two as well as during the days. This way, you get to know the villagers as individuals, not simply members of an ethnic group. Both you and they will learn more from such an encounter, and so enjoy it a lot more. Typical activities might include:
Food collecting/hunting trips
Normally lasting about 3–4 hours in the bush, you'll go out with a guide and some villagers and gather, or hunt, whatever they come across. The Bushmen know their landscape, and its flora and fauna, so well that they'll often stop to show you how this plant can be eaten, or that one produces water, or how another fruits in season.
Even Arno (an expert on the area who runs Tsumkwe Lodge) comments that after years of going out with them, they will still often find something new that he's never seen before. It's an ethno-botanist's dream.
The hunting tends to be for the smaller animals, and in season the Bushmen set up trap-lines of snares to catch the smaller bucks, which need checking regularly and setting or clearing. Spring-hares are also a favourite quarry, hunted from their burrows using long (typically 5m), flexible poles with a hook on the end.
Don't expect to go tracking eland with bows and arrows in half a day, though do expect to track anything interesting that crosses your path. These trips aren't intended as forced marches, and the pace is generally fairly slow. However, if there's some good food to be had, or promising game to be tracked, then these walks through the bush can go for hours. Bring some water and don't forget your hat. Expect to pay around N$50 per person to each of your Bushmen hosts for about a 3–4-hour trip. (So if ten villagers come on a food-gathering trip, that's N500 to pay to the village!)
It's usually best to discuss the money in advance, and agree a cost. However, bear in mind that working with money is relatively new to many of these people and so don't expect any sophisticated bargaining techniques. As a quid pro quo, don't use any such ruses yourself, or try to screw the people into a hard bargain; just aim for a fair price (which you learned when you stopped and asked at the conservancy office!).
Traditional craft demonstrations
As part of a half-day trip into the bush, you'll often stop for a while at the village, and there the people can show you how they make their traditional crafts. The Bushmen have a particularly rich tradition of story-telling, and it shows clearly here if they also demonstrate how snares are made and set, and give animated re-enactments of how animals are caught. This would normally be included in a half-day bush trip, above.
Evening singing and dancing
In the evenings, you can arrange (in advance) to visit a local village, and join an evening of traditional dancing. This probably means driving to just outside a village, where those who want to take part will meet you. They will build a fire, around which the women and children will gradually gather. Eventually those sitting will start the singing and clapping, and men will start dancing around the circle sitting in the firelight. They will often have percussion instruments, like shakers, strapped to their ankles.
The singing is beautiful, essentially African, and it comes as no surprise that everybody becomes engrossed in the rhythm and the dancing. On rare occasions, such concentration amongst the dancers can induce states of trance – the famous 'trance dances' – which are traditionally used as dances to heal, or prevent illness.
As an observer, expect to sit on the ground on the edge of the firelight, outside of the dancers' circle. You will mostly be ignored whilst the villagers have a good time. They will have been asked to dance for your benefit, for which they will be paid, but everything else about the evening is in their control. This is the kind of dancing that they do for themselves, with nothing added and nothing taken away.
Note that they're used to most visitors just sitting and watching whilst they dance. If you want to join in it's often not a problem... but expect to be the source of a lot of amusement for the resident professionals.
Expect to pay about N$300 to the village for such an evening, which is very cheap for the experience. (That's worked out at N$20 for every villager present – so a bigger gathering will cost more, and is split between however many Western guests are present.)
'I hope someone in the village remembers me from last year.' 'Ja, ja.' Arno, my guide, was certain they would. 'You should have seen the excitement when they shared out the beads you sent. You remembered them: they won't have forgotten you.'
I walked through the circle of yellow, beehive-shaped huts to where the headman was sitting, the only one on a chair, a concession to his age. As he clasped my hand his son, Steve, translated, 'My father says he is very pleased you have come back to see us.' From across the village Javid stared at me briefly and then dashed across to shake my hand. People smiled spontaneously as they recognised me: I didn't know who to say hello to first.
My stay at Nhoma the previous year had been brief. A Ju/'hoan village in remote northeast Namibia, it is one of about 30 villages at the edge of the Nyae Nyae Conservancy. I was persuaded that visitors provided vital revenue to the villagers, but had also read about marginalised people with problems of poverty, unemployment, and ill health. I anticipated that a visit would be at best a glum affair, and perhaps even a voyeuristic intrusion on a suffering people. Instead I found fun. Women sat by small fires in front of their huts with tall wooden mortars and pounded protein-rich mangettis that tasted pleasantly nutty if a little gritty. Some boiled vivid scarlet beans: after eating the flesh the kernel is roasted. Waste nothing: sometimes there is only nothing. While the women prepared food the men made hunting necessities. With his chop-chop, the Bushman's axe, Sao scraped fibres from mother-in-law's-tongue; these are twisted to make rope for a bird trap. Abel cleaned a dried steenbok skin to make a kit bag for the hunt. With great concentration Joseph squeezed the grub of a beetle cocoon to put poison on some arrows. Care is needed, as there is no known antidote and to avoid an accidental scratch it is not put on the tip. Even with all this work going on, it was never quiet: all around was talking and laughter.
The previous year N!hunkxa made ostrich egg beads, painstakingly filing them to the same size with a stone. These, along with pieces of leather, wood, and porcupine quills, were threaded into necklaces and bracelets, all brown and white. But what the women really wanted, they told me, were small glass beads, especially red and yellow ones. A few of them already had brightly coloured glass-bead necklaces and bracelets. Some, mainly the older ones, had bead medallions fixed through their hair so that they hung down on to their foreheads. The beads I had sent had all been used. Not only were the women wearing more necklaces and bracelets than last year, but also rings. Some of the men too wore ornate beaded belts or had circles of beads embroidered on their shonas, leather loincloths.
This time I had brought more beads and I was going to learn how to make something. As N!hunkxa unwrapped the beads a dozen or so women stopped work to see what I had brought. We sat on the sand in a circle under the shade of a large tree. Pleasantly warm now; it would soon be too hot to be in the sun. In the middle of the group was a large canvas sheet and we made indentations in it to stop the beads rolling away. !Nunkxa chose an easy style for me to make, two parallel lines which crossed over at intervals. Other women made elaborately decorated coils or wide headbands with zigzag patterns. Steve kept my pattern correct by calling out the numbers and colours of beads, 'Two blue, one red…' Jewellery making was obviously the chance for a good gossip. Though I couldn't understand the words I could absorb the rhythms of the conversation, quick one-line repartee, and long stories with a punchline.
Everyone was generous in praise of my necklace when it was finished. As I tried it on I thought 'When I get home this will always remind me of Nhoma.' This was followed by the realisation that I had brought the beads because the women liked them: it seemed pointless to take them away. Did I really need an object to remind me of that morning? It was better if N!hunkxa had it.
'Steve, please can you tell N!hunkxa that I would like her to have this so that she always remembers me.'
'Gadsha,' (good) several of the women said, knowing this was one of the words I understood. The approval in their expressions too told me that inadvertently or instinctively I had done just the right thing. I was later to find out that in Ju/'hoan society, gift exchange, xaro, is important in bonding people together. What is significant is the act of exchanging of gifts, not their value: beadwork is often a preferred offering for exchange.
N!hunkxa disappeared, to return a few moments later with an ostrich-bead necklace with a leather medallion, which she fastened round my neck.
'N!hunkxa would like to give you a name,' Steve said.
'What is it?' I wondered, knowing that visitors are often very accurately if not always flatteringly likened to animals, for example 'Elephant man' for someone with a big nose.
'No, no, you don't understand. She wants to give you her name.'
'Mi-way-ha (thank-you),' I said, sensing that an honour had been conferred, but not quite understanding.
I now know that by taking N!hunkxa's name I had essentially taken on her relationships and obligations. Any customs governing her behaviour towards other Ju/'hoan would apply to me also: thus I would have obligations of care towards those she did. Those who would look after her would look after me too. I had become one of her kin. However, we live so many miles apart that it is difficult to nurture this relationship, to help in difficult times or take pleasure at the good things. So I send beads because I know how much pleasure they give, because beads to me represent the connections made that morning.