When you see the Bushmen in the Tsumkwe, it's tempting to lament their passing from noble savage to poor, rural underclass: witness the lack of dignified 'traditional' skins and the prevalence of ragged Western clothes, or see the PVC quivers that the occasional hunter now uses for his arrows.
While they clearly need help in the present, part of the problem has been our blinkered view of their past. This view has been propagated by the romantic writings of people like Laurens van der Post and a host of TV documentaries. However, modern ethnographers now challenge many long-cherished beliefs about these 'noble savages'.
Essential reading in this respect is The Bushman Myth: The Making of a Namibian Underclass, by Robert J Gordon (see Further Reading). It stands out as an excellent, scholarly attempt to place the Bushmen in an accurate historical context, and to explain and deconstruct many of the myths that we hold about them. In partial summary of some of his themes, he comments about the book:
The old notion of these people as passive victims of European invasion and Bantu expansion is challenged. Bushmen emerge as one of the many indigenous people operating in a mobile landscape, forming and shifting their political and economic alliances to take advantage of circumstances as they perceived them. Instead of toppling helplessly from foraging to begging, they emerge as hotshot traders in the mercantile world market for ivory and skins. They were brokers between competing forces and hired guns in the game business. Rather than being victims of pastoralists and traders who depleted the game, they appear as one of many willing agents of this commercial depletion. Instead of being ignorant of metals, true men of the Stone Age, who knew nothing of iron, they were fierce defenders of rich copper mines that they worked for export and profit. If this selection has a central theme, it is to show how ignorance of archival sources helped to create the Bushmen image that we, as anthropologists, wanted to have and how knowledge of these sources makes sense of the Bushmen we observe today.
Gordon's book isn't a light or swift read, but it will make you think. See also my comments on the wider context, include the modern media's portrayal of the San.
For more information about the area and its people, contact either Arno at Tsumkwe Lodge or the Nyae Nyae Development Foundation (see page 433); both are closely involved with the welfare of the Bushmen.
Look southeast of Tsumkwe on the maps and you'll find an isolated group of hills straddling the border between Botswana and Namibia: the Aha Hills. Named, it's claimed, after the onomatopoeic call of the barking geckos that are so common in the area, these are remote enough to have a certain mystique about them – like their counterparts in Botswana, the Tsodilo Hills.
However, there the similarity ends. The Aha hills are much lower and more flattened. Their rock structure is totally different: a series of sharp, angular boulders quite unlike the smooth, solid massifs of Tsodilo. So they' are quite tricky to climb, and have no known rock art or convenient natural springs. All of this means that though they're interesting, and worth a visit if you're in the area – they do not have the attraction of Botswana's Tsodilo Hills.
With a guide, the track past !'Obaha Village does lead onto the hills, and it's possible to climb up Kremetartkop (which has some lovely baobabs on the top) in an hour or so. The view from the top – across into Botswana and 360º around – is pure Africa.
Do leave at least a whole afternoon for this trip though. I didn't, and ended up driving back to Tsumkwe in the half-light, which wasn't ideal. However, I caught a rare glimpse of a caracal bounding through the long grass in the headlights.