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In the footsteps of the Bushmen

Fiume Bush Camp

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There is not another social group on this planet which has been studied, written about, filmed (remember The gods must be crazy?) and researched more than the Bushmen, or San, of the Kalahari. Today only 3% of Namibia’s population is San, and the image surrounding this group is quite stereotypical. I don’t know what to expect today. Somehow I fear we might step with open eyes into a tourist trap promising us to show the ‘authentic’ Bushman way of living while we all know they also wear jeans and t-shirts today and don’t necessarily live in primitive huts.

To make up our own minds about it, we just have to go out and discover. It’s an early start again. Up at 6 a.m., bags packed once more, breakfast, check-out and then hitting the road to the Fiume Bush Camp. That’s the plan at least. But after breakfast there is discussion again about the mistake with the booking and who will pay for it. It takes a phone call to our Dutch travel agent to settle things. Lesley has to do some negotiation for them to pay the extra costs. Luckily they give in and we can go. We travel for somewhat more than an hour on gravelroad and then reach the gate to the Bush camp. There’s a sand road behind it, so for the first time we have to use 4x4 power. The engine roars though, you can tell we’re not used to this ☺

When we reach the small parking area two people are waiting for us. They are slim built and small, clearly San. It’s a man and woman, they wave at us as we drive in and have the brightest smile. And no, they are not half naked, but wear ‘normal’ clothes. They introduce themselves as Morris and Edna, husband and wife. Their job is to welcome us and lead us to the village where the day just started. There are two other guests today and they already are with the Bushmen together with the owner of the Bush Camp. We tell Morris and Edna how glad we are to be there and hope we are not too late. “We could hear you coming down the driveway,” Morris laughs and imitates the roaring of the engine.

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From the car we follow him straight into the bush while Edna takes care of the bags. We walk over a sandy path and there we see a few huts and people sitting in small groups on the ground. Only 3 people are standing up: the two other guests and the owner of the camp. He introduces himself as Jörn, and the couple are Jacob and Eva. We missed a part of Jörn’s introduction. “For the next 3 or 4 hours you’ll go into the bush. It might feel strange for the first half hour, but just follow them and you’ll be fine. Ask any questions you like.” Jörn introduces us to one of the men, his name sounds like Tunda (really still no idea if this is right), but first you make a clicking sound. Tunda speaks English. Jörn leaves us with the San and off we go into the bush. Women, men, kids come with us. They do wear the traditional clothing, which isn’t much. Tunda turns out to be the perfect guide. He speaks slowly and softly, we have all the time in the world. We learn about plants, trees, medicinal use of roots and leafs, materials they use, poisenous arrows, ... Tunda mostly lets one of the people explain something in Koisan language (the others really don’t speak English) and then he translates. It’s fascinating to hear the clicking language. And they love it when we ask questions, even thank us for it with a smile. And spending these hours with them shows us how they live between traditions and modernity. This generation still knows all the traditions and they walk barefoot in the bush. But today they are no longer allowed to hunt and the days of nomadic living are behind them. Government regulations and land ownership by European settlers marked huge changes. But here we are with this group of people who still cherish and practice the way of living their ancestors did thousands of years before them. I have to think of the rock engravings we saw in Twyfelfontein. It’s like going back in history following their footsteps. Slim built as they are, they are so well adapted to moving through this landscape. I feel like a clumsy giant walking with them, especially when my scarf gets wrapped into a thorny branch and I need Tunda to free me. The interaction between the group is really playful and gentle. At one point they pick some berries and they hum a song and shake their bum. “I always feel happy when I eat the berries,” Tunda smiles.

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In the shade of a tree we all sit down to see how they make fire. The young boys are still learning, but I wonder if their generation will still pass all this on to the next. The bush and outback clearly are their habitat, but the modern world draws in. Here under this tree, we are far away from everything though and it’s great being able to ask many questions. We talk about marriage, about what it’s like to live in one place instead of moving around, ... The older people in the group don’t even know their age. They just know what season they were born in. Nowadays everyone gets an ID, so that’s different too. They thank us again for the conversation and the interest. Then it’s time for a little break. We return to base camp for lunch and later in the afternoon we’ll see them all again to see more about village life. Edna serves us salads and bread and it tastes really good. It’s the occasion for us to talk to Jacob and Eva, who are Israelian. We talk about our trip, our countries, .. and we all hope Donald Trump won’t win the American elections. Jörn joins us as well. He runs the camp, but also works at the farm. His father bought it as a young man, and Fiume Lodge is also part of it. So Jörn is a farmer, we learn he is also trained as a cook, he hunts and ... he speaks the Koisan language. “As a kid, the bush was my playfield. I was out from morning to evening,” he says. On the farm they had many San working and Jörns father asked them to only speak Koisan with Jörn. It is very unique for a white person to speak this language fluently. There are about 8 varieties of clicks and the language is much richer than ours. It’s fascinating to see him interact and laugh with the San. It’s clear he wants the best for the families living here, but at the same time it’s a business agreement. Jörn and his family own the land and have contractual agreements with the Bushmen living there. The visits with tourists have been happening for a few years already but Jörn only started the Bush Camp in 2015. Before that, all guests stayed at the Fiume lodge and they would drive up here. But he wanted to create a different kind of experience and built safari tents so guests spend the night here. Though he is still having some trouble to reach the ‘right’ group of travellers. Some arrive and freak out over the fact that there’s no wifi, no pool and basic safari tents without airco. In fact, another Israelian couple with private driver arrives as we are having lunch and they refuse to spend the night at the Bush Camp. They leave to go to the lodge. I don’t get it. There is a really nice feeling about the camp, the safari tents are really comfortable (they have beds and even a bathroom!) and the lack of wifi is more of a blessing than a curse to me. Lunch flies by and we talk for about 3 hours at the table before returning to the village.

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By now all the kids are there too and everyone is sitting or lying down. Some women are making jewellry and Tunda invites us to take a closer look. A little girl, she can’t be older than 2, is helping her mum with her tiny fingers. Then the young boys want to show us their hunting techniques. They show how they would sneak up to an animal, using sign language. It’s funny to see them pretending it’s real, while they are not even allowed to hunt anymore. Then they use the arrows to shoot their target (and miss ☺). Lesley gives it a go as well. As last part of the afternoon the women and children perform a few dances and play some games. They all seem to enjoy themselves and although I know they have safari tents set up not far from the pimitive huts we see here, none of this feels fake. I’m glad we’ll return one more time after dark to see the medicine man and the big campfire. Before heading back we buy some jewellry and the nice thing is that there is no pressure, no negotiating, they let us look and don’t push us. What a difference to the Himba!

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Jörn is waiting or us as we get back to the camp. We enjoy a drink together and I ask him if he reckons this way of living will survive. “No chance, there is no hope,” he answers in his straightforward way. “The kids now are a different generation. Who wants to earn money by running around half naked in the bush?” Well, it is Jörns project with the Bushmen, but he clearly isn’t just a dreamer with a romantic view on preserving ancient traditions. Bushmen are still regarded as inferior, so all around southern Africa they are having a hard time surviving. In Botswana they sent them to the cities where most of them end up drinking and selling their bodies for sex. “The thing also is: they have no concept of future. If they earn money today they ask me to buy them 30 kgs of chicken. They don’t save for later.” I see the problem, at the same time I think living a bit more in the here and now can be a good thing. But maybe not to that extreme. I have no plans to spend my savings on chicken ☺

As dark sets in, Jörn leaves us in the care of his friendly staff. It’s time for a quick shower (the light bulb in the tent fllickers on and of, battery problem) and then dinner. They put some lamps on the table so we can see a at least a little bit what we are eating. Once again we enjoy our meal. Then it’s waiting till we hear sounds coming form the village. Eva and Jakob return to their tent untill then and we hava a chat with Morris. He’s 27 and father of 5 (!) kids. He has been to Europe but needed about 6 layers of clothes. This guy has a good sense of humour, he talks about how some guests are in shock when they arrive in the bush camp. “We had this American couple and the woman was crying. She saw no white people and cried ‘oh no, I’m going to die here!” He does a good imitation of the hysterical woman and at this point I’m crying with laughter. Even our fellow guests Eva and Jakob apparantly needed some time to adjust. They arrived the day before and Jakob was asking about wifi and airco. Luckily they seem to be satisfied now.

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Around 8 p.m. the village seems to be ready for us and we walk into the bush, drawn by the huge campfire. The kids are put to bed, but all the adults are there. We are invited to take a seat and it’s clear the medicine man is the central figure here. He urges the others to sing and bring him in a trance. In some cases the medicine man might even collapse. Apparantly they use a sort of breathing technique that causes oxygen deficiency. That’s the rational explanation. The Bushmen prefer the spiritual explanation. It’s all about connecting with higer forces, with nature, with ancestors. Even lions aren’t a real danger, as they believe there is a spiritual bond and therefore communication between man and lion. I’m not sure I want to see it tested in real life, but there’s no lion around tonight anyway. The medicine man does indeed seem to be in some trance. He shakes his body, makes strange noises and then stands still with one woman in the group. She is pregnant. I don’t know what he is saying or doing, but it is believed he connects with the person who needs some protection or cure. Luckily the medicine man doesn’t approach one of us and he doesn’t fall down. “Sometimes, they can get so deep in trance they die. So the medicine man needs a wife who can assist him and get him out of the trance when it’s dangerous,” Morris explains.

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Then the medicine man says he wants to bless us for a good night sleep. He sits in front of Jacob and puts a kind of powder (I really don’t exactly know what it was) on a few points in his face and his neck. He repeats the same with Eva, Lesley and me. I close my eyes and actually feel very calm as he puts his finger on my skin. Strange. I think it’s the sensation of the whole experience, sitting here around the fire, under a sky full of stars in the middle of nowhere. Although we don’t speak the Koisan language we clearly understand the medicine man’s hint when he produces a snoaring sound. Morris explains: “ He says you must be tired.” In other words, it’s time to go. “Even without wifi, we got the message,” Jakob says, but I’m not sure the medicine man understands when Morris in turn translates. Maybe they want to have a little party just between them. So we thank all of the people for the entire day, a fascinating experience.

We retreat to the camp; Jakob and Eva go to bed, but we feel too excited to sleep just yet and sit around the campfire with Morris for a while. He tells us a bit more about his visit to Europe and imitates how hurried people walk here. He’s a bit of an actor pretending to wear a purse and saying “oh, busy busy busy”. Again, we are laughing so hard. And we do so again when he tells the story of how he got bitten by a snake and reproduces his scream when he realised he was bitten. Lesley sighs: “I feel happy here!” And I know what she means. While apparantly it brings some people to tears of desperation, we love the simplicity. Not to say we are ready to join the bushmen and walk around with just a piece of cloth around the waste, but it is so good to be far far away from the usual busy, crowded, complicated lifestyle. It’s just the campfire, good company and many many laughs.

Being blessed by the medicine man our nightrest can’t go wrong. It’s colder now, but our beds are warmed by a hot water bottle.

Posted by Petravs 04:40 Archived in Namibia

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