I’ll let the pictures tell the story (click here for more photos), but we had an amazing time in Bushmanland in northeastern Namibia this past weekend. Here’s a little background on where we went and why:
Historically, the San (Bushmen) have faced chronic marginalization from the governments of South Africa, Namibia and Botswana. Through forced resettlements and protracted legal disputes, the San, considered the oldest people in the world (a genetic “Adam”), have been relocated onto some of southern Africa’s most inhospitable and undesirable terrain, devoid of water and natural resources in the midst of the Kalahari Desert.
The San tribe of northeastern Namibia
Our destination for the weekend was N#a Jaqna Conservancy (N#a is pronounced with a click), one of two communal areas in Namibia where the San live, only about 125km from the nearest semblance of civilization. As a governmentally recognized communal area, you can think of N#a Jaqna as a semi-autonomous region, at least in terms of resource management, and governance to a lesser degree. The discrimination and ‘special’ governmental status granted to the San is somewhat analogous to American Indians and the reservation system.
As a communal area, N#a Jaqna plays an important role in local governance and economic development. The conservancy has a constitution, which was drawn up by elected village representatives, and all income generated by the conservancy’s activities is distributed according to the benefit distribution system agreed upon within the constitution. The conservancy thus acts as both a governmental unit and a diversified business conglomerate. By acting as a producer’s cooperative, the conservancy is able to unite the population’s activities and link them up with domestic and international markets.
For example, sales of Devil’s Claw, an endemic medicinal plant, account for 54.6% of the conservancy’s income. N#a Jaqna sources Devil’s Claw from the communities and is therefore able to provide enough product to meet the needs of international buyers, who purchase in bulk direct from the conservancy. The role of the conservancy is magnified within N#a Jaqna because, of the areas’ approximately 4,000 inhabitants, 40% of the population lives below the internationally recognized line for extreme povery, $1 USD/day.
San artisans in Grashoek, Namibia
The purpose of this weekend’s journey was to set-up a distribution network for artwork produced in Bushmanland. The San are well known throughout southern Africa for their ability to craft jewelry from ostrich eggshells. The shells have an extremely elegant appearance and are sourced from local materials—sustainable, innovative and highly attractive. Yet, to date, no one has attempted to sell their artwork overseas.
Breaking up the eggshells
Aislinn Pearson, a British researcher and volunteer who lives with the Bushmen for four months every year, arranged our partnership with the conservancy. So, we stopped through her village, Grashoek, on our way to meet with the conservancy’s directors. In Grashoek, we took our time with Aislinn and the village artisans to select ten separate necklace and bracelet styles to purchase for our initial inventory of San jewelry. We carefully selected the items based on how feasibly they could be replicated (given slight variations between individual pieces) and how consistently the materials are available. Additionally, we had to keep in mind import/export problems associated with restricted materials.
Drilling holes to slide the shells onto necklaces
We left Grashoek with sample products in hand and drove to Mangetti Dune to meet with the conservancy’s directors. There, we hammered out a plan for ensuring stock availability and discussed shipping logistics for the final products. Altogether, the conservancy was excited by our proposal and we look forward to building a longer-term relationship with them. We placed our initial inventory order, leaving our samples in Grashoek, and will have the jewelry in Tsumeb by early December.
San Bracelet made from Ostrich Eggshells
Necklace made from Ostrich Eggshells - Grashoek, Namibia
So, we took care of business on Friday, leaving the rest of the weekend for exploring. Aislinn arranged a weekend trek with two of Grashoek’s best trackers, so we all left Grashoek early Saturday morning and headed out into the middle of nowhere, and I mean nowhere. Bushmanland lies in the middle of the Kalahari Desert. The only villages that exist in the area survive because they’re built around wells. But, because the Namibian government invests little in the area, these wells are the remnants of South African military presence during Namibia’s independence war. So, unless you know where these wells are, you don’t know where the villages are. Villages are often 40-50km apart, between which nothing exists but sparsely vegetated desert. So, get lost, and you stand little chance of making it out unless you’re lucky enough to find a sand road and walk in the right direction.
Into the bush
Understandably, the contrast between the leaders and followers was palpable. The trackers’ knowledge of terrain and ecosystem was incredible. They missed nothing, acutely aware of ground surface contours, cloud coverage, wind direction and speed, plants, animals, insects and tracks. We stumbled through the bush, making noise, walking past water, missing tracks, oblivious to elephants downwind from us.
On one occasion, we were walking in the midday sun we they suddenly stopped, stooped on all fours, and began digging frantically. Of course, we didn’t have a clue what was going on. But after thirty seconds in the sand, their efforts quickly paid off, removing from the earth a root with two “bush potatoes,” as they jokingly referred to them.
On Sunday morning, we were at a water hole, getting ready to wrap up the weekend and head back to Grashoek, when the trackers came out of the bush carrying a pigeon with a broken wing. We came to find out that in San culture, you are not permitted to pass by food in the bush and not eat it. In fact, food is so sparse that anything edible is viewed as a gift from God. Had the wing not been broken, they would have set it free. But, instead it became their early afternoon meal. We watched as they wrung its neck, defeathered and cooked it. They remained conscientious of their interactions with the bird’s body, both before and after its death, respectful of the gift they’d been given.
Throughout the weekend, their patience and humble servitude shined through in a unique, nonverbal manner. They were simply there to instruct through example. We had a translator with us, but his services were often unnecessary, as words frequently weren’t needed to convey the purity of our interaction with one another. Their indifference to our presence was inspiring. They frequently stopped to sit down and enjoy a smoke, unconcerned with the group’s thoughts on the matter. It made us feel as though we were simply accompanying their daily existence, nothing out of the ordinary for them.
Looking out across the pan (salt flat)
Before agreeing to go out with the trackers for a couple days, we were a little wary of paying an “authentic bushman tracker” because we thought the authenticity of tracking would certainly be eroded through the commercialization of such an activity. But, after seeing the degree of cultural integration that Aislinn has immersed herself in, it’s not surprising that we were able to capture a small glimpse into a lifestyle that is rapidly under pressure from globalizing forces.
Overall, we had an incredible experience this weekend, and we’re happy to be working in the region to promote San artwork and support economic development in the area. Thanks for reading and stay tuned for our upcoming field visits to northern Namibia!