A Story from the First People

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I have just returned from two months volunteering with an indigenous community in a remote corner of Namibia called the Caprivi Strip. The elders of the villages which I met started hunting as young boys. At the age of eight, they were accompanying their fathers in the bush with beautifully hand crafted tools, such as bows and arrows. They are expert botanists. At the same age that our children are mastering the alphabet, they are mastering the name and use of every plant. As young teenagers, they were going out alone into a harsh, unforgiving and perilous environment to provide for their community. It is the ultimate rite of passage.

However, a hunting ban has decimated this way of life. In the words of some community members, they are “lost” in the transition to the modern world. Many people are severely challenged by adapting to a rapid change from pastoralists to agriculturalists – a change which took place over centuries for our ancestors.

A few of them asked me if I could tell their story to my people when I came back. They don't have the same access to modern communications that we do. It is an impossible task; only they can tell their story. Yet here are a few snippets about what I experienced and what I learned which I hope will do them justice.

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“We are the first people. We want to promote our culture and bring people together. This is our land and we must be able to do our own things.”

These are the words of Sagaria Lackson Kinga, an ambitious and determined 30 year old student living in Bwabwata National Park in the north-eastern tip of Namibia. Like the majority of the 6000 residents of the park, he is from the Khwe group which count themselves as the descendants of the world’s first peoples, known collectively today as the San. For countless years, his ancestors have lived as hunter-gatherers with a subsistence lifestyle in a land as vast as an ocean. The wide open sea is the only frame of reference I have for a horizon with no end.

During a two month stay in the park volunteering with the Khwe, I came to witness first hand the extraordinary traditional indigenous knowledge of Sagaria and his community, passed on from generation to generation. He is a vessel of wisdom; an unbroken chain of knowledge and a gene pool which stretches as far back as perhaps 180,000 years. Although nobody really knows for how long - they say people have lived here since time began.

It is with the greatest humility and privilege that a small part of this precious baton of wisdom is being passed to me, from a people who have to be amongst the most self-sufficient humans on earth. Every plant has a use. Every animal track has a story; a window into a happening in the past which is the key to survival in the future. My morning newspaper are the cheetah, leopard and elephant tracks which I awake to outside my tent. This is the news that matters here. The community are beaming with pride as they tell me that the bush is their supermarket, hospital and department store. The local plants and animals provide everything they need to thrive; from their food and medicine to their clothes and building materials.

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However, the Khwe are no longer able to practice their traditional way of life. Their supermarket has been closed for over forty years, during which time traditional hunting has been banned in the name of conservation. Yet this community has been an integral part of the ecosystem here for millennia. What nature are we conserving? What predators are we self-selecting? Will the lions be prevented from hunting next? As a result of the ban, the Khwe have long lost their capacity to subsist on their ancestral home and have no recognised rights over the land.

Hunting brought much more than food. The Khwe are also losing their identity. Hunting was the source of pride and social status. It was how legends were made and then recounted throughout the ages. For these people, hunting was much more than their lifeline. It was, quite simply, their life.

During my time at Bwabwata, there was always an explosion of joy on the few occasions when meat was on the menu. On one of my last evenings, we treated ourselves to a feast of a cow's leg. The gathering were so exhilarated, they stayed up all night telling stories around the fire. Whereas kudu, steenbok and giraffe were once a staple part of their diet, the Khwe community now depend on Government hand-outs of maize meal and tins of baked beans. They crave meat. They always have done.

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“My dream is for the Khwe people to come together and move forward because we are lost”, says Sagaria. He tells me about the many challenges facing the Khwe. Only 2% finish school and low educational attainment leads to limited livelihood options. Unemployment rates are 97% in the park and the few locally available economic opportunities are largely exploitative and under-paid. One of the booming lines of work seems to be selling “fat cakes”, sugary dough balls, on the side of the road for N$5 each (around 6p).

The Khwe also find themselves competing for limited resources with other ethnic groups which are more powerful, such as the Mbukushu, who are traditionally agriculturalists. According to Sagaria, “the Mbukushu come to our places and clear the bush. They don’t know the uses of our trees, so they cut them down. We must learn in their language in our schools. How would you like it if the Mbukushu came to your country, destroyed your environment, ploughed your land and forced you to speak their language?” I had no answer. Many times I was asked when my country became independent. “We always have been”, I would respond, ashamed of our history of domination.

I was sitting with Sagaria and one of his friends, Matthias Lukas, at a traditional village that was also called Bwabwata. It is named, like the national park, after the most valuable resource in the bush – the “bubbling water” of a nearby watering hole. There are only around 40 residents in the village. It is an oasis in the Namibian wilderness, 3 km away from the Angolan border. Most of the other Khwe villages are situated on the main road that runs to Zambia and have more exposure to modern influences, including countless trucks on their way to the Namibian ports in the west.

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Matthias asks “why do the bantu people (the ethnic group which includes the Mbukushu) call us marginalised? It is our land. They came here and we gave them food. They are our visitors. They cannot call us marginalised.”

It is encouraging to hear the fire in the heart of these two individuals. They are fighters. Although their life is a struggle, they refuse to portray themselves as victims or “marginalised”. They are determined to better their lives.

Formal education is often seen as the way forward. Matthias travels around 250km to go to school with no money for accommodation or transport. “I dont even know if I will be able to get transport to hand in my assignments on time” he tells me. Yet Matthias will not give up, even if he is a late starter. “I am 32 years old and I am still studying. People of my age from other tribes have had a nice education and they have good jobs on computers”.

One of the reasons that the Khwe struggle with formal education is that there are only a couple of kindergartens in the whole region. As a result, the vast majority of children between the ages of one and seven do not go to school. They simply hang around with their parents and wait. When they finally start formal education, they are far behind their peers and taught in a language which is foreign to them. They find it difficult to integrate.

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Namibia is committed to free education for all young children but the Khwe community are tired of waiting for broken promises. It takes personal leadership, commitment and drive to change things in these parts. And every so often, a bright spark appears which lights up and sparkles in the night skies. One of these is a young woman called Moreen Joseph, a 27 year old from a nearby village called Mashashani. She came to see me with her one year old baby to ask if I could help write a proposal for a new kindergarten.

Moreen explained “it is important to know how to read and write in own language instead of being taught in other languages like Thimbukushu. In all the regions of Namibia, every group is taught in their own language at school. But our language is being taken away from us. I want to open our own kindergarten for young kids to read and write. Only the Khwe do not have our own language in school.”

The next week, Moreen started the kindergarten under the shade of a tree in her village green, with boxes of cooking oil as the only teaching resource. Her dream is this will turn into a building with two classrooms, a kitchen, an office and a garden, decked out with solar electricity, running water and a basic daily lunch for the hungry children. She estimates that the cost of building this school with a capacity for 60 students could be as little as N$85,000 (£5000), with running costs of N$7500 (£450) per month. It probably costs around the same as the high end vacations of a couple of tourists which pass through every day on luxury buses. This is the reality of the stark inequalities of this region.

Yet tourists like these are not the problem. In fact, tourism offers a potential solution. The Khwe possess a rich wealth of traditional indigenous knowledge and are incredibly skilled craft makers. The question is how can this be utilised in the modern world to gain a greater sense of purpose, income and self-growth opportunities?

One answer is the “Khwe Living Museum”. This seeks to recreate the Khwe's traditional culture and natural environment in an authentic way, helping to preserve invaluable knowledge and skills. Visitors would be greeted by “actors” wearing traditional animal skins, hosted on a bushwalk and treated to cultural activities and dancing at a cultural village on a stunning river bank.

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When I first arrived, the foundations of the project had already been put in place with the support of a local charity and a German foundation. The community asked me if I could help them to take this forward and train the guides. They called me their teacher and were the most eager students you could wish for with an insatiable thirst for knowledge and desire to move forward.

In reality, I always felt that they were the teachers. Every moment I was learning about life in the bush. Each plant has a story. Beyond meeting every common medicinal need in this environment – migraines, diarrhoea, tooth aches, malaria – every personal need is met too. There are leaves you smoke to solicit a lover, foliage which is more nutritious than ten oranges, plants you inject into baby's knees to help slow starters walk for the first time, concoctions to gain weight and become “as fat as a hippo!”, roots you steam for protection against witching, drinks for good fortune and fruits so sweet that only the chiefs are allowed to eat such delicacies.

Yet I learned far more than this dumbfounding wealth of knowledge which was so eagerly and generously shared. I learned about humanity. I would often forget that the students walked a long way to get to our school and turned up tired and hungry, without pens and paper to write with or reference books and candles to do their homework. Experiences such as this taught me about humility, courage and resolve. In every respect, they had the hearts of their lion friends.

One of these lions was called Ali Winders. Like many of his peers, he put all of himself into the training and reaped the fruits of his hard labour. When we first met, he was too shy to look me in the eye. When I left, he was beaming with pride as he showed mock tourists around his home with much joy and flamboyance.

“The Khwe Living Museum must become a centre for us” says Ali, “a place where we can employ ourselves and we don’t depend on the Government for jobs. We can show everyone, people of all tribes, our traditional knowledge and culture. This is our power.”

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There is also the potential of further opportunities to harness their traditional knowledge. Another project I helped support is TEKOA – the Traditional Environmental Knowledge Outreach Academy – which brings together Khwe elders and youth. This was set up by Khwe elder Sonner Gerea and Fidi Alpers, my life affirming host, who generously welcomed me and many other daily guests (hippos, elephants, crocodiles, warthogs, kingfishers, parrots) during my stay in a house he has built next to the Okavango river. TEKOA can be seen as a university where indigenous community elders with their expert knowledge are fittingly recognised as the professors. I witnessed first hand how the practical knowledge of someone who has lived a lifetime of exceptionally close and astute observation of their environment is superior to that which can be discovered through scientific methods.

The importance of TEKOA was explained to me by one of the Khwe's leaders, Thaddeus Chadeau. He is an inspirational figure who told me many stories of his exploits hunting as a boy. He first killed an antelope, a duiker, around the age of fifteen armed with only a small spear, chasing it until exhaustion. He says, “our people trust the bush, it is where we get life; water, food, everything. Hunting used to be taught through practice but the hunting ban has cut off the life of the people. It is very difficult. Now we do not have the possibility to teach in the way that we used to. TAKOA teaches the youth traditional knowledge. It is our school in the bush. If we do not teach, we lose our culture.”

Thaddeus is a fighter not only in spirit but also in training. He was employed by the South African Defence Force as an expert tracker in their armed struggle with SWAPO, the guerilla organisation which later formed the first Namibian Government in the early 1990s. Many bushmen, driven by hunger rather than ideology, were employed by South Africa and contend that it is a major source of suspicion and discrimination. Many Khwe also believe it is the reason that they do not have a traditional leader which is recognised by the Government like all the other ethnic groups in Namibia. Thaddeus says that this causes a “pain in my heart” and means that the community are not consulted about many of the local decisions which affect them. It also makes projects such as the Khwe Living Museum and TAKOA much harder to get off the ground through official channels.

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Khwe elder and community leader Thaddeus Chadeau

Time is of the essence. The last of the custodians are going blind and dying out. Regardless of its value to the rest of humanity, the Khwe’s traditional knowledge will only survive if the bearers of the knowledge themselves see it as contributing to their survival rather than romanticism. I feel that everyone would benefit if we can find greater means to support the people who are the specialists of survival in the natural world, to both survive and thrive in the modern world.

So here is a small window into my experiences meeting a community whose response to hardship is a beaming smile. They are happy people. Maybe after reading this you might want to help them in some way. They said that the most helpful thing would be to raise awareness amongst friends or journalists, politicians and benefactors. Above all, they just want people to visit, to exchange and to share stories around a fire late into the night.

On leaving, they gave me a Khwe name, Godow. It roughly translates to “he who lives with poor people”. Like their ancestors, many Khwe are still struggling for survival in an unforgiving land that is a place of extremes. Yet extreme hardship brings about an extreme sense of community, wholeness and belonging. I do not believe these are poor people. Indeed, how many of us long for their wilderness, their connection to the land, their family and social bonds, their nutritious food and, perhaps most of all, their time. They have an excess of time. So much time we would never know what to do with it. In our land of plenty, we have crammed our lives so full that we often forget to turn up to it.

It's been a humbling journey to be hosted so bountifully by those who have so much and so little. I have lived in a place where I am nothing more than a small speck in a vast landscape in the sense of both time and place; a tiny, fragile, insignificant expression of antiquity. We must ensure that we preserve this inheritance and that the Khwe, one of the true living wonders and greatest treasures of this world, are given a fair opportunity to prosper.

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Andy Raingold