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It’s sunset in the Kalahari Desert and the Bushmen are settling into their marathon trance dance. Some sit and others dance, while their rhythmic clapping and singing acts as the beat that drives the dancers around the fire. The dance-rattles wrapped around their legs add to the tempo of the song. Made of dried cocoons and filled with pieces of ostrich shell, the Bushmen wear these rattles to make a percussive sound when their legs move in the dance. With thin sticks in their hands, the Bushmen move around the fire in a small circle, marking the sand and forming a dark grey ring. They are united in a highly charged way, just as it has been for over a thousand years.
I’m in the second week of a journey through Botswana. I’ve already visited the pristine Okavango Delta and the vibrant Chobe River, and now I’m spending the day with the Zu/’hoasi Bushmen in the Makgadikgadi Pans. I’m here to learn about their culture and traditions, which offer a unique window into the distant past.
Natives in Jack’s Camp, Botswana
The Kalahari Bushmen’s trance dance is their most mysterious element. It’s a ritual in which a state of altered consciousness is achieved through rhythmic dancing and hyperventilation. They call it a healing dance. During trance dances, which can last all night, the Bushmen believe they become imbued with animal potency and enter a spiritual realm where they can contact God, fight evil spirits, gain healing powers, and see visions.
Scorpion sitting in the palm of a native, Jack’s Camp, Botswana
Traditional footwear, Jack’s Camp, Botswana
The combination of repetitive dance moves with the singing, clapping and drumming helps to release the n|om (life force) in the men dancing around the circle at the base of their spine. When n|om is activated in this manner, the energy moves up their beings, healing themselves and giving them the power to help heal others too.
The Bushmen believe this spiritual energy allows gifted healers to ‘see’ illness in others and use their healing hands to physically pull the malady out of a patient. It can also be used to heal negative aspects of the community, such as anger and disputes.
Native men and child in Jack’s Camp, Botswana
Starting a fire for cooking, Jack’s Camp, Botswana
The Bushmen dance on, stamping and shuffling past us as we sit on the outskirts and watch in fascination. Their bodies shake with a rhythm of their own, responding to the pain that pulsates through their bodies. One man is especially awash with emotion. He calls out in a strange voice, his unseeing eyes a signal that he has been taken by the spirits. With tears streaming down his cheeks, he lurches forward falling to his knees like a toppled giraffe and just before his face hits the floor he is caught by those around him.
Visiting the Bushmen might offer a unique look into the past, but it’s their future that many people are more concerned about. The Zu/’hoasi Bushmen are lucky enough to still live on their homeland and maintain their old ways but the vast majority of Botswana’s Bushmen are not so lucky. The Bushmen’s way of life is slowly disappearing – the discovery of diamonds in the 80s was a catalyst for the attention of greedy politicians and forced removals. Court battles have been ongoing for over a decade over access to their land and their displacement. As time goes on and the Bushmen spend more time on the outskirts of their homeland, barred from traditional hunting and exposed to modern life, the question many people are wondering is: just what does the future hold for one of the world’s oldest people?
Traditionally dressed woman at sunset in Jack’s Camp, Botswana
Collage of natives in Jack’s Camp, Botswana
There are 100,000 Bushmen in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Angola. They are the indigenous people of Southern Africa, and have lived here, in the harshest of environments, for tens of thousands of years. Over this time, they have developed their vast and ancient knowledge of plants, animal behaviour and survival skills. They are able to survive without surface water by burying ostrich eggs underground to extract water. They have a remarkably complex language characterized by the use of click sounds, hunt using poisonous arrows, and have impeccable tracking skills. Skills that we are only now beginning to truly understand.
According to the 2009 book ‘Born to Run’ by Christopher McDougall, Louis Liebenberg spent years with the Kalahari Bushmen learning about their traditions and way of life. After many years they finally showed him how they hunted. To track an animal, they would ‘put themselves in the mind of the animal they were trying to hunt.’ This is known as ‘speculative hunting’, where they project themselves into the future, to predict what the animal will do, to the point where they go into a trance-like state. They would run for hours – up to 50 miles – after one animal and would only stop once it died from exhaustion. This empathic type of hunting was one of humanity’s first signs of creative thought and consciousness. Liebenberg’s discovery was a breakthrough in the study and understanding of the Bushmen.
Four Zebras at dusk in Jack’s Camp, Botswana
Before the trance dance, the Zu/’hoasi Bushmen shared their traditional hunting and food-gathering knowledge as well as how to make jewellery and hunting equipment. We were taught extraordinary uses for ordinary-looking plants, how to squeeze water out of a desert melon, and watched the men prepare bows, arrows and quivers. Some of the women showed us how they make beads from ostrich eggs and the simple, but striking jewellery that they make from porcupine quills, seeds and ostrich eggs. It all depicted a way of life that is fascinating, yet slowly shrinking, with Jack’s Camp one of the few places in the world left to experience it.
For much of the year, most of this desolate area remains waterless and extremely arid; and large mammals are generally absent. But during the wet season the landscape transforms. The two largest pans flood (the Makgadikgadi is in fact a series of pans interspersed by sand dunes, rocky islands, and desert terrain) become a powder-blue lake, which attracts wildlife – zebra, giraffe, eland and wildebeest on the grassy plains – and most spectacularly flamingos at Sowa and Nata Sanctuary. Flamingo numbers can run into the tens – and sometimes – hundreds of thousands, and the spectacle can be overwhelming.
Safari vehicle at sunset in Jack’s Camp, Botswana
The Bushmen keep going, stamping and rattling around the fire, driven on by the chanting song and clapping of their tribe. Our time with them is over and we quietly take leave as their hypnotic chanting and undulating melodies forge on. They will continue like this for hours, well into the night and into the morning, healing their sick and strengthening their group, while their fire illuminates their faces and the milky way glitters above them in a cloudless night sky.
Sitting around a fire at night in Jack’s Camp, Botswana
That’s it for Chapter Six, armchair travellers! Be sure to join me on my next adventure through Bots.
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This is terrific! I live in Toulouse and reading this blog post makes me what to travel to Botswana for my next holiday.
Thank you for the travel inspiration Matt, I look forward to visiting Botswana and the bushmen soon.
Hi there Henri-Pierre, I’m so glad to hear that! Botswana will certainly find a special place in your heart – as will the rest of Africa, no doubt 🙂 Contact us if you need any help with your trip!
I love the next chapter of your blog Matt! This is truly incredible – wow! It’s definitely something I want to experience for myself.
Loved the videos and your personal account of the day – incredible!
Hi Caroline, it’s been amazing to have you come on this journey with me! Spending time with Botswana’s bushmen has certainly been one of the highlights of my trip for me.
This is wonderful! Such an immersive experience!
I would love to visit Botswana and experience this magic.
Hi Mary! If you’re ever looking for any tips and help on how to plan your trip, let us know 🙂
Great Matt,used to live in S.A. makes me homesick!
Hey Babs, I can only imagine! Living here is really like living nowhere else. Come visit us soon!
Would love to know more about their paintings
They are fascinating, aren’t they? 🙂
The most beautiful site and really interesting read – I lived in Botswana for nearly 20 years and whilst I no longer live there I will, at the drop of a hat, always take up the offer and go back for trips to delta or desert – a great privilege and special country and people.
Hi Jean, I’m so glad to hear that you’ve enjoyed my journey. Wow! 20 years is an incredible amount of time to spend in such a very special country. You are incredibly lucky! I hope Botswana sees you at some point in the future again, soon.
This is Beautiful Matt Thanks for giving us this great insight of the Bushmen’s culture and untainted way of life
I am from Uganda and a great respecter of diverse cultures. Maybe your next visit should be Uganda to visit the Karamajong people who are ignoring the so called civilised westernaisation and trying to ignore encroachment of any kind. Thanks once again. Very refreshing.
Hi Rose, thanks very much for your kind words about my post. I would love to visit Uganda! It is a country very high on my bucket list and I’ll certainly keep the Karamajong people in the forefront of my mind when I do.
This is truly magnificent and beautiful. This is a country so close to my heart and I cannot wait to visit there soon. Thank you for sharing your experience.
It’s only a pleasure, Nakita. Bots has a special place in my heart, too.
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