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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.