exploring namibia: joseph and the san bushmen

*photos credited to ty burns*

I have just returned from a 25 day road trip with a good friend, Ty Burns, into the wilds of Namibia.  The impetus of the trip was to visit our friend Joseph who we met at a Permaculture Design Course last October in Harare, Zimbabwe.  Joseph is from the San bushmen and was sent to the course because of his work on the Khalahari Garden Project.

A small group sat at a table in the dining area of Fambidzanai, Africa’s first permaculture center, in Harare last October.  In front of us was a map of southern Africa and a field guide to animals in the region.  Joseph talks about his family, that he was born in the Khalahari, and how they settled in Namibia.  He speaks few words in a soft voice, seeming only to use the words he needs without extraneous chatting.  A thin beaded necklace hangs around his neck, above the collar of his tshirt in rasta colors with “one love” written on it.

When Joseph was a young child, his family moved around chasing game for hunting.  There was not a border and no one asked any of them for official documents to cross an unseen line in the area his family has inhabited for many, many generations.  But there came a time when things changed, and he and his family were no longer welcome in Botswana.  The part of the Khalahari where they live looks just the same on either side of the border, but they are told they must remain in Namibia.

Joseph picks up the field guide and carefully turns each page of it, looking at every animal from snakes and lizards to feline creatures, wild dogs, and baboons. With his slender finger, he points to the animals he eats, “This one, we eat.  This one, we eat.  This one too, we eat.”  I watch him as a child might look upon a face of a human she has never seen before.  His cheek bones are higher and more rounded than any face I’ve ever seen.  His skin is a lighter shade of brown, and although he is 30, he looks much older and the skin crinkles around his eyes and mouth.  “And this one, oh oh oh, this one is our friend,” Joseph says and smiles, twirling a toothpick between his teeth.  “You don’t eat that one?” I ask him.  “Oh yes, we eat this one.”  We all see the humor and laugh.  The next animal he comments on is the baboon.  “This is our grandfather, we don’t eat him.”  Ty looks at Joseph and asks him, “What do you think of white people?”  Joseph looks at us, bobs his head and says, “white people are clever, very clever.  they can do things like make this book.”  He smiles, with bright eyes.  Joseph invites us to visit his family in Namibia.  He points to the map, showing us where we can find him.  He tells us to get to a particular town, then start asking people for him, and we will find him.  At that moment, I wanted so much to see him and his family, and to learn from them about how they live and what their lives have been like.  I hoped I would be able to visit.

Joseph

Just west of the border to Botswana is the Animius corridor, running north to south, where many San people currently reside.  The San are thought to be the earliest humans.  Many have retained their hunter gatherer lifestyle but have gone through hassles with the Botswana and Namibian governments as the state has become more involved in their affairs.  Joseph and his family are among those who have been shifted to a designated part of the bush.  The San have been a very marginalized population.

Komeho (www.komeho.org) is a non-governmental organization working in Namibia since 2001, and is the main proponent of the Khalahari Garden Project.  The main objective of this project is to create gardens and teach people how to cultivate food in the desert to meet their household needs.  Nearly 45 gardens serving about 500 people exist in the Animius Corridor.  It is a great idea, because people who are far from markets can grow their own food and get nutrition they need, but the project needs some love and care.  From our tour, it is clear that more guidance is needed to answer questions for the families who have the gardens.

Onions and watermelon grow in the sand. Compost would go a long way for a garden such as this.

We did find Joseph, and we stayed with him for a weekend before making the final haul back to Gaborone.  More about that soon.

Joseph (left, peace sign) and his family.

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