Dancing in the Moonlight

Trip Start Apr 26, 2005
Trip End Nov 17, 2005

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Flag of Botswana  ,
Thursday, September 15, 2005

"I don't mind if they call me a Bushman. It shows that the bush belongs to us; it shows that we are the ones who truly come from there."
--Komtsha, in Willemien Le Roux's "Shadow Bird"

The San, or Kalahari Bushman, are not one people. Even the term "San" is misleading; a name chosen by a general council but one that isn't recognized by most Bushman. They are the !Kung, Ju/'hoansi, Naro, and the dozen or so other distinct language groups that make up what is probably the most fascinating, fragile and recognizable indigenous people in Africa.

Like indigenous people everywhere the San are marginalized, and for generations have been mistreated, neglected, and in some cases, used as slave labour on cattle farms. The Botswana government has looked on the Bushman as an embarrassment, a backward people little prepared or willing to adapt to modern life.

The residential school systems that were years ago abolished in Canada and Australia are still in effect in Botswana, where almost half of the Bushman population live (Namibia has a large population, though San people can also be found in South Africa, Angola and Zambia). The stories are horrific, of abuse, sexual and physical, of languages suppressed and culture strangled.

Common perceptions of the San are misplaced. Modern Bushmen are no more like the simple, hunter-gatherer people of movies like "The Gods Must Be Crazy" than First Nations people are like those in "Dances With Wolves." But there are common experience between the groups, and in recent years cultural exchanges have been taking place. This year Inuit students from Canada visited the Bushman settlement at D'Kar for a few weeks. Many of the old ways may be lost, and some languages dying, but a cultural revival, with crafts, story-telling and dance groups, is well underway among the San.

Projects like the Le Roux's efforts at D'Kar, and other development initiatives designed for the San, have seen one struggle after another. But after over twenty years of work, the organization they and others started--Kuru, meaning "do it yourself"--is showing the kind of small successes that may lead to larger gains in coming decades. Around here the talk is of change over generations, not months or years.

The morning after I arrive in D'Kar I meet Hendrik Jerling, coordinator of the D'Kar Trust, one of the many organizations within the Kuru family. In the cramped and cozy stone hut that serves as his office ("This used to be Braam's office," he says with a hint of pride) Hendrik tells me just how much of a struggle Kuru faces. "We've done many projects and many projects fail," he says. "They're often set up to turn San into entrepreneurs, but most people just want a job." Many of Kuru's initiatives involve arts and craft production, things that can pass for a job, if the works are sold.

In the studio of the Kuru Art Project, near Hendrik's office, a San artist shows me his finished lino-cut block ready for printing; a wonderful scene of animals, bush and people. There are twenty fine artists at D'Kar, making vibrant, contemporary work in print, oils and acrylic. When space recently became available for 5 new artists, 23 applied. Kuru took on 7. "We're trying to preserve and promote their culture," says Hendrik. "These financial things may come in the next generations."

I'm admiring the prints and painting strewn round the studio when a delegation of officials from Norwegian Church Aid arrives. One of Kuru's largest donors, the NCA group is a day late, which puts me in perfect timing to piggyback on their pre-arranged tour. After looking at the projects around D'Kar we're off to Ghanzi, where we stop at Gantsi Craft, Kuru's retail store, for some shopping and a quick lunch. The store is packed with the stock and trade of Bushman craft; ostrich eggshell jewellery, fine art, dolls, hunting sets and other leather work. A sales clerk warms up the credit card machine.

As the tour continues I find myself in the back of an old Land-Rover, barrelling down the highway with Bryn, a rugged British volunteer, and Cgara, his deputy coordinator. "This guy's pure Bushman," says Bryn, clapping Cgara on the back. Along the highway ostriches preen their massive bodies as if oblivious to the sun, while the more sensible cattle and donkeys settle in the shade. With all the windows open to the hot, hard breeze, Bryn manages to light one cigarette after another, with matches, while driving.

We're on our way to a far-flung Bushman settlement, though not one chosen by the San themselves, but created for them by the government. The place is dusty and listless, and we stop at a barren campsite started by Kuru as an income generating project. It's not terribly inspiring, and neither is the village. And as we retreat back to Gantsi Bryn's not at all sure that he's being an effective tour guide. But if the afternoon doesn't impress the delegation the evening's activities should liven things up.

In Gantsi we pick up some drinks and head to Dqae Qare, Kuru's community-based game farm project, where the Norwegians are staying, and where tonight a braii, or barbecue, is planned followed by an exhibition of traditional Bushman dance. The sun sets quickly this time of year, and in the twilight we have dinner and drinks around the braii. In the shadows a wildebeest roams around the parking lot looking lost and lonely.

After dinner, chairs are brought out to a bonfire, and two young dancers walk solemnly into the firelight. They wait for three older male dancers to arrive before stripping down to their traditional dancing dress of animal hide loin clothes and ankle dance rattles made from insect cocoons.

Each dance, named after an animal, is introduced by an interpreter; the Eland, the Ostrich, the Lion. As the women on the far side of the circle clap hands and chant or sing, the dances begin. Some are some slow and rhythmic, others frenetic, or mimicking a hunt, each drawing a tight, perfect circle in the sand around the fire.

Many are healing dances, and passing the women on the outskirts of the circle, the older men stop at intervals to clap hands or touch or seemingly anoint individual women. Bryn, who's seen many dance exhibitions, is impressed to see the dancers actually heal the women which, he says, they don't usually do at tourist dances.

But dancing is not just for show, and the Bushmen have taken dance as one of the most powerful and expressive ways of recapturing their traditions. The younger dancers are alert to the movements and subtle graces of their elders. When the rattles of the youngest, a boy of 6 or 7, come loose, he stomps off into the shadows to re-tie them, clearly frustrated by his amateurism.

But it's his intensity, and the spirit of the others, that draws you in. The dance is a portal, a direct link to who the Bushman are as a people, and to an outsider, watching it is like witnessing an ancient and mysterious rite reborn.

The dancers have worked themselves into a dripping sweat, the circle in the sand becomes deeper with each passing, and still they dance, chant, whistle and writhe. Traditional dances can go on for hours, days even, until the participants lapse into a trance from where the deepest healing and connection with the spirits comes. This night the dance lingers long after it's over, in those round the fire under the moonlight, lucky enough to have witnessed something so intimate and extraordinary.
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