KALAHARI

 

Kalahari

The Kalahari: a vast, dry grassland that stretches over large portions of five countries within Southern Africa - Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Angola. Though often referred to as a desert, its reserves of underground water allow for a fully vegetated landscape that supports (in its natural state) large populations of wild game. Predominantly flat, like the great Central Asian Steppe, the Kalahari is all about space and silence, heat and distance. To visit it is to be utterly immersed in the wild. In recent years, however, the drilling of deep water boreholes, and the discovery of rich diamond deposits have opened up this previously little explored region. Cattle ranching and mining have displaced both the wildlife and the people who traditionally relied upon those animals for survival. The Kalahari, always a harsh place to live, has become a theatre of human suffering.

The Bushmen: also known as KhoiSan, Basarwa or San. These people are the original inhabitants of the Kalahari, indeed of Southern Africa. A race apart, they are small of stature and golden-skinned with an oriental cast to their features which prompted some early Portuguese explorers who encountered them to think that they had arrived in China. Their languages are distinctive - containing at least six vocal 'clicks', which punctuate the speech like rapid machine-gun fire. Traditionally, they are hunter-gatherers. Unlike most other African (and European) peoples, the Bushmen have no warrior tradition and no stratified leadership. Healing, especially through the trance dance, lies at the centre of their culture. Today, people of Bushman or KhoiSan descent often refer to themselves as the 'First People.' This is based on fact: Black African (Bantu-speaking) peoples did not arrive in Southern Africa until around the beginning of the 1st century Ad. Europeans did not arrive until the mid-17th century, and did not penetrate the Kalahari until the 19th. The Bushmen, however, used to be ubiquitous: cave paintings dating back to around 20-30,000 years have been found right across the sub-continent. A steady process of dispossession and genocide resulted after the first cattle-owning, warrior peoples showed up, and this kept going until by the early 1900s Bushmen were confined to the Kalahari area - where farming and herding were impracticable. That changed with the advent of diamonds and deep-water borehole technology. We are now witnessing the final stages of this slow genocide of Bushmen at the hands of more aggressive, livestock-owning peoples.
If they go, we lose something very precious: I already stated that Bushman rock paintings date back as far as 30,000 years. A growing number of archeologists and paleantologists now feel that the Bushmen have been in Southern Africa for at least 100,000 years. Some even feel that the Kalahari fringe may be the real cradle of mankind - and East Africa (the place that has hitherto held that title) may represent an evolutionary dead end. This is backed up by a recent belief among some geneticists that all human beings share a common DNA that can be traced back to a !Kung woman who live somewhere in the Kalahari region around 50,000 years ago. Whatever the truth of these theories, it is clear that the Bushmen and their non-violent, healing-based culture, represents an authentic blueprint of a better kind of human life, which we are now in danger of losing forever.

The Kalahari and Me

I never meant to get into this healing thing. When I began researching the book which ended up being called The Healing Land, I thought I was going to write a very different kind of work. It was going to be a journalistic report; I was going to find the last clans of Bushman (or KhoiSan, to be politically correct) hunter-gatherers still living the the Kalahari Desert of Southern Africa. I was going to spend time with them, experience their culture, and at the same time report on the human-rights abuses (land loss, rape, genocide, you name itů) that they have been suffering since time immemorial, and their fledgling attempts, in the form of political organizations and land claims, to right these wrongs.

Instead, I got hijacked by a man called Dawid Kruiper, traditional leader of the Xhomani Bushmen - who led me little by little down the healing, frankly magical path I have followed ever since. Although The Healing Land (Dawid's title, not mine) does stay true to its original journalistic objective (it tells the story of the Xhomani land claim in South Africa, the eviction of Bushmen from Botswana's Central Kalahari Game Reserve by their government, and the struggle for autonomy among Namibia's Bushman clans), it became far more a book about healing.

At the centre of Bushman or KhoiSan culture is a concept called N/um (put a small click where the / is). The word can mean power, wisdom, healing, strength, or any combination of these words. It is also used - among clans scattered right across the vast Kalahari - to mean the healing energy activated during the trance, or healing dance. As old Dawid once told me: "We can lose the land, the game, the wild foods even - but if we lose the dance, then we disappear." And despite their ongoing persecution at the hands of both black and white colonial Africans, this healing ability, this N/um, has often given the Bushmen a value that has saved them from outright extinction. Aggressive cattle-owning tribes such as the Batswana, Herero and Bakgalagadi, as well as white ranchers, have taken the Bushman hunting grounds for their livestock, their women as concubines, their children as slaves, and their men as serfs - yet as one female healer from Botswana once laughingly told me: "It is us they come to see if they are sick, in love, or cannot have a baby."

But what was I doing in the Kalahari? Why was I exploring the Bushman reality, past and present? Old Dawid asked me this question one night on the dunes in South Africa's Kalahari Gemsbok National Park - an area that until the early 1970s had been his ancestral home, before he and his people were kicked out to make way for tourists. So I told him about my odd background: born to Southern African parents in London and brought up on a fund of stories about the place we came from, that we had left behind - stories that included an elusive, golden-skinned people who - my mother said - lived by hunting and never made war and sang to the stars. The stories had resonated deep. "Ah", said Dawid, holding up his hand. "So the mother had the vision before the sonů" The following morning he made me promise to bring her out to the Kalahari, to be present at a trance dance, to be conducted by a particularly powerful healer called Besa, in which Dawid would try to regain his own healing strength, lost through years of alcohol abuse and despair. This strength, he said, he needed if he was to see his clan - themselves riddled with the same weaknesses - through the process of reclaiming their lost land.

What followed is told in the book. The point of this website is not to retell the story but to take those interested in knowing more a little deeper. There are stories which I did not tell in The Healing Land, fearing that I was already stretching the credulity of Western readers far enough, and that to include every magical happening, every incident of healing, might come across as too 'New Agey", and therefore undermine the story, which would ultimately do the Bushmen a disservice and in turn undermine their own struggle for recognition both as healers and as people with basic human rights.

There are also links to other informative works about the Bushmen and the Kalahari, to the websites of the human rights NGOs (non government organizations) that are currently campaigning on their behalf, a regularly updated news page on the political situation in South Africa, Botswana and Namibia, as well as news of old Dawid and the rest of the Khomani clan. Finally there are also links to healing organizations and practices which offer a chance to experience something, within the Western framework, of what the Bushmen have been practicing since time began.

I hope you enjoy it.

Rupert Isaacson, author of The Healing Land

http://www.thehealingland.com/kalahari.htm