A Way of Life: Bushmen of the Kalahari

The Bushmen, often referred to as the San or, Basarwa in Setswana are the oldest inhabitants of Southern Africa, dating back to as far back as atleast 20,000 years ago. They are a diverse group of hunter and gatherer clans who have no collective name for themselves. In the 17th century, the Dutch coiled up the term Bushmen to refer to an ‘outlaw’, a term many of the Basarwa consider a compliment as it means they were brave and successful in their fight for freedom from domination and colonisation.

Like many clans/tribes who are the first People to inhabit other ‘countries’ in the world, Basarwa have the unfortunate history of – at superficial perspective – social rejection, poverty, cultural identity. Their wealth of knowledge for Southern Africa’s flora and  fauna is admired by even anthropologists, who have studied them at length. 

I narrate the story below based on my knowledge of living amongst the people at a tender age and will interchangeably use Setswana words where suitable.

At Home

The men are responsible for building the frame of the temporary dwellings (Mogoafatshe). Women collect long grass and then thatch the huts. 

Though the days can be extremely hot, temperatures often dramatically drop at night time. Fire is therefore a welcome necessity where the clan gathers and keeps warm on most evenings.

Evenings in Bushmen home - Bushmen of the Kalahari - Girl Gone Authentic
Inside Mogoafatshe - Bushmen of the Kalahari - Girl Gone Authentic
An escape from the scorching Kalahari sun inside the traditional hut (Mogoafatshe).
Kalahari Basarwa - Evenings around a fire - Girl Gone Authentic
Evenings around a fire are a cultural norm. A time for the clan to relax and bond through food, storytelling, song and dance.

Women and Children

In a close-knit Busmen community, children are treasured and often looked after by all. In particular, women devote much of their time to caring for their infants and toddlers.

Children are allowed the freedom to play as they wish. The bush is their playground, often exploring flowers, small animals and mimicking the adults. 

Bushemen of the Kalahari - Girl Gone Authentic
A woman applying the mark of a gemsbok to her child's forehead.
A way of life: Bushmen of the Kalahari - Girl gone Authentic

Food and Water

Hunters and gatherers, the Bushmen are remarkably skilled at surviving the harsh Kalahari conditions. 

Men hunt, while women gather. The ostrich egg is amongst the most prized delicacies; whopping up a large omelet and later using the shell as a water storage vessel, and sometimes in jewelry making. 

In a desert, water is hard to come by, especially during the dry season. Then the clans women have a sense of where to dig up the nourishing water root (kgengwe), and which wild melons to eat. Men often store water in ostrich eggs in different locations which they inherently remember. They also sense (go dupa) underground water and dig up small water wells which are often courteously shared. 

Bushmen carrying ostrich Eggs home - Girl Gone Authentic
After collecting ostrich eggs, they are bundled up and carried home in a way that ensures their fragility is preserved.
Ostrich Egg - Bushmen of the Kalahari
Ostrich egg is delicately drilled so that it can later store water.
Cooking omelet - Bushmen of the Kalahari
Cooking an ostrich egg omelet.
Water storage - bushmen of the Kahalahari - Girl Gone Authentic
Sourcing ground water and storing it in ostrich shells.
Wildfruit - Bushmen of the Kalahari -Girl Gone Authentic
A woman carrying a large leather bag filled with wild fruit for the clan.
wild fruit - bushmen of the Kalahari- Girl Gone Authentic
Woman harvesting wild berries (moretwa).

Harvesting wild honey high up on a Baobab tree an then fairly distributing it amongst the clansmen, women and children. The Bushmen have a special relationship with the honey guide bird which helps them find it. When sighted, they will follow it to the bees, smoke the hive, harvest honey and the bird will feast on larvae and wax. 

Daily Life

Life is simple and nothing goes waste. You could say there is a fair division of labor where men, women and children each have a vital role to play in the community. 

Tortoise, rare to come but a highly appreciated delicacy when it does, gives up its shell to be used as bowl. Hunted animal skin dresses the people. Simple bows and arrows are carved from sticks and then insect poison used to feed the clan. 

Simple musical tools entertain the people and finally, healing the clan is a sacred ordeal performed in song, dance, trance at least once a week around a fire. 

The Bushmen share folklore on creation, regarding the praying mantis as a strong symbolism for the beginning of all human life. They have no chief or hierarchies because of the believe that each man is born free and as ruler of self. Life, is to be experienced as it is, happiness and peace are not tied to materials or the superficial self worth of becoming.

Carefully carving a new bow.
A man pleased with his tortoise catch - a lucky find.
Women play the thumb piano (setinkane).
A man plays the 5 stringed pluriarc (segaba)
A woman cuts strings of hide which will be used for tying up bundles and making beaded jewelry.
Medicine man uses a traditional antelope horn to suck out illness from his patient.

Image Source: Bannister, A. and Lewis-Williams, D., 1991. Bushmen: A Changing Way of Life. Cape Town: Struik.

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