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The Heart of the Kalahari

What defines a 'place'? Is it its geographical loctaion? Is it its history? its nature and wildlife? The man-made structures and people who call it home? Or is it the climate, the scenery, the sunsets, and the sounds of crickets chirping during a summer evening? And perhaps it's a bit of this and a bit of that. But what if we took one of them out - would it become a different place?

XaiXai village - The Kalahari Desert, Botswana

Every time I get on the bus heading to a new place, I always have the same thoughts running through my mind – What will it be like? Will it meet my expectations? Will I succeed in what I came here to do? The same thoughts were dwelling in my mind during my trip from a small town in Botswana, named Ghanzi, to a smaller town named Nokaneng: That’s where my adventure was meant to start. After a short bus ride, followed by hitchhiking on the back of a small truck, I arrived at Nokaneng. The road kept on going north, passing through more towns, until it reached the border with the Caprivi Strip in Namibia. To my east was the main reason tourists come to Botswana – the Okavango Delta. It is the large, swampy delta of the Okavango river and home to many wild animals, making it a very popular Safari destination. But, neither the road north nor the Okavango delta to the east were the reasons for my arrival to Botswana. I was heading west, where the asphalt is replaced by dirt roads leading deep into the Kalahari Desert. That road junction is where I met Jobe, who was to become my guide, interpreter, photographer assistant, as well as my friend and conversation partner for the following month. After fixing up the car, filling up the gas, and loading in the gear, we set on our way. At the same road junction, just where the unpaved road starts, approximately 10 people walked towards our car, asking if they could jump on the back in order to get to their own destination the same day. The village that I had marked on my map months before that, was home to some of them. We started driving the 4-hour, 250-kilometer long road. The sun had already set. It was winter, and winter nights in the desert can be very cold, even more so for those sitting on the back of an open truck while driving in complete darkness. We stopped every 30 minutes or so, and sometimes a person would jump down because we had arrived at their home. “Are you OK?” I asked the people in the back. “We’re used to it”, they responded. We kept driving.

The village we were headed to is named XaiXai. I went there to meet the indigenous people of the Kalahari Desert and southern Africa, more known by the names of “Bushmen” or “San”, both given to them by the European settlers who had first arrived there in the 15th century. They are divided into smaller groups, mainly distinguished by a different language and territory. Each group has it’s own name, though they all share many cultural attributes, as well as a nearly identical appearance. The Bushmen (called “Basarwa” in Botswana) are known primarily for two things – The first is being the first inhabitants of southern Africa, probably the descendants of the people who remained there when all other Homo Sapiens started moving north, subsequently leaving Africa and spreading to the rest of the world. The second is the fact that they have maintained their traditional lives as hunter-gatherers longer than anyone else.

We arrived at XaiXai late at night. Jobe took me to one of his cousin’s yards, where I could open my tent for the night. We agreed to meet the next morning, when Jobe would help me find a Bushmen family who would not only accept me as a guest, but even more importantly, accept me as a photographer who would then document their lives in the following month. It was a quiet, cold night. Jobe arrived at approximately 7:00 AM “knocking” on my door. I was awake. We left shortly afterwards, first heading to meet the chief. It is essential to first introduce myself to the chief in person, Jobe had told me, and to explain the reason for my arrival. The village was much different during the day than it had been during the night. We walked through a small, seemingly unnecessary gate, behind which a small group of people were sitting. The chief was in the middle, next to her were the deputy, two police officers, and another guy from the village whom I didn’t know. She looked at us for a short moment, then went back to look at her phone - not the character that I had expected to see when meeting the chief of a Bushmen village. We then had a short conversation, most of which was me talking about and clarifying the purpose of my visit. The chief was very nice and inviting, as were the others sitting next to her. They welcomed me to stay in the village for as long as I needed and even recommended a family who might agree to take me in as their guest. After speaking for a few minutes, I thanked her and went on my way.

Indeed, when searching for the term “Bushmen”, you will come across many photos of people wearing animal skins, some carrying a bow and arrows or lighting a fire using sticks and friction. In reality, however, out of the approximately 100,000 Bushmen still alive today, only a handful still carry out the traditions of hunting and gathering, and none of them live a full life as hunter-gatherers. The arrival of Portuguese explorers in the 15th century, such as Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco Da Gama, to the shores of southern Africa marked the beginning of the change the Bushmen have had to face. By the mid 19th century, all of the Bushmen who lived in what today is known as South Africa had completely transformed their lives and ceased to exist as hunter-gatherers. The identical fate of the Bushmen who’ve lived in more northern territories (today’s Botswana and Namibia) was temporarily postponed, mainly because of the isolation and remoteness in which they lived deep in the Kalahari Desert. As a result of large numbers of Europeans arriving to southern Africa through the first half of the 20th century, those remote Bushmen communities have also started to go through a (not) gradual transformation and have put their hunter-gatherer lives behind them.

Not only white Europeans have affected the Bushmen of the Kalahari, but other African tribes, collectively called “The Black People” by the Bushmen, have also had an influence on their lives. The cultural clash with the white people coming from the southern shores and the African tribes coming from the north left no real chance for the Bushmen to preserve their traditions. The situation was quite similar in XaiXai. Despite being a minority in the village, there was another tribe living side by side with the Bushmen, that stood out immediately.

Jobe was one of them. He wasn’t a Bushman, even though his fluency in the local Ju|'hoan language might be misleading. Jobe is a Herero, one of those African tribes who migrated south from central and western Africa. They were indeed much darker in skin color than the Bushmen, and thus the nickname “Black People”. The Herero people are not hunters and have not been such for a very long time. They are pastoralists who herd goats and cattle, a way of life they have been living for centuries, and their arrival to the Kalahari has affected the Bushmen greatly. Jobe first took me to see one of the village elders, who was unsurprisingly named “The Old Man” by all the others. The Old Man, whose real name was Xixai, then told us he would have been happy to welcome me to his home. But, he was just about to travel to a town called Maun, where he would be demonstrating the Bushmen traditional dance in front of tourists who wished to see it, and would be returning after he got paid. I later discovered that these kind of “dancing missions” are given to some of the locals from time to time. We thanked him and wished him a safe journey. Jobe then took me to meet another one of the elders.

Kgao Qamme’s yard was right next to the place where I had spent my first night. He was sitting on his bed, which was outside next to the fireplace, and welcomed us. We talked for a few minutes, and I found my new home for the following month.

The Bushmen who live in XaiXai call themselves Ju|’hoansi*. There are roughly 10,000 of them alive today. Most live in Namibia, while the rest live in western Botswana. XaiXai is the second largest village in the area and is home to several hundred people. It has one primary school, a clinic, and a few very small, very over-priced grocery stores. I had the privilege of staying with one family for a whole month. During that experience, I witnessed happy and beautiful moments, alongside the difficulties and challenges a modern Bushmen family might need to face. This is only a fraction of one family’s life, in one village, as was seen through my eyes. Despite their historical similarities, different modern Bushmen communities in southern Africa live their lives differently, each according to its own geographic location, history and local political climate. However, many of the challenges, difficulties and day-to-day moments experienced by this family will be true for others as well, such as dealing with issues of alcohol, unemployment and school dropouts, as well as the struggle to neither lose their unique traditions, nor become enslaved by them either. It's important to understand that for the Bushmen, even today, the Bush is not just a place. For them, their bond to their land is like ours to our heart, and they have never left it, not once, since the beginning of our time as human beings (homo sapiens). Since this is an extended, widely branched family, the reference point for all family members will be Kgao Qamme, the head of the family and the one who welcomed me with a big smile on that sunny morning. The life of a modern Bushmen family, through my eyes, is presented in the following series of photos:

* The Ju|’hoan language (as do all other Bushmen languages) has a very complex phoneme system. It has tones, click consonants and a large number of vowels and (regular) consonants. Therefore, it is very difficult (or should I say, impossible) to use the regular Latin alphabet to properly transcribe words in the language. I’ve found that several orthographies have been created for the language, but, not being a speaker myself and having no one who uses those orthographies in the village, they were not of much help. When possible, I’ve tried to use any kind of formal documents (like maps or ID cards) for a reference to the correct way of writing names of people and places, but those were not always available. I’m sure mistakes in the proper way of naming people or items exist in the photo story, and any such mistake is mine alone. ** For those interested in understanding the history, culture and social background of the Bushmen, there are many books and articles available, as well as other photography works and short documentaries. I can recommend two books that have helped me a great deal in my own research before setting out to this journey: - The first is South African anthropologist James Suzman's Affluence Without Abundance: The disappearing world of the Bushmen, which also has a very helpful bibliography for further reading. - The second book is British journalist Sandy Gall's The Bushmen of Southern Africa: Slaughter of the Innocent, which provides a good historical account of the Bushmen, as well as information on more modern issues, in particular the evacuation of the Bushmen from Botswana's Central Kalahari Game Reserve in the late 1990's. - A third book, which is unavailable outside of Botswana but is still worth mentioning, is called Tears For My Land: A Social History of the Kua of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Tc'amnqoo. It was written by Kuela Kiema, a Bushman (or Kua, as some of them would prefer to be called) from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana, who gives a personal account of the events the have taken place in his homeland.

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