In March 2020, WildWise took part in an expedition to the Kalahari desert to meet with the Ju/’Hoansi San Bushman people, indigenous to the area. An intrepid group of students were recruited from WildWise’s Call of the Wild programme, together with Marcus Reynerson a senior tracker from the Wilderness Awareness School, America, who teaches our Wolf Tracking course. I also invited the remarkable Sam Lee, the BBC Radio 4 ‘Song Hunter’ presenter and folksong archivist who brought a treasure trove of old songs from Britain to exchange for some of the oldest (human) songs on the planet. Together we had raised funds to make our contribution to an extraordinary project that’s been conceived with the Ju/’Hoansi people and coordinated by Louis Lieberman since 1985, of which the details are described below.
To backtrack briefly, and because this trip was for me personally, the completion of a 30 year circle, I had been to the Kalahari desert once before, as part of a tri-lateral youth exchange programme in 1989, curated by the Findhorn Foundation. They were advertising for young people to raise money to take part in an exchange programme between radically different cultures. The idea was to bridge the gap between the East and West as the Cold War was ending, and similarly to narrow the economic/racial divide between the Northern and Southern hemispheres. 3 contingents of young people from Russia, Botswana and Britain were invited to visit each other’s wilderness, and to cultivate cross-cultural peaceful relations by living together on expeditions to the Kalahari, to Lake Baikal and to Snowdonia, Wales and Glen Affric, Scotland.
This is a whole different story of course, but suffice it to say, it was a very big experience for me at the age of 23, and a fundamental trajectory shift occurred for me in the Kalahari desert, and which led me directly onto a wildly different trail, and one which ultimately led to the founding of WildWise in 1999.
Little did I know that my return would be thirty years later, now in role as the guide for my students to have a potentially similar trajectory-altering experience. This time though, we were to gain a lot more exposure to the indigenous San Bushman people than we had had before, and this was to form the substance of the trip.
Thanks to Robin Bowman and courtesy of the Old Way that had paved the way, and of course the Ju/’Hoansi people, my students had been given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be hosted in the wilderness by the oldest culture on Earth, and be taken hunting and tracking and foraging and be taught traditional crafts and cultural practices. Part of the expedition design was to put something really positive into that community – more than just money. We went to value the San Bushman skills and traditions, and to hear their elders speak of the old ways. As long-term victims of a dismissive and indifferent apartheid, this aspect of valuing their culture was a key part of the initiative. Part of the rationale to recruit graduates from the Call of the Wild programme was their capacity to be inspired by wild places and indigenous wisdom, and so they were perfectly positioned to gather gold from their experience out there with which to fertilize their own communities back home. This indeed was an exceptional call to the wild for them, one that doesn’t come around very often - a dozen souls responded, ready for the adventure and responsibility.
Needless to say, in the stunning setting of an ancient, wild and remote desert, we arrived into the village full of trepidation, and bursting with excitement. There was humility and sensitivity too around the compounded and complex issues of white Westerners arriving ‘to help’.
All of that slowly evaporated as we merged into village life, and got aquainted with each other. They are a gentle and reserved people, but we were received with much warmth and gratitude for what we were providing. Slowly but surely the cultural gaps narrowed as we hunted and tracked and foraged, and then ate together in the evenings. We sang to each other, and ‘hung out’, we played games with the children, and entered the sweet terrain of discourse with the elders.
Every day became someone’s ‘best day of their life’, as we marinated under the scorching Kalahari sun, blessed by birdsong and desert flowers in rare bloom following rain, and slept under a confection of stars. It was like staying in a ‘million star hotel’, as Satish Kumar once said.
Each day we divided into subgroups to experience a traditional hunt with some of the master trackers, or to forage through the diverse desert, or learn some crafts. There is so much detail to every activity, and so much substance that more will have to be written in due course. Suffice it to say, the experience was profound and it was difficult to leave.
But when we did tearfully depart, the inevitable internet connectivity that we had blissfully lived without, informed us about the pandemic, and we had to abort the rest of our trip to scramble an emergency exit from Namibia before all the planes were grounded. This was a shocking re-entry, from the peace and tranquility of the desert, into the chaos and confusion of a world turned upside down. We made it out, just in time, but looking back now, with all the seismic events that have ensued in the Spring of 2020, it gives a poignant perspective on how far humanity has strayed from it’s original path, and from the Garden of Eden.
Reflecting now, on the back of the George Floyd tragedy, it seems astonishing that the threads of racism and persecution weave through such a long period of history, and that a slogan like ‘Black Lives Matter’ still has to be put to use in the 21st century. The Ju/’Hoansi people we met are such beautiful people and one of many small bands who form part of a cluster of San Bushman clans. There are very few of these extraordinary people left on Earth, having suffered the most appalling discrimination and exploitation, from colonisers of all colours and creeds over the last few generations. But they are still here, albeit clinging on precariously to their indigenous traditions, and we must now recognize the importance of preserving the oldest, continuous human culture on the planet, lest it perish on our watch, and be forgotten.
Our fundraising for this expedition, has directly supported the aims and objectives of Louis Liebenburg’s Global Vision project, to support indigenous people from around the world. The Nyae Nyae Conservancy where we were, is the last area in the whole of the Kalahari where indigenous San hunter-gatherers can still legally hunt with the traditional bow-and-arrow. In 2019 only 15 hunters were still actively hunting, a 90% decline in the last generation. It is crucial that this programme is supported to sustain traditional bow-and-arrow hunting and create employment opportunities that will maintain their exceptional skills.
In Botswana, traditional hunting has been banned, leaving some of the best Master Trackers with no means of subsistence. The last remaining Master Trackers need to be identified and taught new skills in animal track surveys and wildlife monitoring in order to create employment and thereby maintain their tracking skills for the future. This then is the Cyber Tracker programme. Read more here on both the perilous position of this ancient and incredible indigenous culture and the wider value of the Cyber Tracker project for indigenous people around the world. This programme shows how indigenous trackers can find new opportunities in a changing socio-economic context.
For a short film made whilst we were there interviewing Louis, visit here
Louis has also recently devised a new formula of bespoke visits to help preserve these old ways, and has trialed it twice in the last few years, with our visit being the third. The results have been instant and very positive indeed, with renewed activity in traditional skills within the San Bushman community. A vital new economy for them necessitates the continuation of skills and knowledge. Suddenly the younger generation are interested again, and want to learn from their elders. Louis hopes to scale up this model to other communities in the Kalahari, and then around the world.
Funds are critical, for this, and to help with a wretched TB problem that affects them so adversely. If you can spare anything at all for a donation to help, please visit the relevant page on the WildWise website, which you can go directly to by using this link - WildWise Namibia Fund
Thankyou for reading, and thankyou for your support.
For all our relations….
...All the amazing photos were taken by Sam Pelly