We drove east out of Windhoek through treed flats, spotting wild wart hogs and hartebeest along the road. We made a pit stop at a gas station right before the Botswana border, and when Raymond went to start the truck to leave, it wouldn't start. Turned out that the makeshift repair job the guys did on the battery when we broke down at the Tropic of Capricorn last week wasn't quite good enough. But the manly men of the truck worked their magic and had us on our way again soon.
The border crossings in Africa are interesting - unlike at home, you actually have to clear customs to leave one country, drive across the border through no man's land, and then clear customs again to enter the new country. As our luck would have it, the truck broke down again at the Namibia border crossing, so on the Botswana side (the Transkalahari Border Post), we finally got smart and left the engine running. The road was long and straight (but paved!) headed east, but all there was to look at was bushes on both sides of the road and the occasional horse, cow, and donkey grazing on the shoulder. Two hundred kilometres later, we turned onto a narrow dirt road and bounced through some pretty desolate bush land for about 20 minutes before arriving at a camp site that appeared out of nowhere. There were little thatched mud huts to sleep in, a big fire pit, and little thatched room stick buildings with showers and flush toilets. It was relative luxury in the middle of the Kalahari Desert - amazing!
The San Bushmen are the indigenous people who were some of the first to settle in Namibia and Botswana thousands of years ago. They are the ones you've seen in documentaries in National Geographic, and in the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy. Medium brown skin, short black hair, loin cloths and simple garments made out of animal hides, beaded jewellry, and the most expressive and knowing faces you've ever seen. Few of these natives remain, but some of them do live within a few kilometres of the camp. We were lucky enough to have the chance to go on a walk in the bush with them to learn about how they survive, and have survived for thousands of years, in the desert. Six of them joined us, who were members of two families - aunts, cousins, and a young teenage girl with her boyfriend/husband. They speak the traditional "clicking" language, which is fascinating to listen to, so they had a guy named Robert come along to translate. As we marched off into the scrubby bush land behind the camp, the teenage girl stepped forward and introduced herself and her family and friends. Without knowing a word of english, she stepped up to each of us and shook our hands as we told her our names and where we're from - which she tried to repeat. Very admirable, I thought! As we wandered, they stopped occasionally to plop down on the ground, start digging with a stick, and emerge a few minute later with some sort of root or plant that they use on an every day basis for everything from upset stomachs to arthritis and from headaches to contraception. Most roots would be boiled and made into tea, but some leaves and grasses were simply eaten, and other plants were grated or pounded to release a liquid or dye, for example, for tanning animal hides.
As a nomadic society, the San people had decided thousands of years ago that there would be a maximum allowable number of children set at three per family so that it was practical to lead a nomadic lifestyle, even with children. If you ended up with three children of the same gender though, you were allowed one more chance to produce a child of the opposite sex. As a result of this custom, they discovered a root that could be mixed with water and consumed that acted as a contraceptive for women. Recently, though, Botswana has been very open and proactive about educating people about sexual heath, family planning, and HIV/AIDS prevention, to the extent that they are providing even these primitive tribes with modern birth control pills and condoms. I read a statistic that approximately 40% of Botswana's young women are HIV-positive, and that by 2010, the average life expectancy will be only 27 years. Botswana's population is actually shrinking by 1% per year thanks to AIDS, and in 20 years, they predict that there will no longer be a working force in the country. It's all very sad.
Back to the walk - one of the men pulled out two roots from the ground. One, when chewed, is powerful enough to abort a pregnancy. The other is even more potent, and will permanently sterilize a woman. This was the same root used for tanning animal hides! We wondered if any of theses plants are used in western medicine, as they are natural and so powerful? The popular Hoodia weight loss supplement marketed in North America was discovered and used by the San Bushmen as they needed an appetite supressant for their long hunting trips. I read that they have recently been compensated millions of dollars by the Namibian government for their share of the profits derived from its sale.
One of the women dug around a scrawny little weed and unearthed an enormous spherical root that was about the size of a volley ball. This water tuber, when grated and squeezed in your hands, releases an amazing amount of water and lathers up into a soap-like froth that they use for bathing. Finally, the two men laid a stick across a small bundle of dry grass and rubbed a stick bacck and forth between their hands until the base of the stick began to smoke, and pretty soon the whole pile of grass was on fire! We looked at the nondescript desert bushes much differently as we walked back to camp, and felt both amazed at the resourcefulness of these people and somewhat guilty for living in such a privileged and easy society. Unfortunatley, these traditional customs and survival skills are dying out both as modern conveniences like water wells and purchased meat make life easier, as well a their lack of interest by the young generation of San to learn about their culture.
After dinner, we were invited to watch a traditional session of song and dance around the campfire. They clapped and sang as several people stomped rhythmically around the fire, wearing rattling seed pods around their ankles like maracas. Each song had a particular meaning - celebration after a kill, good luck after an unsuccessful hunting trip, lulling a baby to sleep, celebrating a girl's entry into womanhood, and watching baboons mating. Some of them were pretty entertaining, especially the last one!
We really enjoy learning about new cultures, and it certainly enriches a visit to a foreign place like this.