The Last Bushmen

The Last Bushmen

The Last Bushmen


When the first Dutchmen arrived in southern Africa they encountered a yellow-skinned race of hunter-gatherers that spoke in clicks. They called them Bushmen. Thousands of years ago, the click speakers were thought to have populated all of sub-Sahara Africa, but being naturally docile and unwarlike they were gradually rolled back and their numbers shrank as they came into contact with other more aggressive ethnic groups. In 1650, the Dutch settlers estimated 300,000 Bushmen existed. By the end of the 20th century only 20,000 remained, mostly living in the Kalahari Basin, but even they were fast disappearing. Curious to get to know more about them before they became extinct, in October 1990 Lucia Kaeppeli and I decided to spend a week living among the last of the Kalahari click speakers.

The world’s leading Bushman expert was South African paleoanthropologist Phillip Tobias (1925-2012) of the University of Witwatersrand. But the person who had the most contact with them was Izak Barnard, a Transvaal farmer and son of the infamous ivory hunter known as Bvekenya – the “One Who Swaggers”. In 1964, Izak founded Penduka Safaris. Penduka is a Herero greeting that translates as “Did you get up well this morning?” Izak based Penduka on his farm at Delareyville, a town of 1600 people in the North West Province, 174 miles west of Johannesburg, where we went to meet him.

A pioneer in the mobile safari business, Izak’s principal rolling stock was a 1968 International truck. He found the body and chassis in a scrap yard at Windhoek, and transformed them into a double-cab vehicle ideal for off-road travel. That vehicle together with three other Internationals of the hardy 1310 series, all equipped with five-litre V8 engines and four-speed T19 gearboxes, are still ferrying visitors to the outback. Since Izak’s death in 2011, Penduka is run by son Willelm and wife Sally, based at Maun in Botswana. You can visit the Penduka website here.

“Nothing exists on the market that can match these trucks,” Izak told us when we arrived at his farm. As we still had 300 miles to travel that day he was anxious to get underway. The 3-ton International and trailer had been loaded with 90 gallons of gas, 100 gallons of water, food for a week, most of it stored in a 450-litre freezer, a mobile generator and $800 worth of gifts for the Bushmen – six sacks of corn meal, 300 packets of tobacco, 50 kg of sugar, 144 packs of coffee, 62 packs of tea, 25 kg of salt, 50 bars of soap, six axes and 30 tins of Vaseline for the women.

Although commonly referred to as desert because of its almost total lack of surface water, most of the Kalahari – which means “Great Thirst” in Tswana – is arid savannah with various depths of wind-blown sand held together by drought-resistant vegetation. From a geological point of view the 1.2 million-square-kilometre (463,000-square-mile) Kalahari Basin is one of the largest continuous areas of sand in the world – covering most of Botswana, parts of Namibia and some northern bits of South Africa.

Our destination was Diphuduhudu (meaning “Place of the Steenbok”) in central Botswana. Izak had first visited the area in June 1963, when asked by a Moravian missionary to repair a local water pump. “I was young at the time and believed the Bushmen lived little better than animals. I found instead a shy and gentle people – very refined and cultivated in their own way. After spending time with them, I was allowed to participate in their hunting expeditions in the veld. They had no possessions other than the instruments required for their survival, fashioned from materials that exist naturally in the veld. If they had enough to eat they were happy.”

Izak began exploring the central Kalahari with the Bushmen, travelling on foot with water and supplies carried by donkey. “When I first went into the Kalahari the Bushmen I encountered ran away,” he explained. “They spoke San click. Later, when I took some from Diphuduhudu to visit another group living 70 miles to the west they couldn’t understand each other although both spoke dialects of San click.

“As our relationship deepened they came to trust me and began teaching me their Bushcraft, like identifying spoor, setting traps, knowing which plants were edible, where to find water and how to prepare poison for their arrowheads. That’s when I realized how sophisticated their culture really was – a culture that had enabled them to survive in the Kalahari for thousands of years without damaging the environment.”


Most people have a false impression of the Bushmen, says Izak. “Everyone thinks they are little people who sneak about the bush near naked, carrying a quiver full of poisoned arrows. But there are many different clans of Bushmen. Some are six foot tall and specialize in hunting gemsbok with dogs and spears. Their dogs chase the gemsbok, barking at it. The gemsbok turns to fight instead of running away. While the dogs distract it a bushman manages to grab its horns so that another can stab it in the neck.”

We arrived at Diphuduhudu at around 5:30 p.m., driving up the broad bed of a fossilised river. Suddenly a young man – Izak called him John – jumped from the bush onto the International’s hood. We continued for another 500 metres until arriving at a giant acacia tree. Almost instantly a crowd gathered to greet us. They had glowing faces, some of the youngsters were playing with bows and arrows, many were blowing bubble gum. Izak explained that a bubble gum factory was one of three industries that Zimbabwe President Mugabe had succeeded in convincing to help build the economy of Botswana’s northern neighbour.

Sixty families live at Diphuduhudu. They are members of the Bakwa tribe (meaning “People Who Are There”). When Izak first visited the settlement only 40 families lived there, but others arrived after he paid a Norwegian contractor to sink a new borehole. On his first trip, he drove for three days up and down the dry riverbed before spotting a family hiding in the bush. They had run away when they heard the sound of the motor. First to appear was Modumo, whose name means “Noise”, then timidly his wife with Iponeng, their infant daughter, now aged 25. “They fell flat on the ground when I approached. They spoke San click but a few could speak Tswana so I could communicate with them in Tswana.”

He explained that southern Africa had been hit by declining rainfall for a decade. Waterholes were drying up. “When I arrived the Bushmen were about to abandon their dried-up waterhole and trek to another. They had no possessions and were dressed in skins. I got out my camera to photograph them and realised I held in my hands more material wealth than all of them combined.

“Above all, they wanted a new borehole. Nothing is more important than a supply of clean water. I paid my friend Lindstrom to come and sink two boreholes through the 600-metre basalt crust, tapping into a pocket of 30,000-year-old fossil water. Once the boreholes were functioning the government decided to settle additional Bushmen here and gathered them in from miles around. The government built them cement block houses and gave each family three to four hectares of desert to farm, even showed them how to plough, using Czech-made ploughs that were no bloody good. I brought them goats and donkeys to carry water. The girls still had to gather tubers and wild vegetables. Nevertheless, it represented a step forward. In the old days a few of them worked as occasional labourers for Tswana farmers. Now they are learning to farm for themselves. It will take a couple of generations before they get the knack of it. One of the more enterprising families does quite well cultivating wild melons.”

Development has a downside. Aid creates dependence. The Botswana government unwittingly has caused havoc with its borehole policy, attempting to upgrade living standards by sinking boreholes and building around them houses, clinics, schools and stores. “Alas, within months the supply of traditional food becomes exhausted and the authorities are forced to provide them with survival rations. As a result, the hunter-gatherer instincts decline after settling in squatter-type camps for they quickly forget how to live off the veld. When the Tswana bottle shops arrive many succumb to alcohol abuse.”

An hour and a half remains before nightfall. Everyone pitches in, unloading the trailer, setting up the mess tent, gathering wood and lighting a fire, levelling ground for the sleeping tents, clearing pathways, stringing up an electric lamp connected to a car battery. Tables, chairs and beds all appear and with dusk the singing of crickets and braying of donkeys becomes intense.

In the morning we are awoken by a serenade of birdsong. Five elderly hunters are waiting to show us their survival techniques. Reaseokwa, whose name means “His Father is the Man Whose Father Still Lives”, is bald with a tattered brown-striped roll-neck sweater. He is married to Masciokwa – “Mother who is There” – and they have a daughter called Fixi. Xamgau – “One Who Catches Steenbok” – wears a blue jacket over a white T-shirt that lost its shape many moons past. Xhabazar – “Arrow” – has a scar on his stomach and is dressed in a threadbare brown sweater. He is the brother of “One Who Catches Steenbok”. Koraroradue – “He Who Cooks Eland Meat” – has a grey beard that renders him the most distinguished looking of the group. Lehetlho – “Stick that Stirs the Porridge” – wears a black Skanska cap, and he too is dressed in brown. Bushmen are usually named after some event that occurred at their birth.


Their first task is to gather sansiera root for making hemp used in setting the steenbok traps. Steenbok abound in the area. The small antelope stands about 50 cm at the shoulder, has long broad ears and weighs 10 to 12 kilos. After thousands of years observing them the Bushmen know that the best place to catch a steenbok is where it marks its territory. The animal has a gland under the eye that secretes a greasy substance, which it rubs on the lower branches of the trees where it leaves its scat. The Bushmen can smell the scent and see the hairs on the branches. The steenbok covers its scat with sand, always near the boundary of its kilometre-square territory.

Sansevieria – also called “mother-in-law’s tongue” – is a fibrous root from which they make hemp for bowstrings and cord for the snare traps. They only pick plants they know have moist roots – the previous year’s growth is too brittle. When they have sufficient shoots they return to camp to make the hemp. After removing the outer edges, they scrape the flesh from the fibres, then knot together fibres from two leafs and entwine them. They continue splicing and twining until they have the length desired.

A three-metre long branch is selected from a shepherd’s tree (Boscia albitrunca) to serve as the mainspring. Once a marking is found, the mainspring is planted and a hole dug for the snare. Steenboks are active from late afternoon through the night and make the rounds of their territory every three days. The hunters chatter amongst themselves as they build the trap. “They can talk for hours on end about nothing,” says Izak. In fact they discuss the tracks – here they’re going north. These are several days old but those are fresh. “It’s all about common sense. They know how the animals think and behave. They can tell you where the tracks are going and why the animal is going there.”

Red-crested korhaan

The hunters returned next morning to show us how they build bird traps. Specifically, they target the red-crested korhaan, a three-toed floor nester about the size of a hen. To lure the korhaan they use as bait either tree gum or berries of the mutsatsotmgna shrub (Grewia retinervis), depending on the season. As the gum tree sap is not yet running, they opt for berries. They select a place where the korhaan nests. A looped branch is used for the mainspring. A trip lock is attached that actions a noose fitted over a circle of twigs planted in the ground, adding the berry bait. Sand and twigs are scattered about. While they are working we hear the high-pitched call of a korhaan. “It’s hysterical because a vulture is circling nearby,” says Lehetlho.

It takes 15 minutes to build a trap, using materials found within a 50-metre radius. They banter nonstop while the work is in progress. But their apparent contentedness, according to Izak, masks an underlying malaise. The younger generation is not interested in the lore of their fathers. The kids being illiterate, subsistence farming is the only activity open to them. They are otherwise unemployable and because of the government’s sedentarisation programme their social traditions are falling apart. They don’t have access to higher-paid jobs, therefore they must be content with living no better than the lowest Tswana.

Community decisions are taken collectively. There is no crime to speak of as Bushmen have few possessions. Murder is unheard of. If a person’s behaviour is judged offensive, he is told to shape up or leave. If unrepentant the offender is banished. The dead are buried under the floor of their huts or under the hearth. They are buried on their sides in a foetal position, with their bow, arrows and digging stick broken in two, like Cro-Magnon man in Europe. Women wear jewellery made from wood, berries or dead beetles.

Izak estimates that only 300 Bushmen families still live as hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari. They are surrounded by 8 million Zulus, 10 million Xhosas and Bantus, and 3 million Tswanas. That, he says, is the arithmetic of extinction.

While the hunters set their traps, Kua, a local artist – his name means “Duiker”, smallest of the antelope family – comes to the mess tent to draw for us the Bushmen’s version of Creation. He is quiet and meticulous. His drawing depicts that in the beginning the great goddess Tuntunbolosa ruled the world. Her husband was Xaumsekajuba, a hunter who invented the bow and arrow. The only other living creatures were the hyena and the ostrich, who hid the secret of fire under its wing. Tuntunbolosa gave birth to two worthless sons, Bise and Parabise. Taught by his father, Bise became a good hunter. Parabise was a lazy trickster who one day stole all his mother’s bees. When she scolded Parabise for refusing to work he rose up in anger and struck her. She was pregnant with the whole world. Mortally wounded, she called for help but no one came to her assistance. Her husband, Xaumsekajuba, was away hunting. The ostrich flew up into a tree and wouldn’t budge. The hyena licked his chops, looking forward to eating her flesh. She laid a curse on all of them. She condemned Parabise to become a praying mantis that eats only other insects and is unable to have sex. Frustrated, to inseminate herself the female cannibalises her mate. Next she condemned the hyena to live as an outcast, eating only carrion. The ostrich, unlike all other birds known to Bushmen was condemned to walk and never to fly. Overcome with guilt and anger at his fate, Parabise killed his brother by chewing off his head. After she died, Tuntunbolosa’s spirit was transformed into a mantis eternally taking revenge upon her son by cannibalising him. She remains worshipped to this day by all Bushmen.

As Tuntunbolosa lay dying she gave birth from her open stomach to all the creatures on earth. Since the world was new its soil was still soft and the creatures left their imprints on the rocks as they trailed off. The site of Creation was relatively near Diphuduhudu, at a place where Bushmen artists have painted images of animals on rock. Before this tragedy occurred, Xaumsekajuba luckily stole the secret of fire from under the ostrich’s wing by taking the bird out to gather berries from the moretlwa tree. These berries are sweet and delicious. Once they had eaten all the berries on the lower branches, the greedy ostrich was still hungry and wanted more. “Lift up your wing and pull down the branches,” Xaumsekajuba suggested. When the ostrich did, Xaumsekajuba plucked the fire from its nest and ran off with it, bringing the secret of heat and light to the rest of the world.

Kua was proud of his work and pointed out the details he had set to paper – the pregnant Tuntunbolosa pulling the clouds out of the sky in which the moon, stars and stolen bees reside. And here she is a praying mantis about to devour her miserable son. The wingless ostrich, a giraffe and gemsbok are also featured in his sketch. Curiously Kua signs himself as EAPI.

After lunch the hunters show us how to make poison for their arrows. They look for a small Sand Corkwood bush on whose branches the Chrysomelid beetle lives. This insect has a three-phased life cycle. When the larvae left on the leaves pupate they fall to the ground and bury themselves inside a cocoon in the sand.

The Bushmen dig for the larvae grubs, collecting them in a poison pot. They roll the larvae in their hands, nip off the heads and squeeze out the juices. Juice from eight to ten grubs is needed for one arrowhead. The poison is deadly. It is estimated that the juice of several grubs can kill 10,000 rats. A giraffe can take three days to die, and a wildebeest two to three days. While the animal agonises it must be tracked. The poison makes it haemorrhage to death by destroying the red blood cells. After handling the poison, the hunters are careful to thoroughly wash their hands. They take the poison pots with them on hunting expeditions. The poison retains its potency for a year.

The hunters begin stalking their prey in the late afternoon when the animal starts grazing. Towards sundown the moisture rises from the roots into the blades of grass and leaves that the animal consumes. Grazers get most of their moisture from the grass or plants they eat. They keep on munching until dawn, then select a tree to stand under for the rest of the day and start to dose. Three or four Bushmen creep up on it, sometimes taking hours to stalk their prey. When close enough, they pop out of the bush, one arrow already strung in their bow and another between their teeth, and pounce on the unsuspecting beast. Their bows have a range of 30 metres. Once struck, the animal saunters off and they give chase to insure that the poison circulates. Izak once participated in a hunt when they chased a wounded wildebeest for three days over a distance of 70 miles. After the first day, other predators – lions, hyenas, wild dogs and vultures – pick up the scent and join the pursuit. Once the prey becomes too weak, the Bushmen must slaughter it quickly before the other predators rob them of their prize. Some of the meat they dry in trees and cook other parts in the sand. They eat the maggot-infested meat after two days, savouring it with relish.

After returning to camp Fixi arrives with news that the boys have caught a mongoose. They want us to come and see. Off we trek for half a kilometre to a place booby-trapped with dozens of expertly engineered snares, each placed outside a mongoose warren. In one of the traps a poor mongoose is hanging by its neck, terrified and trembling, his beady eyes full of fear. The boys are immensely pleased. They baited the traps with woodborer larvae. “We know every hole, every bush, everything that goes on here. This is our territory,” they chanted. They beat the mongoose senseless with sticks and bring it to camp to spit and roast.

That evening the younger Bush people trail into camp to sing and dance around the campfire. The most popular ditty is titled Mother Buy Me an Apollo 11, composed after Izak told them about man-made satellites that circle the earth and could be seen streaking across the skies on a clear night.

Next morning 20 young ladies were assigned to show us how they gather wild bulbs and tubers. They are wearing steenbok skin aprons, some carrying babies in slings on their back. All are equipped with digging sticks. Within an hour they had found a couple of kilos of edible bulbs, wild turnips and cucumbers.

One of the tubers – Rhaphionacme burkei – they scrape and mix with a leaf to produce a pulpy mush from which they squeeze mouthfuls of clear liquid. One young girl plucks a bird’s nest out of a thorn bush. The nest contains a half-dozen miniature eggs that she pops one-by-one into her mouth, shell and all, as if eating candies.

Hernia fruit, a member of the esclipia family, is considered a great delicacy. Ground-growing, when a bush is found they pounce upon its fruit. Mamokweni, handsome mother of a year-old infant, takes the Rhaphionacme burkei bulb and grates it to a pulp. She chews some Terminalia serecia leaves to mix with it, reducing the alkaloid content, then squeezes it to produce cups of a porridge-like liquid, some of which she feeds to her baby. They carry the remainder of the vegetables back to camp and bury them in the sand by the campfire and after a half-hour extract, peel and eat them.

Now it is the turn of Reaseokwa and Masciokwa to show us how they build a shelter. They select a site under an umbrella acacia and set about collecting the necessary materials – bundles of tall grass for thatch and dead branches for the structure. They talk softly to each other as they work and within two hours the shelter is standing and finished, with inside a metre eighty of headroom. The structure appears sturdy, an impression that Lucia confirms by stepping inside.

For our final day Izak shows us the original pan occupied by the Bakwa tribe. First we stop at the new settlement to visit the water pump, a school that’s still under construction and several cement block huts. Fixi comes with us, sitting up front for the 90-minute drive down a lava-filled riverbed to the Maspaakukama pan. Known as the “Place of the Gemsbok”, it was once the centre of the Bakwa lands and also the site of the original waterhole. The acacia trees around its edge are all dead, making it seem a sinister place. We see no gemsbok but quantities of fresh droppings. Gemsbok is the biggest member of the antelope family, weighing up to 200 kg. Its horns are the longest of the Oryx species. Along the way we see duikers, steenbok and ostriches. Fixi can spot them running from kilometres away. We also spot dozens of red-crested korhaans that cluck like war drums when they take flight.

Returning to the village we fill our water tanks. The borehole has an 11,000-litre hourly capacity but pumps only 2,500 litres per hour during daytime and is shut off at night. Goats, donkeys and dogs gather to drink while village girls carrying buckets on their heads come to fetch water for their huts. This borehole is 612 metres deep, Izak had to fight to have it classified as reserved for distant rural dwellers, known as “rads” in government-speak. “The government refuses to call them Bushmen. Native populations must have suits and briefcases to count as people. Otherwise they’re a rad,” says Izak. The new school will only be opened in four months. Previously the villagers sent their children to school at Ngware, about 30 km to the east, but it burned down a year before and several children were said to have died in the fire. Consequently, the children of Diphuduhudu have not returned to school since then.

Izak checks the pumps and repairs them if necessary. When the pump at Dinodjani, a nearby Tswana village, broke down the Tswana drove their cattle to water at Diphuduhudu. The land around Dinodjani has since become overgrazed so Izak figures it will not be long before the Tswana start encroaching on Bushman territory with their thirsty herds.

At Dinodjani the cattle sometimes have to wait two hours to drink because the water trough is too small and no one has thought of installing a bigger trough. If the Tswana come to Diphuduhudu they will bring with them a lengthy list of bad habits, like beer and cigarettes. Already the government has passed a law forbidding Bushmen from wearing skins. Soon, Izak predicts, there will be a Tswana store in Diphuduhudu that sells beer and other items the Bushmen do not need. Gradually – indeed rather fast in all probability – they are destined to be trampled by the Tswanas and condemned to remain second-class herder-helpers. It is written in the Kalahari sands, says Izak.

That afternoon John and Shorty bring their homemade guitars to camp. The sound boxes are fashioned from 5-gallon BP Energol cans. As it is our last evening, villagers bring their handicrafts to sell, setting up an impromptu market. The items on display include painted ostrich eggs, hunting kits, woodcarvings and pelts. Izak will also pay them for showing us their way of life. He will then distribute his load of gifts: axes for the hunters, tobacco, soap, salt, sugar, flour, tea and coffee, enough for every household. The cash and kind injection into their economy represents about $2,500. Izak brings up to five parties a year to Diphuduhudu. He is keeping the village alive. He sees a bleak future for the Bushmen. They have the vote but no representation. Only one half-breed is a member of parliament. “The curious thing,” he says, “is that they aspire to live like the Tsawana – to own cattle and have a cash economy. As soon as they have cattle they have no more big game. A cash economy means possessions and possessions bring envy. Already fights have broken out over possessions. It presages the end of the Bushmen.”

A couple of Tswana realise this is Izak’s present-giving day and have come snooping about, hoping for a cash handout or some gifts. Izak sends them packing. They are extremely bitter. “We’ll be back,” they shout in Tswana.