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Botswana’s Zu’Hoasi Tribe

Our Botswana expert, James Bescoby, headed to the vast Makgadikgadi Pan to meet the Zu/’hoasi Bushmen to get a glimpse of their unique way of life.

During my visit to Botswana, I fell in love with the relatively unknown area called the Makgadikgadi. It is a harsh but beautiful environment with some of the world’s largest salt pans. These salt pans began as a huge lake known simply as Lake Makgadikgadi but it has long since dried up, leaving behind an area which is roughly the size of Portugal.

The salt pans are at their best between April and November. Huge flocks of greater and lesser flamingos flock to the Makgadikgadi Pan in the earlier parts of the year while those visiting later will find this vast salt pan as its driest and most magnificent. It was the later part of the year that I arrived onto the Makgadikgadi Pan, and it took my breath away.

One of my most memorable experiences to date was an encounter with the Zu/’hoasi Bushmen. This ancient tribe of people have lived and thrived in this region for thousands of years. Looking around me I wondered how that could be possible in this harsh environment. As the modern world closes in on their ancient traditions, I am humbled that their traditional beliefs remain strong. There is a slow movement of modernisation happening within the Bushmen family; the younger children are attending university and school and can speak multiple languages as well as the Zu/’hoasi tongue; the general feeling is that this is a culture so unique it should be preserved and untouched from western civilizations. Yet, what the Zu/’hoasi Bushmen want is to merge with modern times. This seems like a positive step and this convergence gave me a glimpse into the life of a Bushman and I found it remarkable.

We began by following them on a walk across the pans. The men led, and the group followed, all walking single file. The air was dry and hot, the sun not yet at its peak. The two Bushmen guides were not the elders but rather the two who had been to school and university; an example of change within their tribe. They would be my translators and guides for this journey.

Being on foot in the bush provides you with a very different and real experience of Africa, you no longer have the protection a vehicle provides and on foot, everything is that much bigger and quieter. The sheer amount of knowledge the bushmen have is amazing: they showed me plants for eating, plants for poison and seeds for decoration. Everything seemed to have a use and if not, the Bushmen knew to avoid it. Watching them in this habitat was eye-opening, I questioned how they passed knowledge on from the adults to children? Did they teach them? At first my guides couldn’t understand the question and after some discussion it became clear why. The response was that the children learn by watching and living. I thought this was incredible and it made me realise how little I knew of the Bushmen and how much more I wanted to know.

We stopped for a rest and the women started to dig something up from the ground. At this point I wondered about the relationship of the men and women and I asked why the men didn’t help. The answer was simple, men are needed for protection and so their strength is not wasted on digging. Simple and elegant. It made me think that living in this harsh environment, these small margins might mean the difference between life and death.

The women dug this huge bulb up from the ground, it looked a little bit like a football sized turnip. After pealing back some of the skin and cutting a few strips, my guide gathered them up into a fist, positioned his hand above his mouth and squeezed. Liquid trickled out of his fist and into his mouth. A source of water! This was one of the ways the Bushmen had learned to survive in this dry environment. By recognising this species of tree, they were able to find water in the most scarce of places.

Once done, the bulb was put back into the ground and the pulp left on the surface for other species of wildlife to eat. Nothing wasted. I compared how we live and the waste that comes from a single household. The Bushmen have a symbiotic relationship with the land. The hunter gatherer lifestyle wastes very little and it shows me how much more we could learn from them.

I left the Bushmen with knowledge and questions and an experience I will never forget.

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