Hunting and Tokin’ – Mornings with the Bushmen

June 30, 2012 § 1 Comment

At the beginning of the year, I made a list of all the things I wanted to do in 2012. Going hunting at least once was on the list. Never in my wildest imaginings could I have predicted that I would be doing it with African bushmen wearing baboon skins and using homemade bows and poisoned arrows. So often my life dreams bigger for me than I can for myself.

We woke up early – 4:30 am – and piled in the Land Rover. Steve, Laurence and I shared a narrow bench laid across the back of the truck bed, while Shobani drove and Shenaika and Fatimah shared the front seat. They were lucky to be in front. The back portion of the vehicle is a truck bed covered by canvas and the bench is just that – a bench. The roads are pretty bad and the shocks aren’t very good, so it can be quite a wild ride. Normally I like it. It’s fun and it keeps long rides from being boring. Plus, the guys always sit in the back since the girls usually sit in the cab. I would rather be sitting in the back with the guys and joking around.

This time I wouldn’t have minded the front. The drive out to Lake Eyasi, where the bushmen live, was two hours of cold air, bumpy roads and DUST. So much dust. We had to pull our shirts up over our mouths and noses, put our sunglasses on in the darkness and bend over to try to cover our faces with our arms and knees. It was like being in a two hour Arizona haboob/dust storm. When we got out of the car, the dust on our backs was no joke a millimeter deep. That’s a lot of dust. When we got back to the hotel that afternoon and I was able to blow my nose for the first time, literal mud came out.

We arrived at the bushmen site around 7 in the morning. When we walked up, the men were all sitting around a fire smoking weed and talking. Bushmen love ganja more than probably anything else. It is the only gift that you should really bring them, unless you’re going to kill a buffalo for them or something, and it’s the only form of payment they accept for taking visitors on their hunts. There were about ten males around the campfire, including some young boys. Everybody smokes.

Before we left to go hunting, they showed us how to make fire using a piece of soft wood and a long stick. The cut a small notch in the soft wood and wedge the stick in it. Then they just turn it and turn it and turn it until it starts to smoke and makes an ember. From there they can build a fire. They let me try and I was able to get it to smoke!

The bushmen are a very interesting tribe. They are nomadic and live in caves or plain nature without tents, blankets, pots or anything else. They subsist completely on hunting, drinking from streams, etc. For clothing they wear baboon skins and some cloth they traded with another tribe. Meeting them is like looking through a window into a time pre-Copper Age or something when all people had was wood and stone. Despite all the hardships their lifestyle brings, they refuse to be modernized. Any and all attempts made by the government, missionaries or NGOs over the past fifty years have been equally rejected. The government tried to take some of the children to a school to be educated and they escaped and disappeared back into the bush with the tribe. They’re friendly and don’t mind interacting with the world that they’re fully aware exists, they just prefer their lifestyle. They accept visitors… as long as you pay them with marijuana.

We learned that the tribe faces a variety of health problems and struggles due to drinking untreated water from lakes and rivers, eating raw meat, worms, malaria and other similar afflictions. They also suffer frequently from malnutrition.

We were briefly introduced to the women, who are kept separate from the men during the day. Not much to say about that – a bunch of women sitting in a cave with the small children. I don’t envy them. It looks boring. If I’m born a bushman in my next life, I want to be born male.

Once we met the women, we started out on our hunt. It was a long walk through an uphill quartz field, then down a stone mountainside, then through a baobab tree and acacia forest, then through some sort of brush with a sand floor. It was hard work since the pace was somewhere around a light jog and the ground alternated between very, very rocky and deep, soft sand.

Watching them hunt was quite an experience. They’ve hunted together so many times, I’m guessing most of the day every day for the span of their lives, that they automatically spread out and coordinate using a series of whistles and sound signals.

Their bows and arrows are homemade out of wood, feather and metal traded with a different tribe. They use animal tendon to make the string of the bow. There are three types of arrows: sharpened stick, metal tip, and poisoned metal tip. The poisoned metal tip is made from the tar of a rare tree and will kill a buffalo in twenty minutes.

It took them about thirty minutes to shoot down two birds. They eat all animals except hyenas. Hyenas are off the menu because they dispose of their dead by leaving the bodies in the open for hyenas to eat. Hyenas are scavengers, like vultures, so it’s a great way to dispose of a corpse. Naturally this means hyenas wouldn’t make a great meal since, for all they know, they might also be eating their beloved grandmother.

As soon as they had the birds they made camp in the shade of a giant baobab tree. Some of them started the fire while another began ripping feathers out of the bird and sticking some of them in his hair. He slashed the bird open from neck to stomach and sort of turned it out to expose more of the insides.I was very surprised at how normal this seemed to me. All I felt was curiosity, gratitude for the bird, and maybe a little hungry. Maybe I should take up hunting? It’s so interesting to learn things about yourself that you didn’t expect. After the bushmen cooked it in the fire for a while, they came around with a chunk of bird and a bloody knife, offering everybody a bite of meat to eat. It was fully cooked, so I accepted and ate some. Only one other person from our group did so.

My willingness to eat weird foods, try new things and live the same as everyone else here without comment has earned me the high praise of “African mzungu.” It means that even though I’m white, Western and a woman, I’m accepted. It’s nice to know that I really am as flexible as I hoped I would be and that people here are willing to accept me even though I will always be foreign to some degree. Some of the people I was with on the excursion remarked afterward that they pitied the bushmen and their challenging lifestyle. This didn’t make sense to me. Sure, sleeping outdoors, making fires with sticks and being completely dependent on nature is different, but they are happy and this is the life they consciously choose. If they prefer it, why should we feel sorry for them? They seem perfectly happy to me.

The bushmen – your friendly, baboon skin wearing, hunter-and-gatherer neighborhood stoners.

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