Cultural tourism can feel a little like a cottage industry in Africa. There are so many Masai villages, for example, with so many colourfully clad warriors telling you about their ancient way of life and offering so many intricately beaded trinkets for sale after visiting the typical tiny, dark, smoky huts and viewing the, of course melodious, courtship dance. But, that’s the cynical take on things.
In previous emails on my trips I’ve written about conversations and insights that enriched even the most canned tour of a model village. The masks and scripts slip, and before you know it you and the warriors are talking to each other as mutually curious human beings trying to connect more across divergent personal back stories or now-globalized aspirations than language itself. It is also clear that tourist dollars finance the preservation of communities and traditions that some people value and wish to engage part-time or completely as a way of life. And I generally think that’s a good thing.
With all of this in mind, I was still a little worried when three San, or Bushmen, surprised us with their silent appearance in our camp as we were preparing to go meet them on a nearby game farm. Something in me braced for one more canned experience that I would try to forget rather than write about. Even worse, I thought it would be marred by a lot of earnest condescension, linguistic miscues and fellow travellers or our more urban guides laughing at, not with, Bushmen who were in high spirits and eager to begin the bush walk they would lead. Instead, the walk was one of the highlights of the trip.
The obvious purpose of the bush walk was to show us how the San live off of land that seems to hold very little bounty. Nothing obvious, like berries, fruit and nuts, hung from any trees. So watching the focused, instructive headman read the land, finding food and water in or under low-lying shrubs and twigs, was simply amazing.
I’ve watched food shows in which chefs pay homage to modern-day foragers who are mostly clones of themselves. But seeing the San leader in action made me realize that the honour belongs to knowledge and practices that are far more ancient and universal. This guy even gave us a tasting tour of local greens, plucking from one plant then another, and showing us how lemony, garlicky or peppery leaves that had nice flavours on their own were even better when combined. He then dug, by hand, some substantial roots from under strands of small plants that were barely visible in a thicket and appeared on the surface to have little life left in them.
The translated quips from all of the San men throughout the walk had us laughing, with not at them, and even at ourselves, way more than we’d probably expected. Their confidence, humour and self-awareness belied any notion that they felt inferior or were primitive. As we were heading to the little thatched tent settlement these desert nomads would normally build for temporary residence to sample the afternoons harvest, the leader did a little stomp and shimmy next to the 4×4 and said, according to translation, Time for disco!
I have to say that the sour, queasy memory of airplane eggs (wolfed down because they nearly starved us on the out-bound South African Airways flight) was still fresh enough to make me wary of sampling all of the results of our foraging. The scraping, grating and slicing of unwashed roots with a rusty spearhead was just more than I could handle at that moment. But I was told that the huge water plant, hydration of last resort in times of drought, was a little bitter but refreshing, and that the other long tubular tasted like a really juicy radish. (The equally charismatic San guide at Meno A Kwena later did a little medicinal foraging during a break on a game drive near the Baines Baobabs. He returned to the 4×4 with a handful of bitter roots that he claimed would treat gonorrhoea in case someone else ever needed to, in the future, of course.)
At one point the San leader dashed away to pull a big leaf from yet another shrub growing at the base of a big tree. With this elephant ear leaf he then did a mercifully brief and funny G-rated mime of wiping his butt. This was logical he said with a shrug to our raised eyebrows: we’d foraged for most of the afternoon, eating some of what we found along the way; he’d shown us how they poisoned arrows used to hunt game with certain plants and explained how long it took the stalked game, depending on its size, to die; and the trio had done a dance around the campfire he built celebrating a successful hunt. He then presented this leaf to us and laughed as we oohed and aahed over its unexpected pillowy Charmin-softness. Mother Nature richly provides for the whole gastronomic process, start to finish.
Later, I noticed a series of perfect circular impressions, filled with rocks, arranged in the sandy ground under a tree and asked what they were for. It turned out to be a super-sized version of mancala. It was as if you’d taken four of the wooden boards on which the game is usually played, placed two side-by-side and the other two at the ends of these, creating a long rectangle with four holes across and I don’t know how many on the vertical. Two of the San then started playing their apparent version of mancala, but with rapid counting and strategic moves over the extended board that they said could keep the game going all night.
I never cease to be amazed at what you can see if you just open your eyes and look. An encounter that I was prepared to write off told me a lot about a people who sometimes only registered as courteously reticent, eagle-eyed guides and trackers during game drives. And I know I have much more to learn.