The Bushmen

© Mark Hœkansson/Survival


"We know every tree, every well, every corner of this land, everything has a name here. We know this land like you know your children", declared a Bushman during a court case brought by his people against the Botswana government.



What is their real name?

Bushmen is a generic term for "men of the bushes", when in fact the Bushmen are divided into different groups, each with its own language and way of life, like the Gana and the Gwi who live in the Kibier Reserve of the Central Kalahari Game, created in 1961 (see the map below).


Which countries do they live in and what is their environment like?

The Bushmen live in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and a few in Angola and Zambia. In the Kalahari, a semidesert with rich vegetation and wildlife, some groups provide their own food through hunting and gathering. During the dry season they live a nomadic life.



Other groups are made sedentary farmers, who raise goats and even cattle, for example those groups living by the delta of the Okawango river where it is more humid.

Because of the decline in their living conditions many of the Bushmen have had to start work on large plantations or in the mines. In South Africa, they live largely in the towns, where they can find work.


What is the size of the population?

Today, it is estimated that they number 100,000, around half of which live in Botswana. They were the first people to inhabit this region and once were far more numerous; there were several million of them before the arrival of other African peoples and European colonialists. However, from the seventeenth to nineteenth century, they were victims of genocide, like the American Indians and Australian Aborigines.


What languages do they speak?

They speak a language with clicks. There are five types of click sounds which are produced using the lips, or with the tongue against the teeth, the palate, or twisted back in the mouth. They are the hardest languages in the world to pronounce, containing a huge number of consonants.


How do they dress?

Traditionally they wear clothing made of light and short animal skin, soft leather bags and sandals, suited to the heat and for walking across stony and thorny ground. But they also wear shirts, t-shirts, and trainers, like us. The women love necklaces and bracelets made of leather straps decorated with pearls and buttons made from ostrich eggs.


© Fiona Watson/Survival


What are their houses like?

They construct shelters made of branches which are well adapted to their semi-nomadic way of life and to the hot and largely dry climate: during the dry season, they set up camp near to a water source, and in the rainy season they spread out to hunt over a vast territory. These days the majority live in houses, particularly in the relocation camps, where they have been cooped up against their wishes.


Which animals live around them?

The Kalahari desert is a paradise for a numerous varieties of gazelles, like the springbok which runs away by leaping to elude lions, the kudu which has long twisted antlers and which also jumps 2.5 metres in the air. Giraffes and wildebeest are also the prey of both lions and hunters. The warthog makes its tail stand up like an antenna when escaping and folds over its front feet in order that its snout can touch the floor while eating. The ratel, a small brave carnivorous creature, wouldn’t hesitate in attacking a snake much larger than itself. The puff adder which has deadly venom and venomous spiders also enjoy the climate of the Kalahari.


What do they eat?

The men hunt large game and provide the meat. The women harvest juicy melons and collect wild berries, mongongo fruit, roots which can be cooked, and wild honey. They have an expert eye for spotting what is worth finding in the landscape. Ostrich eggs are a culinary delight and their beautiful shells serve as containers which are buried in the ground to keep water cold. When they break, the women make them into small round, white and flat pearls.


© Stephen Corry/Survival


How do they hunt?

They hunt using bow and arrows and spears. In order not to scare the game away by talking, they communicate with each other using hand signals and clicks. Their method of hunting consists in running under the sun behind large game for hours until it becomes exhausted, sometimes taking a whole day.

The arrows are soaked in a poison concocted from a mixture of snake, spider, scorpion and plant venom. These deadly arrows are rigorously kept away from children. Boys learn how to use a bow at a very young age by aiming at insects, then at 12 years of age they shoot birds, and at 16 they bring back their first big game.


© Stephen Corry/Survival


The hunter has enormous respect for the animal he kills. When pursuing it, he communicates constantly with the animal, and after having killed it, he says a few words to it to appease its spirit.


What are their beliefs and rites?

They have a god of creation and a god of destruction. Today many Bushmen are Christians, although when they are unwell they always put their trust in traditional medicine: they speak with a shaman who goes into a trance to communicate with the spirits and chase away the illness. They know hundreds of medicinal plants and moreover one of them the ‘hoodia’ cactus is currently experiencing a great success. It has the power to make you thinner, and big laboratories are using it to make medication to fight obesity. The Bushmen have had a lot of difficulty having it recognised that they own this knowledge.


What are their celebrations like?

Their music is very varied, and anyone can create a new song. In this way, those shaman who want to have more power over the spirits invent a new song, much like a woman who goes looking for melons in the bushes or a hunter preparing his arrows. For celebrations, they get together and compose complicate polyphonic melodies with multiple and diverse voices.


What does Bushmen art look like?

Their ancestors of 25,000 years ago painted the walls of caves with scenes of hunting which are of the same era as the prehistoric cave paintings of Europe. One can also often see men armed with clubs and bows. Until the end of the nineteenth century, they continued to paint in the same way. Certain areas are scattered with engraved stones where one can find all the wildlife of the region. At Tsolido Hills one can admire 2,700 very old cave paintings which depict the lives of the Bushmen and the animals around them.


What are the problems they face today?

They are the first inhabitants of this region of Africa, having been there for 25,000 years. At the end of the seventeenth century their lands were taken away from them by the colonists.

These days, a lot of Bushmen live in the modern world, have cars, telephones and credit cards. In South Africa they have special rights which protect their culture. For example, this country has recognised their exceptional knowledge of medicinal plants and protects their rights.

In Botswana, they have been chased from their territory because diamonds have been found there and they have been put into camps where they lead a miserable existence. They have come together against their country’s government and fight to have the right to the land of their ancestors recognised. They have founded an organisation, ‘First people of the Kalahari’, which Survival supports.

"We have come out of the Reserve to tell the world that we are suffering from hunger and thirst. The police are occupying our encampment and we don’t have the right to hunt and gather to feed ourselves… What crime have we committed? We just want to live in peace on our own lands.” The words of Kangotla Kanyo in October 2005.


Kindly translated by Jacqueline Grimsey.


This text was written using material from Survival publications, from France Culture radio broadcast L'ethnocide, et après ?, 2005, and from the film La danse du chasseur by C. et D. Foster, 2000.