The San Bushmen (Basarwa): Kalahari Desert, Namibia and Botswana

San (Bushman) woman making craft. Kalahari, Namibia.
••• Kerstin Geier / Getty Images

The San of the Kalahari

The San (or Basarwa) people of the Kalahari are more commonly known as the Bushmen. The Kalahari is a vast desert that stretches over South AfricaBotswana and Namibia. Living in one of the most inhospitable terrains in the world, the San survived by hunting wild game and gathering roots and tubers. Many people outside of Southern Africa were introduced to the San culture and their "click " language through the South African made movie "The Gods Must be Crazy".

The History of the San

The San are considered to be the oldest culture in the world dating back over a hundred thousand years. Beautiful San rock art can be seen throughout Southern Africa where the San lived as hunter-gatherers. In the past 2000 years the San were slowly pushed to live in the arid sands of the Kalahari Desert by Bantu tribes and white farmers who took the more fertile land for their crops and livestock.

Traditional San Culture

There are only about 3000 thousand San that still follow a totally traditional lifestyle of hunting and gathering (out of a population of 95,000). Groups (or bands) usually number 10 to 15 individuals and move around frequently to find new foods to gather, water resources and to follow migrating game. Shelter is temporary and made of branches tied together in a semi-circle with grass tufts on top. Groups are made up of family members and there is no official leader or chief.

The San men traditionally hunt and the women are responsible for gathering. Hunting is a collaborative exercise and the meat is always shared among the group. The San are expert hunters with bows and arrows tipped with poison. Gathering has less social significance but generally provides up to 80% of the food.

The San Today

Like many hunter-gatherer tribes the world over the San are finding it very difficult to maintain their traditional culture and lifestyle. Land that the San used to hunt on is increasingly being used for grazing cattle. Fences are put up to protect the cattle which means that the wildlife the San depend upon for their hunting are changing their migrating patterns. Farmers in the area have notoriously abused the San workers yet many San have become dependent on them for survival. The San's hunting and tracking skills have made them popular with armies who have used them to track guerillas and even map out mine fields. Farmers also use the San to track down poachers.

Governments have forced the San to relocate to permanent locations usually with the intention of 'civilizing' them and providing schooling, running water and other modern amenities. Unfortunately rounding up hunter-gatherers and forcing them to live in settlements has been tried in many countries and has not been very successful.

Having no concept of private ownership, the San struggle to prove that land belongs to them. Having no traditional tribal leader makes it difficult to present their grievances with one strong voice.

And as with many hunter-gatherers the world over, their neighbors consider them 'savages' hence the derogatory name of 'Bushmen'.

San Cultural Tours:

There are several tours you can take where a San guide will take you on desert walks. You will be shown how to collect veld foods, track game, collect herbs and participate in music and dance. Some San tours are geared to the big trophy hunter which brings in significant revenue for the tribes.

  • Nhoma Safari Camp is a tented camp at Nhoma village, north east Namibia, 80km from Tsumkwe. Activities involve hunting with the Ju/'hoan hunters, veld food gathering, bush medicine, traditional games, the healing dance and tours to Khaudum National Park. This is an authentic San/Bushman cultural experience in Namibia. The village and camp is on the ancestral land of the Ju/'hoansi in a remote area.
  • Kalahari Offers Bushmen walks, various dances, hunting and more in Botswana.
  • 8 Day Bushman Trail Safari: This is a safari and cultural tour rolled into one. It includes game walks and game drives in the Kalahari desert as well as an introduction to San culture. The safari is in Botswana and begins in Maun.
  • 7 Day Mobile Camping Safari in the Kalahari Mobile tented camps make this safari in Botswana a great option for those interested in both wildlife and San culture. Game tracking and hunting with bows and arrows are offered among many more activities.

Kalahari San Sources:

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