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Among the Unreal People
In the hot flat bush in far northeast Namibia I crossed a bulging termite mound of smooth, ant-chewed sand, and with just the slightest elevation of this swelling under my foot soles the landscape opened in a majestic fan, like the fluttered pages of a whole unread book.
I then resumed kicking behind a file of small-bodied, mostly naked men and women who were quick-stepping under a sky fretted with golden fire through the dry scrub of what was once coarsely known in Afrikaans as Boesmanland (Bushman Land) — pouch-breasted women laughing among themselves, an infant with a head like a fuzzy fruit bobbing in one woman’s sling, men in leather clouts clutching spears and bows, nine of us altogether — and I was thinking, as I’d thought for years traveling the earth among humankind: The best of them are bare-assed.
Happy again, back in Africa, the kingdom of light, I was stamping out a new path, on foot in this ancient landscape, delighting in “a palpable imaginable visitable past — in the nearer distances and clearer mysteries.” I was ducking among thornbushes with slender, golden-skinned people who were the earth’s oldest folk, boasting a traceable lineage to the dark backward and abysm of time in the Upper Pleistocene, thirty-five thousand years or so ago, the proven ancestors of us all, the true aristocrats of the planet.
The snort of a startled animal out of sight stopped us. Then its hindquarters swishing through brush. Then the leaping clop of its hooves on loose stones.
“Kudu,” one of the men whispered, bowing to listen to its departure without glancing aside, as though saying the familiar first name of someone he knew. He spoke again, and while I didn’t understand, I listened as if to new music; his language was preposterous and euphonious.
That morning in Tsumkwe, the nearest town — but not a town, just a sun-scorched crossroads with many hovels and a few shade trees — I had heard on my short-wave radio: World financial markets are in turmoil, facing the worst crisis since the Second World War. The Eurozone countries are approaching near-meltdown as Greece is expected to collapse into bankruptcy, its government having turned down a $45 billion loan to write down its debt.
The people I was following were laughing. They were Khoisan-speaking, a subgroup of !Kung people who called themselves Ju/’hoansi — a clucking, hard-to-pronounce name meaning “Real People” or “Harmless People.” Traditional hunter-gatherers, they had no history of using money. Even now, pushed to the margins of so-called Bushman Land (they knew this part of it as Nyae Nyae) — and irregularly settled, with some cattle and crops — these people seldom saw money and hardly used the decaying stuff. They still supplemented their diet by hunting and grubbing and foraging — and accepting pitiful handouts. They probably did not think about money, or if they did, they knew they would never have any. As the Greeks rioted, howling against their government, and Italians cried poverty in the streets of Rome, and the Portuguese and the Spanish stared hollow-eyed at bankruptcy, and the news was of failure, worthless currencies, and austerity measures, the Ju/’hoansi were indestructible in all their old ways, or seemed so to me in my ignorance.
The young woman in front of me dropped to her knees in the sand. She had the lovely, elfin, somewhat Asiatic face — but also suggesting the face of an extraterrestrial — that most San people possess. That is to say, pedomorphic, the innocent and fetching face of a child. She traced her fingers around a threadlike vine sprouting from the sand, crouched, leaned on one elbow, and began digging. With each scoop and handful of sand her eyes brightened, her breasts shook, and her nipples trembled against the earth, one of the minor titillations of this excursion. Within a minute she extracted a finger-shaped tuber from the dark, strangely moist hole she’d made and cradled it in her hand. As she flicked dust from the root, it paled beneath her fingertips. Smiling, she offered the first bite to me.
“Nano,” she said, and the word was translated as “potato.”
It had the crunch, the mouthfeel, the sweetish earthen taste of raw carrot. I passed it back and it was shared equally, a nibble each, nine bites. In the forests, deserts, and hillsides across the world, foraging people like the Ju/’hoansi are scrupulous about sharing food; it is this sharing in their communal life that binds them together.
Ahead of us, kneeling on scattered nut shells and the leaf litter of a thornbush, two of the men, facing each other on the ground, were taking turns spinning a two-foot-long stick between their palms — chafing this spindle which, very shortly, raised a puff of smoke from the friction of its bottom end in a darkening piece of soft wood. The stick they call male; the dimpled wood block on the bottom, female. Sparks glowed from the hot drilled block, and one of the men coaxed more sparks, lifting the glowing, gently smoking wood, blowing on it with lips framed in a kissing expression. He scattered shells and dead leaves on it, then a handful of twigs. We had fire.
Strikes in Greece have cut off power in many cities, and the government is expected to default on its debt, plunging Europe into deepening uncertainty, putting the fate of the euro in doubt. The ripple effect could endanger the viability of American banks. Rock-throwing mobs protesting mounting austerity measures have begun looting shops in Athens . . .
It was like news from another planet, a dark, chaotic one, not this dazzling place of small mild people, smiling in the shadows of low bush, the women unearthing more roots with their digging sticks, one reclining in a patch of speckled shade, nursing her contentedly suckling baby.
They were spared the muddled and weirdly orphic metaphors of the failing market — The subprime crisis was only the tip of the iceberg for an economic meltdown and Loans could not stop the hemorrhaging of stock prices and The red ink in Spain’s regional governments surged 22 percent to almost $18 billion and New York City’s economy faces an extreme downside risk from Europe’s debt crisis, because its banks hold over $1 trillion of assets — and the mocking realization that money was just colorful crumpled paper, hardly different from a candy wrapper, the market itself little more than a casino. For the tenth straight day . . . The panic, the anger, the impotence of the people confined in stagnating cities like caged monkeys. Should Greece default on its debt, it will find itself in a death spiral.
As the fire crackled, more roots were passed around.
“Look, Mister Bawl . . .”
One crouching man with homemade twine of split and twisted vines had fashioned a snare, pegging it to the spring of a bent-over branch, and with tiptoeing fingers on the sand he showed me how the snare snatched at the plodding feet of a unwary bird, a guinea hen perhaps — they were numerous here — one that they would pluck and roast on the fire. They indicated the poisonous plants and talked about the beetles they crushed and applied to their arrowheads to make them deadly, the leaves they used to ease their stomachs, the twigs for purifying a wound, for soothing a rash.
These Real People, the Ju/’hoansi, had been persecuted, harried, massacred, and driven off from the moment the first whites came ashore in Africa in 1652. The whites were Jan van Riebeeck, his wife and child, and his small party of Dutchmen, who named the land Groot Schur, Good Hope, where they settled to plant vegetables for a “refreshment station” to provision Dutch ships heading to East Asia.
Finicky on the subject of race, with the Dutch temperament for fine distinctions, they created a taxonomy to describe the indigenous people, designating the goat-herding Khoikhoi as “Hottentots” (mimicking the alveolar clicks in the way they spoke), the Bantu as “kaffirs” (unbelievers — the Dutch had gotten the word from the early Portuguese, who’d heard Arab traders use it), and the !Kung San as “Bushmen,” for their preferred habitat. It was the pastoral Khoikhoi who named the San — their belittling word for “cattleless” (with the sense of being backward). All were pushed aside in the land grab by the Dutch, and though each group fought back, the so-called !Kung San fairly quickly withdrew, but not fast enough. They were hunted for sport into the late nineteenth century by the Boers. But these supposedly benighted people — self-sufficient foragers and hunters, city haters, apparently living outside the world economy — would, I believed, have the last laugh.
Even later, when these Ju/’hoansi I was visiting had plucked off their beads and laid down their bows and arrows and digging sticks, exchanging the pretty skins they wore for ragged Western clothes — torn trousers, faded T-shirts, rubber flip-flops, skirts and blouses; castoffs sent in bales from Europe and the United States — even then the curtain did not come down. The Ju/’hoansi still seemed ancient and indestructible and knowing, thoroughly habituated to their life in the bush, dealing with the outer world by quietly smiling at its foolishness and incompetence. That is what I saw. Or was it an illusion? Perhaps what they were showing me was a persuasive reenactment of the old ways, like Mohawks in a modern pageant, wearing beaded deerskin jackets and paddling birch-bark canoes on the Hudson River. Anyone who took the Ju/’hoansi behavior as typical, as some anthropologists had written, was perpetuating a myth that had been affectionately invented, a travesty in the real sense of the word, a mere change of clothes, romanticizing a life that was antique and lost forever.
It is true that the Ju/’hoansi had been scattered and resettled, had been plagued by alcoholism, and many of them degraded by town life. But the Ju/’hoansi had kept some of their culture. Their language was intact; they still had their folktales and their cosmology; they had retained and passed on their strategies for bush survival. Many still tracked game, still hunted, though not with poison-tipped arrows; some still supplemented their diet with roots; and they could make a fire by rubbing sticks together. Their kinship system — family, relationships, dependencies — remained unbroken.
Clothed in rags rather than skins, they seemed no less the Real People. But perhaps I saw what I needed to see. Their traditional skills intact, their heads (I guessed) buzzed with the old ways. They even had their own peculiar manner of walking. Unlike the city dweller, that slouching, foot-dragging person grinning into the middle distance, the Ju/’hoansi were alert. They never sauntered or sloped; they moved fast but silently, bodies erect, listening as they flew along, treading lightly on the balls of their feet, balletic in their flight, in what was less like walking than dancing through the bush.
They were temperamentally suited to dealing with the stern austerity of the semidesert climate and had a sympathetic understanding of the animals they hunted. But they had never been a match for the people who persecuted them, including the !Kung San and the Herero people as well as the whites. Some !Kung San who had the misfortune to live near towns had been poisoned and neutralized with bubbly oshikundu, the home-brewed beer that Namibians made from fermented sorghum and sold in villages and shebeens. (Shebeen, an Irish word meaning “bad ale,” was brought to southern Africa by migrants from Ireland and is used to describe the poorest drinking places.)
For their apparent gentleness, the complexity of their beliefs, and their ancient pedigree, foreign agencies and charities had taken a shine to the !Kung San. And so had anthropologists: the !Kung San were among the most intensively studied of Africa’s peoples. But those who patronized them had much more to learn from these people than they could teach them. They were above all a peaceable, egalitarian people who had thrived because of their tradition of sharing and living communally. Historically, they had withdrawn deeper into the bush rather than face being exterminated in a futile war. They were notably patient and consequently a contented people. They were here before anyone else — catching game, making fire, digging roots — and I was convinced that they would be here after the rest of the world destroyed itself.
They had always lived at the margin. Could any outsider in a charity-minded, money-collecting, old-clothes-dispensing organization, and the benevolent well-wishers who gave them material support, show them a better way to live? Circumstances — politics mainly — determined that the Ju/’hoansi be confined to one place, and though they were by custom nomadic they’d had to acquire farming and animal-rearing skills. But if they were historically hunter-gatherers, with a connection to the land they regarded as the living mother, wouldn’t they prevail that way?
Many Africans are people of regressed cultures, the scattered remnants of ancient realms that were demolished or subverted by slavers from Arabia and Europe — the kingdoms of Dahomey and the Congo, the vast fifteenth-century empire of southern Africa known as Monomatapa. Like the peasant folk of old Europe, a great number of Africans have lost or abandoned their traditional skills of thatching, iron-forging, wood-carving, food-gathering, farming, and the greatest skill of all, the mutual respect and fairness that help people rub along together in a congenial way. Within a few decades the majority of Africans will live in cities. Today, two hundred million people in sub-Saharan Africa live in slums, the highest number of slum dwellers in the world, according to UN-Habitat’s State of African Cities 2010 Report. And “slum” is a rather misleading word for these futureless places — as I was to see — of stupefying disorder.