Beautiful Ungka's cousin, and the little girl who was content to follow her and be her handmaiden." - © Copyright Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.



"The Desert" by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

From the book "The Harmless People" by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. © Copyright 1996. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted by arrangement with Liepman AG, c/o Joan Daves Agency
as agent for the proprietor. - Photo Credits, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
Web Production and Design, OneWorld Magazine.




Note: The spelling of Bushman words and names is at best a rough approximation. Most Bushman words and names have clicks in them, usually clicks acting as consonant sounds. For the purpose of simplicity, the clicks have been omitted.

THERE IS A VAST SWEEP OF DRY BUSH DESERT lying in South-West Africa and western Bechuanaland, bordered in the north by Lake Ngami and the Okovango River, in the south by the Orange River, and in the west by the Damera Hills. It is the Kalahari Desert, part of a great inland table of southern Africa that slopes west toward the sea, all low sand dunes and great plains, flat, dry, and rolling one upon the other for thousands of miles, a hostile country of thirst and heat and thorns where the grass is harsh and often barbed and the stones hide scorpions.

From March to December, in the long drought of the year, the sun bakes the desert to powdery dry leaves and dust. There are no surface waters at all, no clouds for coolness, no tall trees for shade, but only low bushes and grass tufts; and among the grass tufts grow brown thistles, briers, the dry stalks of spiny weeds, all tangled into knots during the rains, now dry, tumbled, and dead.

The Kalahari would be very barren, very devoid of landmarks, if it were not for the baobab trees, and even these grow far from each other, some areas having none. But where there is one it is the biggest thing in all the landscape, dominating all the veld, more impressive than any mountain. It can be as much as two hundred feet high and thirty feet in diameter. It has great, thick branches that sprout haphazardly from the sides of the trunk and reach like stretching arms into the sky. The bark is thin and smooth and rather pink, and sags in folds toward the base of the tree like the skin on an elephant's leg, which is why a baobab is sometimes called an elephant tree. Its trunk is soft and pulpy, like a carrot instead of wooden, and if you lean against it you find that it is warm from the sun and you expect to hear a great heart beating inside. In the spring, encouraged by moisture, these giants put out huge white flowers resembling gardenias, white as moons and fragrant, that face down toward the earth; during the summer they bear alum-like dry fruits, shaped like pears, which can be eaten. In the Kalahari there is no need of hills. The great baobabs standing in the plains, the wind, and the seasons are enough.

Usually in the hot months only small winds blow, leaving a whisper of dry leaves and a ripple of grass as though a snake has gone by, but occasionally there is a windy day when all the low trees of the veld are in motion, swinging and dipping, and the grass blows forward and back. When there is no wind, heat accumulates in the air and rises in thick, shuddering waves that distort everything you see, the temperature rises to 120 Fahrenheit and more, and the air feels heavy, pressing against you, hard to breathe.

June and July are the months of winter. Then water left standing freezes at night, and with the first light of morning all the trees and grass leaves are brittle with frost. The days warm slowly to perhaps 80 at noon, but by night when the sun sets yellow and far, far away over the flat veld the cold creeps back, freezing the moisture from the dark air so that the black sky blazes with stars. In winter the icy wind, pouring steadily across the continent from the Antarctic, blows all night long.


"Beautiful Ungka, the lily of the field."
© Copyright Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.

THERE ARE ONLY THREE MONTHS of rain in the whole year, and these begin in December, ending the hottest season when the air is as tight and dry as a drum skin. Under the rain - which is sometimes torrential, drenching the earth, making rivers down the sides of trees, sometimes an easy land rain that blows into the long grass like a mist--the heat and drought melt away and the grass turns green at the roots. Soon the trees flower, and in the low places the dry dust becomes sucking mud. Towering clouds, miles away, widen the horizon, and all the bushes which stretch in an unchanging expanse over dune after dune now blossom and bear white or red or violet flowers. But the season is short, and the plants bud, flower, and fruit very quickly; in March the drought creeps in, just as the veld fruits ripen and scatter their seeds.

When the rains stop, the open water is the first to dry, making slippery mud and then caked white earth. By June only little soaks of waterholes remain, hidden deep in the earth, covered with long grass. These, which are miles apart, dry up by August, and then travel in the veld is nearly impossible. Because of this, large areas of the Kalahari remain unexplored.

We have crossed this desert three times, my family and I, on three expeditions, which usually numbered between ten and fourteen people and included my father, my mother, my brother, and myself, as well as other Europeans who were linguists, zoologists, botanists, or archaeologists, sent by universities of the Union of South Africa, England, or the United States, as well as four or five Bantu men-several interpreters, a cook, and a mechanic - who were the staff. We usually traveled in four big trucks and a jeep, and had to carry all our food and water, gasoline, and equipment in supplies to last us for several months. We crossed great drought areas, once crossing four hundred miles of the central desert of Bechuanaland where there was no water at all, and once traveling every day for two weeks into an unmapped part of the desert of South-West Africa, close to the Bechuanaland border, where we found a waterhole and refilled our empty drums. All this was for the purpose of filming and studying the life and customs of the people of the Kalahari, who are called the Bushmen.

Bushmen are a naked, hungry people, slight of build and yellow-skinned; the only feature they have in common with their large-boned, darker-skinned neighbors, the Negro or Bantu tribes living at the edges of the Bushmen's territory, is their peppercorn curly hair. Otherwise, Bushmen are very like the Asian peoples, often having Mongolian eyefolds and rather broad, flat faces with almost no noses at all. Because of the dust, perspiration, and the blazing sun, their skins darken to a copper brown, but under their arms where sweat has washed the dust away the yellow skin shows. Bushman babies, in fact, are born pale pink, often with a dark, pigmented area at the base of their spines which Kung Bushmen call "the jar"- because, they say, the mother carries her baby and her water jar together in the pouch of her garment-but which we know as the Mongolian Spot.

Physically, the Bushmen are a handsome people, though short of stature-a man being a few inches over and a woman a few inches under five feet-and a little swaybacked of carriage, which makes their bellies stick out. They are handsome because of the extreme grace in their way of moving, which is strong and deft and lithe; and to watch a Bushman walking or simply picking up something from the ground is like watching part of a dance. This is not a beauty of the flesh, and therefore exists in everyone who is not an infant or stiff with age. Bushmen have long, slender arms and legs, and the men are built for running, all lean muscle and fine bone, and consequently they often seem younger than they are. They are delicate of proportion, too, and they speak very softly.

Bushmen dress themselves in the skins of animals, a man wearing only a leather loincloth and a woman a small leather apron and a big kaross, a leather cape made from a whole animal hide, belted at the waist with a sinew cord, knotted at the shoulder, forming a pouch in back where a baby can ride, and where the woman carries her blown ostrich eggs, which are used as water containers. Bushmen are a very neat people; they keep their clothes tidily about themselves, and though they do not really need haircuts because their curly hair breaks off by itself, they prefer to keep their hair cropped close to their heads. White ornaments of ostrich-eggshell beads dangle from tufts of their hair and are strung in tiny bands around their arms and knees. Sometimes they wear leather sandals, but mostly their hard brown feet are bare.

The first time we came to the Kalahari, we spent several months looking for Bushmen. It was very hard for us to find them because they are shy of any stranger. If they believe that you are coming, they run away like foxes to hide in the grass until you have gone. Their tiny huts, dome-shaped and made of grass, are also inconspicuous. I once walked right into an empty werf, as their tiny villages are called, and didn't see the little scherms, or huts, hidden in the grass until I noticed a small skin bag dangling in a shadow, which was a doorway. Then I saw the frame of the scherm around it, then the other scherms as well. The werf was abandoned, all the people had slipped away, but I heard two voices whispering in the grass near by. You can tell by these werfs that there are Bushmen in an area, and also by their footprints on narrow trails which they share with the game and which run all through the desert. You may find footprints or you may see a little pile of white ash, the fire that a Bushman kindled where he spent the night. Otherwise, to find them you must depend on luck or on the fact that the Bushmen of an area may have heard something good about you and will not be too afraid.

Culturally and historically, the Bushmen are an interesting people, for they and the Hottentots, who belong to the same racial and language groups, are the earliest human inhabitants still living in southern Africa. 'There are now from thirty to fifty thousand Bushmen, who are divided into several language groups. Their languages are related to each other and to the Hottentot language, and are in what is known as the Khoisan language group, made up of most of the click languages spoken in South Africa. A click language has sharp pops and clicks made with the tongue in various parts of the mouth, combined with an implosion of the breath, very difficult to understand, harder still to pronounce, as the slightest mistake may change the meaning of a word entirely. For example, the word //kx'a, which in one of the Bushman languages means mangetti, a certain kind of nut-bearing tree, is pronounced by making a lateral click for which the tongue is pulled sharply away from the sides of the mouth, producing the click one makes when calling a horse, followed by a scraped k turning to a g, followed by a glottal stop-a slight pause or tiny choking sound made as the back of the tongue stops the breath-which is followed at last by the vowel. To make a mistake is easy, and that is why non- Bushmen have a hard time learning the language, and why, when they do learn, they are often misunderstood.


"Tu made Norna clothes of ostrich-eggshell beads,
an art taught by Bushmen by the gemsbok people."
© Copyright Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.

THE BUSHMEN ARE ONE OF THE MOST primitive peoples living on earth. Although most of their groups own some metal objects, Bushmen do not smelt or forge metal, but get it in trade from their Bantu neighbors. They use soft metal in the making of a few tools such as knives, arrowheads, and little axes, cold-hammering the metal into shape themselves. Bushmen make the other tools they use from wood and bone, grass and fiber, the things of the veld. They dig roots and pick berries to eat because they have no crops. The desert is too dry for anything but desert plants to grow naturally, and Bushmen, who quickly consume all the wild food available in one place, cannot stay anywhere long enough to tend crops or wait for them to grow.

There is not enough water to water livestock, and for this reason Bushmen have no domestic animals. Most of their groups do not even have dogs. Instead of herding, Bushmen hunt wild antelope with tiny arrows, sometimes made of soft, traded metal, sometimes made of bone, and poisoned with a terrible poison extracted from a certain grub, a poison which affects the nervous system of a creature and which is so deadly that an antelope shot early in the morning with a single arrow well placed in the body dies within the day. Hunting is very difficult, for travel in the veld is thirsty and rigorous and the antelope are clever, but as often as not the Bushmen hunters shoot one and then they use it all. Most of the meat is dried to preserve it, causing it to last at least a few weeks, but sooner or later every last bite of it is eaten, even the mucous lining of the nostrils and the gristle inside the ears. They sometimes eat the hide, sometimes work it into leather to use for clothing, and if the antelope bones are not all cracked for the marrow, pieces are worked into arrow points to shoot another antelope.

In order to live as they do, Bushmen must travel through the veld, changing their abode every few days in search of food. Because of their way of life, they do not need villages to live in, so they rarely bother to build strong scherms, making small domes of grass for themselves instead, just a little shade for their heads, grass which the wind soon blows away. Sometimes they do not even bother with this, but push little sticks into the ground to mark their places. They sleep beside the sticks and arrange their few possessions around them, symbols of their homes.

Although Bushmen are a roaming people and therefore seem to be homeless and vague about their country, each group of them has a very specific territory which that group alone may use, and they respect their boundaries rigidly. Each group also knows its own territory very well; although it may be several hundred square miles in area, the people who live there know every bush and stone, every convolution of the ground, and have usually named every place in it where a certain kind of veld food may grow, even if that place is only a few yards in diameter, or where there is only a patch of tall arrow grass or a bee tree, and in this way each group of people knows many hundred places by name. Even if you are traveling randomly with Bushmen and ask at any time on the journey for the name of the place where you happen to be standing, they will probably be able to tell you. They themselves always like to know exactly where they are.

The social structure of Bushmen is not complicated. They have no chiefs or kings, only headmen who in function are virtually indistinguishable from the people they lead, and sometimes a band will not even have a headman. A leader is not really necessary, however, because the Bushmen roam about together in small family bands rarely numbering more than twenty people. A band may consist of an old man and his wife, their daughters, the daughters' husbands, perhaps an unmarried son or two, and their daughters' children. Bushmen are polygynous, and a man is allowed by custom to have as many wives as he can afford, depending on bow well be hunts-usually a man can afford only one wife, sometimes two (often sisters), and once we heard of a man with four wives. For this reason there are often more women than men in a band.

The immediate family, a man, his wife, or wives, and children, is the only solid social unit; otherwise the small bands are always breaking up and recombining with other small bands as the structures of single families change, through marriages, divorces, deaths, or as the family decides to pay a prolonged visit to a different group of relatives.

Any Bushman will either be related by blood or marriage or will be acquainted with all the other Bushmen in his area but this is as far as Bushmen go in their affinities. They do not recognize as their own people strange Bushmen who speak the same language; in fact, they suspect and fear them as they do any stranger.

We have visited four of the Bushman language groups, two of which we stayed with for long periods of time. In 1951, after a survey expedition to learn where Bushmen could be found, we went into the Nyae Nyae area of South-West Africa, close to the border of Bechuanaland, to look for Kung Bushmen. We found a band living near a waterhole, as it was June, the drought of the year, and we stayed with them for four months. At first only a few Bushmen were there, but as the news spread that we were friendly, more and more people came to visit us and receive presents of tobacco and salt, for Bushmen love to smoke but rarely have tobacco, which they get in trade. Also, most of the Bushmen had never seen a European before, none had ever seen a European woman, and they came by dozens to sit together in a cluster at a distance to observe my mother and me. By the end of our stay we had become friendly with them, and in 1952 we visited them again. We found them waiting confidently for us, living beside the track our trucks had made, as we had told them that we would come back if we were able, and this time we stayed with them for a year. In August 1955 we returned to them again, but before we did so we spent four months in Bechuanaland. We lived one month with a group of Naron and Ku Bushmen at a place called Okwa (the two groups were mixed together because their territories happen to meet at that place), and almost two months with Gikwe Bushmen in the four- hundred-mile stretch of empty desert between Ghanzi, near the border of South-West Africa, and Molepolole, near the border of the Transvaal. Ghanzi is a small town with a post office and a store, the center of a group of rather extensive European farms. Molepolole is a great Bantu village of the Bakwena (Crocodile) Bechuana people, where a Chuana chieftain lives. The other month we spent traveling to the Gikwe, because they are very remote.

Nobody knows where the Bushmen originated, from what racial stocks they came, or when they came to Africa. But here and there throughout southern Africa, in mountain caves and on sheltered rocks, paintings and engravings are found which are known to have been made centuries ago, and are believed to have been made by Bushmen. It is hard to say for certain that Bushmen made the paintings because, to my knowledge, Bushmen do not paint on rocks or in caves now. However, Kung Bushmen do scratch designs on the bark of trees and on their ostrich eggshells. During each expedition I asked Bushmen to paint for me with paints and paper which I provided. Though none of the Bushmen we met had ever seen paintings, photographs, or drawings of any kind, the paintings they made for me could be said to resemble the paintings and engravings on the rocks.

If there is a resemblance, it is not surprising. The Bushmen, together with the Hottentot peoples, are known to have lived in South Africa long before the Bantus came. At one time it all was theirs to roam in, all the riverbanks and all the grasslands, all the hills and valleys where cedar trees grow, from the Cape to Rhodesia, from Angola to Mozambique. But during the waves of the early Bantu migrations, when the taller, energetic Bantu people with their chiefs and kings, witch doctors and armies of soldiers, their metal spears and axes, shields and maces, came walking down from central Africa driving their great herds of cattle before them, the Bushmen yielded their land to the stronger newcomers, after a few struggles, surely, and most of them were either killed, enslaved, or driven farther and farther back into the most remote parts of the country, where the Bantu people and their livestock could not live. But the Bushmen are very tough and hardy, all sinew and wire, with not an extra ounce of flesh to carry, and possess great endurance of hunger and thirst, endurance to search through the grass roots all day looking for a vegetable to eat, or endurance to chase the antelope they shoot, which may take as many as four days to die and may walk as far as a hundred miles if the arrow was not particularly well placed.


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