The open spaces that were once inhabited by the Khomani San people have become much smaller, with boundaries, private property, roads and wired fences. Yet the sense of freedom could still be felt the moment we arrived in Andriesvale in the Northern Cape province of South Africa, the home of the Khomani San.
The Khomani San were the first people of the Kalahari. Known as the hunter-gatherers they lived in the desert. But as a direct result of apartheid the land that they once called home was lost. A fraction of it was returned to them in 1999 after a lengthy court battle.
In the years after the land claim was settled very little development occurred. With growing social decay and lack of support from the authorities, divisions within the desperate community grew.
“For five years after the land was returned to the bushmen they were praised and got a lot of attention, but after that they were forgotten about,” says land manager Charl Page. “The fear is that the heritage and language of the San will be lost and we are trying everything we can to preserve this. We are passing on the cultures and traditions to the Khomani San children”.
To learn more about the Khomani San we were directed to the leader and traditional healer known as Oom Jan Van der Westhuizen. Weak and frail in bed he immediately mustered up the strength and sat up to talk to me about the San people. He told us about the four main aspects of the cultures of his people: hunting, tracking or 'spoor sny', traditional medicines and healing, and arts and crafts. He also told about his extensive travel experience to different parts of Africa and abroad, sharing his knowledge as a traditional healer with others. “I would speak about what I do as a bushman and a traditional healer, and how I would use various ingredients from the earth for medicinal purposes, and they would listen and even ask questions. I was happy to share what I knew if it meant that our culture would live on long after I'm gone.” Oom Jan (62) passed away on April 22nd due to illness, exactly a month after we spoke.
Johnovon van der Westhuizen (26), who was in the process of taking over from his father Oom Jan van der Westhuizen as a traditional healer: “He knows so much and i am trying to learn as much from him as I can.” It was evident to us that he relied a lot on Oom Jan when he took us into the land the next day in search of medicinal ingredients. When Johnovon came across a specific plant that his father told him about, he was unable to remove it from the ground because his father did not tell him how to do so." He told us that everything should be done in a very specific manner, otherwise it loses its healing powers. He went on to show us some more plants and the uses for it, as well as some things they would collect to make crafts from so that they could sell it and make some money.
Due to the modern lifestyle these cultures seemed to be lost to the youth with almost none of them being able to speak the language. They do not live the ways of the Khomani San bushmen. “We are trying our best to teach the children N/uu, the language of our people, but it is very difficult with the lack of resources,” says community member Dion Noubitsen. "We are a very spiritual people, who want our legacy to be passed on to the younger generations. Our heritage is what makes us who we are.”
A very spiritual element of the San bushmen life is the "trance dance" which has social, religious, as well as ritual significance. The “trance dance" is known as the healing dance. Many of these dances are named after animals, namely lion or !Xooke, and elephant (!Xoo), with each having a different purpose. “If you are not strong it is easy to go so deep into a trance during this dance that you can lose yourself and do things that are not normal, such as pick up burning pieces of wood and not feel a thing.” It is at this point that we learnt what an important role the woman has with the trance dance ritual: “The woman does not merely sing and play instruments, they play a very role in ensuring our safety while we are dancing. The woman watches her husband or family member to see if we do not go too far into the trance. It is them who would bring us back from it,” says Dion.
Spoor sny (tracking) is another aspect of the culture of the Khomani San, where they would use their knowledge to identify different animal footprints to hunt them. This is an age old method of hunting, perfected by the San. “This is how we hunt to feed our families, for survival and it has become a huge part of our culture,” says David “Am Am” Kruiper while showing us some tracks and identifying the different animals that made it. While walking David was able to tell us exactly what and how many animals moved in a certain direction, up to the sex of the animal.
With external assistance the community continues to develop for the good, which mostly entails tourism facilities where visitors can experience the lifestyle, cultures and traditions of the Khomani San bushmen. Although there is a very real concern that the ancient ways of the San people will be lost to the generations to come, they remain confident: "We are strong people, we will rise up like those who came before us," says Dion.