People of the Earth: San tribe

People of the Earth: San tribe



The first people

Deeply rooted in their nomadic culture and in a symbiotic relationship with the animals and plants, the San or “Bushmen” are the original inhabitants of South Africa, aboriginal to sub-Saharan Africa. Their unique hunter-gatherer culture stretches back over 20 000 years. San genetic origins reach back to over one million years, revealing the oldest gene pattern amongst modern humans. Evolutionary studies support the evidence indicating that San are the closest surviving people to the original Homo sapiens and ancestors of contemporary humanity.


Stone Age

San civilization goes back to the Stone Age. The San did not use metals; all of their weapons were made of wood, stone, and bones, and instead of pottery, ostrich eggshells were used for storing liquids. They were known to live along the coast, fishing for crayfish, mussels, and seals as proven by a large number of bones found in coastal caves. These caves record their rich heritage in the form of rock art, extending all the way from the Kalahari to the modern-day Kingdom of Lesotho. Rock paintings were made using natural pigments such as manganese oxide, charcoal, or bird droppings, and the most common motives drawn were of people and animals, very often the Eland antelope, still regarded as a sacred spirit.


Sounds of the desert

Bushmen speak a variety of languages, all of which incorporate ‘click’ sounds represented in writing by symbols such as ! or /. San indigenous identity is based on their language and culture, families within a clan would speak a common language but neighboring clans would usually speak a different tongue, with a fair degree of similarity and understanding between them.

San are small in stature with light skin, which wrinkles very early in life giving them distinct, weathered appearance. They live in the vast expanse of the Kalahari Desert, which is divided among 3 countries — South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. Less than 3,000 of the tribe members have retained their traditional lifestyle of hunters and gatherers, following ancient cultural practices. In sub-Saharan Africa, there are many different Bushman groups, with no collective name for themselves, hence the fact that the terms ‘Bushman’, ‘San’, ‘or ‘Basarwa’ are used interchangeably.


Owner and the nomad

For thousands of years, San hunter-gatherer lifestyle remained relatively unchanged, as they had no concept of the ownership of land or animal. The change came with the acquisition of property, namely the sheep from North Sudanese tribes and cattle from Bantu. Newly found ownership have quickly led to conflict between different groups and rapid evolvement of a social, and economic hierarchy in which the status quo was determined by wealth in cattle and sheep.

San are always on the move in search of game and plant foods, therefore, they do not build permanent settlements, rather they use rock shelters or open camps, the choice depending on weather conditions. Bushmen are a nomadic tribe, but within fairly limited boundaries, distance governed by the proximity of other families and clans. When there are no other bordering clans, migrating tribe may stretch further out, as far as is needed to ensure a safe supply of food and water. Generally, the chief controls groups’ resources and all decisions are made by consensus of the tribe.


Social structure

San social structure is not totally tribal, it resembles loosely knit family culture where decisions are made by universal discussion and agreement by consensus. An individual’s opinion is naturally weighted according to their level, skill, and experience in the particular field of discussion. The roles of men and women are very distinct and rarely overlapping, which is a characteristic almost universal amongst hunter/gatherers around the world. Decisions are made based on survival needs, encouraging the most efficient utilisation of available skills and resources. Despite what is often perceived as a very gender-divided society, the importance of women is very high within the group and their opinions often take precedence, particularly where the food is concerned.


The hunter

The San are famous for their tracking skills. Using traps, bows, spears, and arrows coated with various toxins, such as snake venom, poisonous caterpillar, or a toxic plant, they are able to track animals for days across the desert plains. The poisons used by hunters will not be dangerous for consumption, as the hunter will simply remove the flesh where the arrow pierced the animal body. Each hunter is equipped with a cross and the bow, and leather bag containing medicine, tools, arrows, and amulets. San can easily determine the age and sex of the pray by examining the signs animal left behind, reading the bush as an open book. When a hunter’s arrow hits the animal, sortie will go to where it was standing and patiently track it down until the animal falls. Exceptional skill at tracking made San hunters very desired by armies, game hunters, and farmers to pursue guerrillas, game, and poachers.


The gatherer

Traditionally, women spent 3-4 days a week gathering wild plants, going out in groups to search for edible or medicinal plants. There are about 400-500 local plants known to Bushmen, providing not only balanced nutrition but also a source of hydration, as the moisture from roots is collected in ostrich eggshells during the drought. Plants are used in a similar way to western phytomedicine, treating wounds and illnesses or during healing ceremonies in which the healer would burn plants to make rain, trance to heal an ailment, or perform a charm to bring fertility.


Sacred spirits

Boys come of age when they kill their first antelope, and a girl becomes a woman upon her first menstruation, isolated in her hut. On this day, the tribe will perform the Eland Bull Dance, imitating the mating ritual of the Eland antelopes. The San believe that this dance brings peace and beauty to the girl and make her safe from hunger and thirst. San marriages are simple, the groom gives the Elands’ heart fat to bride’s parents, and the bride is anointed with this fat.


Medicine man

An essential element of the San cultural identity is their medicine dance, in which the rhythm is used to heal the individual. The medicine men have a supernatural potency within them, called n/um, which enables shaman to cure sickness. To activate n/um San dance and sing, creating sounds and a tempo that heats the supernatural force within, causing it to rise up to their heads to evoke trance.


Between two worlds

San believe in the spiritual and the material world. To enter into the spirit world, trance has to be initiated by a shaman through the hunting of power animals. When a power animal, such as an elephant or an eland antelope is killed, a link opens up between the two worlds. The eland appears in some of the rituals: boys’ first kill, girls’ puberty, marriage, and the trance dance. When this happens the shaman dances and reaches a trance in order to enter the spirit world. Once trance is achieved, the shaman is able to heal and protect people from sickness, evil spirits, control weather, see the future, ensure good hunting, and look over the general well-being of the tribe.


The sands of time

“I am as young as the most beautiful wish in my heart — and as old as all the unfulfilled longings in my life…”*

Southern Bushmen believe in spirits of the dead, but not as part of ancestor worship. The spirits are only vaguely identified and are thought to bring sickness and death. If a tribe member dies, the group will leave and never make a camp on this place again. However, if they arrive in a place of burial, they will throw pebbles on the grave and quietly say few words to the spirits to ensure good luck. They never step on the grave, as they believe that spirits are still active in the area above the grave. Shamans have contact with lesser gods, associated with illness and death, when they are performing trance dance. After death, the soul goes to the great god’s house in the sky, but the dead person continues to influence the life of those alive.

*”Elderly!” Kung Bushman’s answer to how old he was (Bjerre, p104)


Protecting rhinos in South Africa

THE BLACK MANBAS are the world’s first all-female anti-poaching unit operating in the Balule Game Reserve in South Africa. Coming from disadvantaged communities and breaking strong patriarchal tradition, these courageous women focus on eliminating illegal wildlife trade through conservation, education, and the protection of wildlife, helping to ensure the long-term survival of threatened and endangered species in the area.

Each day they patrol up to 20km, unarmed, looking for poachers, wire-snares, and break-ins along the fence line. Their lives are at constant risk from poachers and the dangerous wildlife they protect.

It is their belief that the war on poaching will not be won with guns and bullets, but through education within their local communities.

To know more about the the Black Mambas, follow them on Facebook and visit their website to see how you can help them in their mission.

Featured image by Lee-Ann Olwage.

World’s best surf spots for beginner

Surfing spots for beginners

Photo by Frank McKenna

IN AN INCREASINGLY BUSY world, going for a surf is a chance to get back to nature, test yourself against the ocean, have fun and get some exercise. And these days learning to surf doesn’t have to be the fearful, difficult proposition it once was. Forgiving foam surfboards and qualified surf instructors mean standing up and riding a wave in your first session is very likely — and then you’re hooked.

Read on for Matador’s list of the best surf spots to start your new addiction…

Byron Bay, Australia

This one-time sleepy dairy town turned hippie-surfer-stockbroker enclave is quite possibly the best place in the country, maybe the world, to learn to surf. There’s a variety of waves to suit different levels, from gentle rollers off Watego Beach to the beach breaks of Tallows and The Wreck (in small swells).

Byron Bay Surf School offers both lessons and accommodation. Or stay at the Byron Bay YHA (formerly J’s Bay), complete with pool.

Best time to go: March to May for warm weather and consistent swell .

Kuta, Bali

On an island famous for its grinding left-hand reef breaks, Bali still offers great options for learners. The long sandy stretch of beach in front of the famous Kuta and Legian tourist strip can turn on fun waves for beginners in small swells — but watch the currents when it’s bigger.

Various beach huts rent old surfboards for about 20,000 rupiah per hour. When the wind picks up in the afternoon there’s a bunch of options to keep you busy, from practising yoga in Ubud to partying late at Ku De Ta in Seminyak.

Best time to go: May to September for offshore winds and a party atmosphere.

Lagos, Portugal

While there are rarely waves in Lagos itself, this picturesque Algarve town is the base for many surf schools in the region, and it’s not hard to see why. A variety of great waves are within a 30-minute drive, including the protected break at Arrifana — a favourite for learners at low tide.

Among the surf schools based in Lagos, Surf Experience is the longest established and one of the best.

After a day spent learning to surf, refuel at one of Lagos’ cheap but delicious restaurants. After 10 PM, the clubs come alive, the clientèle spurred on by cheap cocktails and refreshing bottles of Sagres beer for just €2.

Best time to go: Northern hemisphere spring and autumn to avoid the summer crowds and higher prices.

Surfing spots for beginners

Photo by Trevor Cleveland

Surfer’s Point, Barbados

Located on Barbados’s more protected southern coast, Surfer’s Point in Inch Marlowe is the perfect location to learn to surf in an idyllic, tropical setting. Former competitive surfer and Barbadian local Zed Layson runs the popular Zed’s Surfing Adventures. Zed offers two-hour lessons on easy-to-ride foam surfboards, plus a range of accommodation options near the point.

Best time to go: Anytime, although the rainy season from June to October may limit your tanning time.

Waikiki, Hawaii

What better place to learn to surf than the home of surfing itself? Hawaii’s ancient kings rode the surf on crude wooden boards before missionaries in the 19th century frowned on the sport for being a godless activity.

Thankfully, surfing is back bigger than ever. The gentle rolling waves of Waikiki are perfect for beginners, offering long rides and a (mostly) fun, easy going atmosphere. Canoe’s is the most popular, and consequently most crowded, break but you’ll be among beginners so catching waves is relatively easy.

Boards can be rented from the shacks on the beach by the hour or take a lesson from one of the many surf schools in the area.

Best time to go: There are waves year round although the Hawaiian summer from June to August sees consistent south swells.

Taghazoute, Morocco

Thanks to its long, righthand point breaks, Morocco has been a popular winter destination for European surfers since the 1970s, with convoys of VW campervans parked beside the various breaks.

These days, you don’t need to be a hardcore surfer to enjoy the waves, with a variety of surf schools to choose from.

In the south, Taghazoute almost has more surf camps than surf spots, so you’re bound to find one that suits your budget. Hash Point and the beaches around Agadir can throw up an easy wave for learners. If it’s flat, the chilled port town of Essaouira is just three hours north by bus and makes a great day trip.

Best time to go: The big swells roll in from November to February, but early autumn has smaller waves and warmer weather.

Newquay, UK

For a country known for its crap weather, the British sure love their surfing. Newquay’s Fistral Beach is surfing ground zero in Britain, with a variety of backpacker hostels, surf cafes, and surf schools in and around the town.

Newquay’s headlands mean there are surfable waves in most conditions, from the swell-exposed Fistral to the protected Watergate Bay just around the corner. If you have access to a car, the crystal clear peaks at Sennen Cove an hour south are worth the drive in clean swells.

Best time to go: September to October are the most consistent months. You’ll need a 4/3 or even a thick 5/4 wetsuit to brave the chilly water in winter and spring.

Bundoran, Ireland

Ireland is the new surfing hot spot in Europe; its world class, uncrowded waves now lure surfers from around the world.

Bundoran in County Donegal on Ireland’s west coast is a great place to learn the basics, with a variety of beach breaks on offer. If the swell is small, try Tullan Beach in town. If it’s too big, head 10 km north to the more mellow Rossnowlagh Beach. The respected Bundoran Surf Co. offers lessons as well surf-and-stay packages.

And five places to avoid

  • North Shore, Hawaii: With waves regularly reaching above 10 feet in winter, this coast is no place for the novice. Hell, even experienced surfers regularly come to grief here.
  • Coolangatta, Australia: Home of the Superbank. When it’s on it’s so crowded you can almost walk out to the surf on the back of paddling surfers.
  • Port Elizabeth, South Africa: Would you surf in the same waters where tourists flock to go swimming in shark-proof cages?
  • Fuerte Ventura, Canary Islands: Sharp lava reefs, sea urchins, strong winds, localism and thumping Atlantic swells. Experienced surfers only.
  • Puerto Escondido, Mexico: Has a reputation as one of the heaviest beach breaks in the world. The waves here are consistently above head high and routinely snap surfboards like twigs.