The Bushman—Africa’s Master of Survival
By “Awake!” correspondent in South Africa
“THE last Bushman.” So declared the October 26, 1983, issue of The Star Today! “Once,” the Star continued, “millions of Mountain Bushmen roamed the Cape, Natal and Transvaal mountains.” Yet it appeared that all that was left of this once proud race was a diminutive old man named Japie Mabinde.
However, thousands of Japie Mabinde’s race still live in the neighbouring Kalahari Desert. Their saga of survival in the face of hardship and genocide is thrilling to review.
War With Blacks and Whites
When the black African tribes began to penetrate southern Africa, they found that these lands were already occupied by the Bushmen—a race of unusually small people whose average height is only about 4 feet 10 inches (1.47 m). The Bushmen also differ from black Africans in that their skin is of a yellowish tinge.
For a while the black and yellow natives were able to dwell in the same land peaceably. The black tribes learned to respect the Bushmen because of their knowledge of the land and its wildlife. There was even an old Sesotho proverb: “The Bushman is the teacher.” But peaceful coexistence did not last for long.
In the 17th century, white settlers arrived, shooting and driving away wild game—the Bushmen’s prized food. The Bushmen retaliated by stealing livestock. The result? A bitter war between Bushman and white settler that lasted almost 200 years! Then came 1802 and a famine that drove the black tribes to warring among themselves. Shortages of land and food led inevitably to clashes with the Bushmen. In time the little hunters found themselves confined to the Drakensberg and Lesotho mountains.
War with both black and white antagonists continued, however. The Bushman defended what was left of his land with the tactics of desperation: murder, theft, vandalism. But guns and numbers eventually gained the mastery over the tiny hunters, and in 1869, at the command of British colonial authorities, the last organized band of mountain Bushmen was wiped out. Only a few isolated groups remained by the turn of the 20th century.
Few mourned this genocide. In 1897 George Theal, a former representative of the colonial government in the Cape, said: “One may feel pity for savages such as these, destroyed in their native wilds, though there is little reason for regretting their disappearance . . . it was for the world’s good that they should make room for a higher race.”*
The Kalahari Bushmen
The Bushmen, though, did not all disappear. Thousands survived in the Kalahari—a vast thirstland originally avoided by black and white pastoralists alike. It is a land devoid of surface water. What little rain falls in the summer dries up quickly, making the land suitable for neither agriculture nor cattle raising. Yet the Bushmen have developed ingenious ways of coping. For example, they take wild melons and bulbous roots and scrape them into a pulp. Out of this pulp they squeeze a trickle of precious liquid. Or they detect water hidden beneath the desert sands and suck it up with long hollow reeds.
Living off the land also requires them to become expert botanists. To this day, a Bushman girl can identify 75 different plants before the age of eight. And on reaching adulthood, she will have an intimate knowledge of some 300 species. One Bushman woman astonished an accomplished botanist, Brian Maguire, when she was able to differentiate between two plants that he, the “expert,” thought were identical. Explains German scientist Dr. H. J. Heinz: “Generally speaking modern botany separates species essentially on appearance . . . [whereas Bushmen] assess the smell, feeling, texture, taste and appearance.”
The Bushman is also a formidable hunter. First he tracks down a herd and selects his quarry. Crawling on elbows and knees, he gets as close as possible and then releases a poisoned arrow. Immediately the herd darts off, but the Bushman relentlessly tracks his quarry. After witnessing several hunts, Alf Wannenburg wrote: “Everything is noticed, considered and discussed. The kink in a trodden grass blade, the direction of the pull that broke a twig from a bush, the depth, size, shape and disposition of the tracks themselves, all reveal information about the condition of the animal or herd, which direction it is moving in, the rate of travel and what its future movements are likely to be.” It sometimes takes more than a day for the poison to have its full effect, but eventually the wounded animal falls behind and is overtaken by his pursuer.
Conservationist and Chemist
Because the land means life for them, the Bushmen have developed a healthy respect for it. So when they gather food, they are careful to move on before denuding an area. Believing that the Creator would punish them for killing an animal unnecessarily, they never hunt for sport. Once a group of Bushmen chanced upon a nest of ostrich eggs—highly valued among them as a source of food and as water storage utensils. Nevertheless, they left the nest alone until they were sure that the hen had finished laying. They then examined and carefully shook each egg, returning those that contained developing chicks. No wonder that some describe the Bushman as “the world’s greatest conservationist”!
Bushmen also developed a knack for “chemistry.” They learned to mix quality paints for their famous rock paintings, which, according to some, are “judged the world’s best primitive art for their accuracy and honesty of observation.” These beautiful drawings have successfully withstood weathering for centuries! From the larvae of the Diamphidia and the Polyclada beetles they also developed effective poisons with which they coat their arrows. Once in the bloodstream, these poisons mean certain death for man or beast—there is no antidote.
The South African Bushmen even learned how to “innoculate” themselves against snakebite. They would hold back the head of a dead snake and gently scrape their arms with its fangs. Then a drop of poison would be squeezed out of the fangs and rubbed over the scratches. Equally clever was a chemical concoction they used against the black-maned Cape lion. White settlers were eventually forced to annihilate these monstrous lions. But the Bushmen managed to dwell among them for centuries. The secret? A substance they burned at their campfires that acted as a lion repellent!
Future Prospects for Survival
Today about 55,000 Bushmen inhabit the Kalahari and its fringes. But their life-style as hunters and gatherers is threatened. Boreholes have been sunk to obtain water for cattle raising. The Bushmen, too, have welcomed these permanent water sources, but there have also been disadvantages. “The majority of today’s Bushmen,” explains the Encyclopædia Britannica, “have been dispossessed of their territories by European and Bantu cattle raisers. The intrusion of cattlemen has reduced the supply of game animals and [edible] plants.”
The Kalahari, once able to sustain the Bushman, is thus fast becoming a desert. “It wasn’t a desert before,” renowned author and explorer Sir Laurens van der Post reminds us. “We called it that only because there was no surface water. It’s packed with a unique animal and vegetable life.” Van der Post therefore mourns this predicament of the Bushman “because he was rich in the way in which we are poor. . . . He was contained in nature. Nature wasn’t his enemy.” Yes, though he once looked down upon the Bushmen as savages, modern man must now face the fact that he has much to learn from these intrepid survivors.
Now the Bushmen face yet another threat to their existence as a race: assimilation by Western culture. To what extent they will be able to remain intact as a people remains to be seen. Perhaps this will prove the greatest challenge yet to Africa’s master of survival.
The 1875 edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica described the Bushmen as “degraded” and “the lowest existing type of mankind.”
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The Origin of the Bushman
Bushman folklore tells of a time when the earth was covered with water and how a person “of the early race” survived. This hero, named Mantis, is associated with the rainbow, and it is said that the first Bushman descended from him. This legend bears a remarkable similarity to the Bible’s account of the Noachian Flood.—Genesis 7:6, 7; 9:8-16.
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“That’s How It Should Be”
Jehovah’s Witnesses have endeavored to share their hope of a righteous New Order under God’s direction with their Bushmen neighbours in southern Africa. (Revelation 21:3, 4) At least one Bushman, named Johannes, responded to their message—although he later died of tuberculosis. However, the “last” of the mountain bushmen, Japie Mabinde, seen to the left, has also had opportunity to hear the Bible’s message.
Early in 1984 Jehovah’s Witnesses spoke to him. He was shown John 5:28, 29 in the Zulu Bible and told of the prospect of seeing deceased members of his race return in a resurrection. “I’m very happy,” Mr. Mabinde said, “because it’s the Bible that says so.” He was particularly delighted when shown an artist’s conception of the Paradise conditions the Bible prophesies will one day prevail earth wide. “Yes,” said he, “that’s how it should be.”
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A family of Bushmen sit around a campfire in their Kalahari Desert home
By courtesy of the Africana Museum