Living with the San
Two years ago, while on holiday, Londoner Aislinn Pearson visited a San Bushmen village in the N*a Jaqna conservancy. Villagers there have set up a ‘living museum’ which aims to preserve some San traditions and bring in much-needed money for food. She fell in love with the people and recently returned to live among them for three months. These are her pictures and some extracts from her diary.


Day 1
I got stuck going along the road between Rooidag Heck and  the village which is to be my home for the next three months. Apparently the road was, until recently, just a donkey track and has never been gravelled. When I left Windhoek, I was told it would be fine as long as I remembered to let the tyres down. I realised at the crucial moment that I forgotten to ask how and the car got bogged down in sand about two kilometres away from the village.

I’d been walking for about five minutes when I met some Bushmen children who, via osmosis, already seemed to know my car was stuck. And then Morris – wonderful, wonderful English-speaking Morris – appeared out of the bushes with a spade. He can’t drive, but he did know how to let the tyres down and dig my car out of the sand. We eventually made it to the village, and within minutes of arriving Morris had my iPod out of my backpack and set up with speakers. Another surprise. We have spent all day listening to stuff like Beyonce, Britney Spears and Rhianna, whose lyrics seem completely out of place here, even if one Bushman is named after – and dresses like – 50 Cent.

I’m staying with a small group of Ju/’hoansi Bushmen who live in the N*a Jaqna conservancy, about an hours drive from Tsumkwe. And no, my forward slashes and bizarre markings are not spelling mistakes but rather written symbols for the clicks that fill the Bushmen’s language – a language I’m hoping to learn while I am here. I am being looked after by Morris, his wife Erna and their large extended family.


Day 4
These people are incredible. My hosts are genuinely the most considerate, most welcoming people I have ever met. Despite the fact that the water pump has run out of diesel and there might not be water for days, my drinks bottle is never empty. It often disappears and returns full a few minutes later, although God knows where they are getting the water. I never have to ask for water and they don’t even expect me to say thank you. I may sound romantic, but it is almost as if my new friends can read my mind.

Most of the time here I am happy to sit and watch life go by. Surprisingly, I am rarely bored. If I want, there is always something to do: collect firewood, cook, wash clothes, or tend to the tourists who come to visit the museum here. A lot of the time we chat, drink tea and chat, lie under the tree and chat…. The conversation never runs out, which is amazing given everyone here spends the better part of their lives together. I wonder what on earth there could be to talk about next, but there always a new snippet of gossip just around the corner.

Every so often I feel scared. I put this down to being so far from civilisation, the 40oC heat and being surrounded by miles and miles of flat brown bush that seems to go nowhere. In these moments I would trade my left leg for some of those familiar, soothing things like an ice cold drink or the ability to be instantly clean. Right now I would like an electric kettle. Isn’t it strange what you long for?


Day 15
It rained again last night. That kind of intense African rain that blows in from the east and has you out fighting with the flaps of your tent and wrapping your bed in spare pieces of plastic in the middle of the night. Still, the sky is grey this morning, and the cool weather is a welcome break from the intense heat. Suddenly the bush is so green it hardly seems like the same place as when I arrived.

I woke up at 7.15 today – very late here – and had my first official Ju/’Hoansi lesson with N!aro Gxao, which apparently means ‘to teach and to learn’. The language is incredible. The four basic clicks are relatively simple. It’s when you try and combine these with letters like ‘K’, ‘X’ and ‘G’ that it becomes impossible. Most of these sounds are made in the back of the mouth and practising has given me a very sore throat. The slightest intonation in your voice can change the meaning of what you are saying completely. In the first few days I made the mistake of trying to ask someone’s name and ending up asking well … about the male genitalia. ‘!u’ it turns out definitely not the same as ‘n!u’, although the Bushmen took several days to point this out to me. Eventually, after I had asked after the genitalia of several members of the community, my poor teacher was asked to explain the difference.

I realised today that I hadn’t brushed my teeth in days. That is life here - it doesn’t seem out of place to forget to brush your teeth.


Day 20
I was woken at the ‘first chicken’, as the Bushmen would say. I’ve decided to pay the villagers to build me a hut and today we went out gathering grasses for my roof.  After a long walk and three hours spent tearing up grass from its roots, my hands were bleeding. In contrast, N!amace’s wife Beh effortlessly managed to gather a bundle twice the size of mine, in half the time, and with a baby on her hip.

When we got back from the bush, just as I was thinking about boiling the kettle for a caffeine and sugar fix, /Gao arrived. /Gao is a medicine man and hunter. Occasionally he goes into trance and asks the ancestors where the animals and best plants are to be found. Today /Gao told me how they train young medicine men. During their training they must not ‘clean their plate’ as /Gao put it (they must go hungry). They learn to make their body soft, so it moves easily when they are dancing and, when they are ready, their teacher takes them to meet all the different families of ancestors in the spirit world. The apprentice then stays in a trance for four days with the teacher watching him. 

To the rest of us it appears he is sleeping, and he doesn’t wake up or eat at all during the four days. /Gao says this is very dangerous – not because he spends all four days sleeping and will not wake up, even to drink – but because, while in the spirit world, he must hide in the grass and under the bark of trees so the ancestors won’t find him. It they do find him, they might not allow him to return.

Dinner was bread and jam given to us by some tourists who had visited the museum. The Bushmen are not allowed to hunt in the conservancy so we rarely have fresh meat. Trophy hunters however are allowed to kill game here and they pass on the meat to villagers. We were given some giraffe meat a few days ago which – to be honest – didn’t taste great.

We usually have one main meal a day of rice or pasta with a tin of meat bought from a local shop. We also eat a lot of nuts and ‘monkey oranges’ – huge hard oranges – that grow here in the bush. 


Day 40
I was lying in the shade with Erna on the verge of drifting into sleep when some Polish tourists arrived at the museum and opted for a walk around the village. Although I did contemplate running into my new house to hide, they actually turned out to be a very friendly bunch. It was odd because I had never really thought of the Polish as the globe-trotting type but it turns out I couldn’t have been more mistaken or met a more well-travelled group of people. You would think that after spending so much time with the Bushmen, I would have let go of all my preconceptions. I guess some habits just die hard.

The question came up of what I missed the most. And, despite thinking for several minutes, I couldn’t come up with anything anymore. I have got used to this crazy life and doing without western comforts no longer bothers me. In fact, I love it. I realise that I am happier here than I have been just about anywhere. I can’t put my finger on it or explain why, but when I am here, I don’t dream about being anywhere else. Maybe it has something to do with the people and their forgiving nature, or the fact that you can take every day at a time, living today without having to worry about tomorrow. I don’t know, but I was suddenly very glad that I didn’t have to think about leaving for at least another month.


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