The San are Namibia's oldest indigenous inhabitants as well as the country's poorest. For thousands of years they've lived in harmony with nature, but must now find their place in the modern world.
The nomadic San people, the original inhabitants of Namibia, were once the sole occupants of much of Southern Africa. They represent one of the few remaining indigenous populations on the continent.
The Bushmen, as they are also known, are the most marginalized and poorest inhabitants of their country. For thousands of years they have been living as nomads, and hunters and gatherers in step with the nature surrounding them.
These days, the San get most of their supplies from the shop in Tsumkwe, in the center of the in the Nyae Nyae Conservancy in the northeast Namibia, near the border with Botswana. The preserve is home to around 2,500 San. With its roughly 500 inhabitants, Tsumkwe is the largest village in the area. At the shop, the San mainly buy staple foods, explained shop manager Frans Labuschagne.
"It's mainly foodstuffs, like maize meal: these five and 10 kilogram bags (11-22 pounds) sell like the proverbial hotcakes, and sugar is really selling, and salt," he said through an interpreter.
Earning the money to pay for the goods at Labuschagne's shop can be difficult in the remote region.
Many San, usually the women, spend their days making handicrafts for the small tourist trade. Ney, a young woman, chisels ostrich eggshells into small pieces which will later be made into necklaces and bracelets.
"A bracelet can be finished in the course of a day," Ney said. "The jewelry is what brings us the most money. You craft it, sell it - and afterwards you can buy food in the shop."
New skills, new life
Ney sells her work at a small craft shop in Tsumkwe, run by Hoan. "I am happy that this shop exists, because it has changed the lives of the people," she said. "Before, they just sat around doing nothing; they didn't have opportunities."
Life has also changed for Hoan. For her new job, she learned many new skills, from bookkeeping to sales strategies. She had help from Martha Mulokoshi, a consultant for the Nyar Nyae Foundation, which offers support to the San in their transition to commercial trading.
"It's an ongoing [learning] process, stocktaking, writing out receipts - every little thing that goes on," she said. "The other thing is marketing. Our biggest current challenge is that we don't really have a market to sell our products."
By contrast, devil's claw, a root which has been used as a natural medicine for centuries, sells very well on the international market. Much of the world's supply comes from Namibia.
For a few months every year, business is all about the devil's claw. The San painstakingly gather bags of the root, cut it into small slices and dry it out. Among its many uses, it's said to be good for relieving pain from arthritis, muscle and joint pain, heartburn, fever, headaches and difficulties in childbirth.
To maintain the demand for their product, the San must produce the devil's claw according to international standards. In this respect, help also comes from outside the community. Recently, two experts from Germany and South Africa visited the area to advise in the process.
Klaus Fleissner, of the South African consultancy CRIAA, a membership-based NGO that supports rural communities and advocates for better pay for the devil's claw producers, said considerable additional training is necessary, especially when it comes to administrative work.
"The first thing we do is check all the paperwork," he said. "Then we drive out to the villages where the people are harvesting the devil's claw and look to see if they've filled in the holes again [after digging out the roots]. This guarantees sustainability, and the most important point for organic certification is sustainable harvesting."
But Fleissner said the San, who have been harvesting the root for centuries, need little help in this last area.
Aside from medicine and handicrafts, the San also occasionally bring in some good money organizing trophy hunting for adventure tourists. But soon, the Nyae Nyae Conservancy, a region covering more than 9,000 square kilometers (3,474 square miles), will be awarded community forest status, which will be a distinct advantage for the San.
"The community will have the opportunity to use [the land] commercially," said Eckhard Auch of the German International Development Service (DED), who advises the Namibian authorities and partners when it comes to community forests. "That used to be very difficult beforehand. The community will be able to administer the resources independently and this means going directly to the source, instead of always involving government agencies and forestry agencies."
Local forestry employees are also keen on the project. "It's encouraging people to conserve their natural resources. They will make an income from them. When they conserve them, they can use them for the future generations," said Rachel Andima of the forestry office in Tsumkwe.
Kunta Boo, a village elder with a face full of deep wrinkles, often takes tourists on walks, showing them how he lives off the land. The tourists pay 5 euros ($6.50) to stay at the small campsite near his settlement. A few hundred meters away, the San perform traditional dances at a village rebuilt specifically for visitors.
Making long-term plans for the future is not part of the San culture. But with steady sources of income from a sustainable mix of devil's claw, ostrich egg jewelry and tours through the bushland and future community forest, they will be able to move forward with a mix of tradition and modernity.
Authors: Jochen Berends and Susanne Henn, Namibia / cmk
Editor: Sean Sinico
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