They are a Dancing Culture

They are a Dancing Culture

“Here, where you see our people now, we have been since the beginning of memory” (Van Der Post, 1958).

Words of a bushmen. We have no way of knowing 100% how it all began, but more and more findings and research tells us that we all came out of Africa at some point.

San man

Mother Earth is losing her original indigenous peoples to modern day cultures. Some people may not be too bothered about this and feel this is a normal progression in life. Others may feel a sadness of losing such great knowledge, ways of life and understandings from days gone by.

I fall into the latter group. When I look out into the world with all my experiences and realizations, I come to a conclusion that modern day man has made decisions that have caused extreme pain resulting in drastic consequences. I believe these decisions have been made with a lack of understanding and appreciation for cultures that are different to modern day cultures. They have made assumptions that these people are savages and ignorant, and through that perspective have taken exteme action based on an arrogance and lack of understanding.

Now some people may take offence to hearing that, and that is not my intent. This is my understanding and interpretation to what I have learnt and witnessed. I grew up with this type of attitude, but it was based on a belief that modern day man knows best. That the intentions were to save these people, to educate them, to help them join the modern day world; but no time was given to listen and understand them.

There has been very little effort to learn from these indigenous peoples on how they live and survive in their world. There has been very little effort to reach out and try and understand a world that has worked for them since the beginning of time.

Instead, land has been forcefully taken from them, and they have been chased out of the forests, children have been taken from their homes and forced to abandon their cultures to live in the modern world. Many, many, many of these people have died fighting to save their lives and their cultures.

This sadly still goes on today. The San or Bushmen, they are one and the same, are one of these indigenous tribes still fighting for their rights to live their traditional ways.

From freely moving across the southern lands of Africa, the San are now forced to live in the Kalahari Desert where they have learnt how to survive in a harsh and barren land. Yet still they are persecuted. Their story of survival is no different from many other indigenous survival stories of today. Their cries are not heard; either they conform and move into today’s society or they perish.

So let’s take a bit of time here and just dip our toes into an ancient and fascinating culture belonging to our ancestors, the “First People” that we’re told have been here since the beginning of memory.

“Science is telling us that every human-being currently living can trace his or her lineage directly to the Bushman woman who lived about 172,000 years ago in Southwest Africa.” (2) 

Old San woman

Not only do I find this knowledge fascinating, but very profound to think that all humanity comes from the same womb. Wow. Does that not leave a sense of wanting to reach out and introduce ourselves to our ancestors of many, many moons ago; to share stories with each other and get to know our San brothers and sisters?

Once a upon a time many, many moons ago, the San roamed the lands of Southern Africa without threats from others. They lived a life of freedom and in harmony with each other, and the land that was their home. Then these lands were discovered by the Bantu tribes of Africa migrating south, and the Europeans moving in from Europe; and so the beginning of the end began and the fighting for survival.

The Bushmen, as they call themselves collectively, but in actuality this is a derogatory name that came about from the first Europeans, are also known as the San, or Saan. Their cultural ways are one of the oldest cultures in our world today, and have not changed much in the last 20,000 years.

In order to survive the San relied on large tracts of land as they are hunter gatherers. Originally they roamed the large tracks of land of southwest Africa, but through time and persecution they now are mainly found living in the Kalahari Desert.

Edge of the world

Remember the movie “The Gods must be Crazy”? It was about a coke bottle that fell from the heavens, and a bushman who wanted to throw this strange thing off the edge of the world as it brought so much upheaval and unrest within his family; it was looked upon as a very bad thing. This movie actually paints a fairly real description of the Sans values and priorities which hold their families and communities together.

There is no hierarchy and no chiefs within a tribe. Women are looked upon as equal to men. They are fully respected and play equal roles in decision making. Traditionally there can be up to 50 people living within a community. Decisions are come by through agreements, and if there is disagreements that cannot be solved then those not in favour will just leave the community. (3)

Both males and females work together as equal partners; men are the hunters, and women are the gathers. Women will help with the hunting at times if need be, as will men help women gather food, get water and firewood. (4)

Women are free to choose their own husbands. There is no rule that you can only have only husband or one wife. Both man and woman are free to have more than one partner if they desire, but as divorce is not frowned upon and easily obtained, this is not a common occurrence. Adultery, which is looked upon as taboo and very disrespectful, is also a non occurrence due to the ease of divorce. Rape is unheard of. (4)

They never tire of their children. Children are never left alone, they are stroked, kissed, played with, danced with, sung to; they are treasured and loved by everyone in the community. (4)

San family
Elder and child

Elders are highly respected and looked upon as wise and knowledgeable, and are seeked out to guide the community when need be; they too have roles to play.

Loneliness and separation are unheard of and play no role within the community. (4)

Uncontrollable laughter is very much a part of the San culture. There is a laughter known as the Holy Ghost or holy laughter where you can’t stop laughing. It is this laughter that the San enjoy. They know it as “the laughter caused by the ancestors”.

“The ancestors like to come inside us; there they can feel the world of flesh again”(Keeney, 2010).

Holy laughter

The San eat both meat and vegetables. They don’t waste any part of an animal; bones are cracked for the marrow, and skins are tanned for blankets. They have a vast knowledge about plants and have categorized thousands of them into different groups, such as nutritional, medicinal, poisonous, mystical and recreational. (6)

They are known for their deep connection to their land, for their intimate knowledge of their natural world, and the delicate balance they have maintained for millennia within their environment. (7). An example of this is their relationship to the Honey Diviner. This is a small bird that loves honey just as much as the San do. The only problem is, the Honey Diviner cannot get the honey out of the hive. So a relationship has developed between the Honey Diviner and the San hunter. When the bird finds a beehive it flies to a San community chirpy  “come, come quickly I have found honey”. So off they go both hunter and bird to the beehive. The San hunter extracts the honey, and both Honey diviner and hunter share the spoils.

“They represent a people who truly lived in harmony with nature. Our ecological “light” footprint would be classed as extremely heavy, theirs did not cause a ripple” (8).

The San are artistic and are famous for their art rock, but it is dancing and singing that play a central role in their lives. It’s a way they pray to their ancestors and to their Gods. (9). I read something I want to share verbatim. I find this description of the importance of dance in their culture deeply moving.

San dancing

“Bushman culture is a dancing culture: “the movements and sensations of the body in relationship and interaction with others constitute their way of knowing and being. They are a dancing culture. They know through dance, and they dance their ideas, emotions, and laughter as well as their bodies. Their world moves, like the changing seasons, and they move with it, valuing the constant movement and change more than any-one static moment” (10).

To get a clearer understanding of their dancing culture just click the link below “The way of the Bushman dance, love and God in Africa“, it’s fascinating.

Times have changed though, just like so many other cultures that modern day society have tried to disband, the San are struggling for survival. There are approximately 100,000 different San tribes left with only half of that population still living their traditional ways. They are fighting the system to be allowed to stay where they are, but diamonds have been discovered in the area. So who will win? It’s another very sad, sad story resulting in alcoholism, depression and sickness.

Here is an ancient culture, possibly the oldest culture in our history, a culture that lived in harmony within its own community and the land it called home. A sustainable culture whose values worked in sync with everyone, as well as the land and animals. A people who worked together with a belief in equality. A peace loving people who today are lost. But in actuality I believe it is us in modern day society who are the losers. There was, and hopefully still is, so much we could, or hopefully still can learn from them if only we can just move beyond our concept of believing we know best.

I came across this youtube video put together by Charlie Simpson & San Bushman: Walking with the San/Singing in the Rainforest.

Charlie and his band went and stayed with a tribe in Namibia for about 10 days to learn something about the tribe and their music. While there they created this song with some of the tribe. As he says, “it’s the coming together of two different worlds”. This is exactly my idea of weaving cultural trails where we can come together with our brothers and sisters of the world and learn from each other with hopes of finding new ways forward.

Enjoy this beautiful piece of musical art.

Van Der Post, L. (1986). The Lost World of the Kalahari (17th ed.). Great Britian: Penquin Books. / CC BY-NC 2.0

Keeney, B. Phd. (2010). The Bushman way of tracking God. New York: Atria Books.

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