South(ern) Africa's Indigenous People and their Culture Presented in Music and Film

Posted by Eric Brightwell, June 19, 2010 12:16pm | Post a Comment

Dusty Bushmen toddlers

I'm not a big spectator of sports (or player of them, for that matter) but it seems that events like The World Cup and The Olympics are often used to spotlight various aspects of the host country's culture. I did read one such article about South Africa in National Geographic but I haven't seen anything during the current cup about the indigenous population. OK, so maybe there aren't any bushmen on the pitch or in the stands but... well, I don't care... I started the blog entry a while ago and I'm just trying to make it relevant whilst South Africa's on our collective minds -- especially since Bafana Bafana appear to be on their way out of the cup (except as hosts) unless something miraculous happens.



Many object to the use of the term "Bushmen," which I understand. Saying Bushmen women certainly seems odd. It's imperfect but widely accepted and used among the people it describes, just like black, white, Asian or Indian (for Native Americans). The ancient common culture of all Bushmen groups is retroactively known as Sangoan, although we have no idea what they called themselves. Capoid is a term used by some... chiefly people who throw around words like Negroid, Caucasoid and Mongoloid in polite conversation. Khoisan is often used but "san" means "outsider" in the Khoi language and is therefore considered offensive by the very people it's meant to describe. Khoi Khoi is literally, "People People." The Dutch called the Khoi "Hottentots," meaning "stutterer" or "stammerer" -- a reference to the array of clicks in their language. The so-called San were generally distinguished by whites as bushmen, although now "Bushmen" is the most commonly used generic term for the entire group, so for lack of a better word, Bushmen it is.          



Genetic evidence suggests that Bushmen are one of the oldest, if not the oldest, peoples in the world, from whose ancestors all humans can trace their genetic heritage. From their ancestors, the races split off and developed, leading some to call them the "genetic Adam." Judging from both archeological and linguisitic artifacts, the pastoralist sub-group the KhoiKhoi originated in the area of northern Botswana and 10 to 20,000 years ago began migrating from their homelands, arriving at Africa's southern tip around two thousand years ago, where they co-existed with the hunter-gathering people they called San. At their peak, the Sangoan lived extensively across southern Africa in a territory stretching from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. From around 300 AD to 500 AD, the black Bantu tribes from the north, armed with iron weapons, displaced the Bushmen, whose territory shrank back to the less hospitable areas like the Kalahari Desert which was less-appealing to the pastoralist invaders. Some bushmen were absorbed into the newcomers, giving rise to groups including the Swazi, Xhosa and Zulu. The first white explorers arrived around 1500. The Bushmen population plunged when British missionaries brought smallpox. The Dutch brought guns and slavery.



In the view of their would-be benefactors, Bushmen's lives have little meaning because they don't have a flag, write novels or use Foursquare. Today Bushmen mostly live in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Mozambique, Swaziland and Angola. Since the 1990s, many have been forcibly relocated and "modernized" by paternalistic governments who claim to be operating in their victims' interest. In Botswana, the discovery of diamonds may have more to do with it than mere paternalism. Once numbering in the millions, there are now roughly 100,000 of these first people remaining.



There haven't been that many films with Bushmen that I can think of. The best known is The Gods Must Be Crazy pentalogy. Yes, pentalogy. Although most of us have only seen the first one or two, in Hong Kong, Xi was popular enough to star in three more sequels. After Gods Must Be Crazy II (1989), there was Fei zhou he shang (III) (1991), Heung Gong wun fung kwong (1993) and Fei zhou chao ren (1994). 


Mikael Salomo
n's fictional A Far Off Place (1993) concerns Bushmen in Namibia. Coca-Cola has continued to show love for the Bushmen, perhaps troubled by the fact that The Gods Must Be Crazy suggested that not everyone on the planet was familiar with the world's best known corporate brand. In 2000 they sponsored a documentary of San hunting entitled The Great Dance - A Hunter's Story (2000) directed by Craig and Damon Foster. Paula Ely, without any funding from soda conglomerates, more recently directed Vanishing Cultures - Bushmen of the Kalahari (2006).


 A shot from N!!Ai - The Story of a !Kung Woman



Other films that depict Bushmen include The Hunters (1957), which follows a group of hunters in Botswana. The director, John Marshall, released N!!Ai - The Story of a !Kung Woman (1980), a first hand account about the transition from autonomy to living off government aid at the government created community at Tsumkwe. In 2002, he released A Kalahari Family (2002), a six-hour documentary covering fifty years in the lives of the Ju??hrtoansi.





More controversial is Jamie Uys, director of the first two Gods Must Be Crazy films. He was clearly, genuinely interested in Bushmen, like Marshall, but his films are very different. One of his first films was The Condemned Are Happy, a piece of pro-apartheid propaganda about the benefits of forced relocation. Lost in the Desert (1969) depicts a lost young boy who encounters a group of Bushmen who try help him but ultimately then abandon him as a result of a misunderstanding created by the lack of a commonality. Uys also filmed Animals Are Beautiful People (1974), another documentary that plays up the human-like characteristics of animals and the animal-like nature of Bushmen. The Gods Must Be Crazy, Uys's best known film, seems on the surface to be nothing more than a gentle fable about noble savages which uses a lot of slapstick comedy to great effect. Looking deeper exposes a troubling back story and subtext to the films very much in keeping with his earlier, condescending take on apartheid.


The movie itself perpetuates stereotypes, and not just of Bushmen. In it, the white man's garbage, a discarded coke bottle, is worshiped by the silly Bushmen as a gift from god. Their simple lives suggest a window to ancient past. The bushmen are closer to animals than other humans, illustrated by Xi's conversation with a baboon. Meanwhile, black characters are all villains, buffoonish guerrillas who, even with the aid of Cubans, present no real threat to the white characters due to their stupidity. One of the pervasive subtexts is that when whites, blacks and Bushmen interact, disaster follows. If we separate ourselves based on race, order is restored -- especially if they just stay in the bush.




The official story of the film was that director Jamie Uys scoured the bush and found and befriended an honest-to-goodness stone age primitive, N!Xau. Supposedly, when the director paid him his acting fee, N!Xau let the money blow away since he had no use for it. Showman Uys exhibited N!Xau on a press tour around the world, where he stood in a loin cloth and holding a spear, much as had been done with Saartjie Baartman, the so-called "Hottentot Venus," a Khoikhoi slave who was forced to shake her rather plump derriere for the enjoyment of British audiences until her death in 1815. (After death, her genitals and brain were displayed in Paris' Musée de l'Homme until protests led to their removal in 1974.) Uys claimed that N!Xau had only ever seen one white man in his life, a missionary. When Uys would come to the bush to visit him, the director would fly over N!Xau's hunting grounds until he saw smoke signals.



Echoing Robert Flaherty's 1922 "documentary" Nanook of the North, the star was actually not familiar with spear hunting. His name, according to his manager, was spelled G!kau. In contrast to Uys's story, G!kau was actually a cook in a school. He lived not in a hut, but at a fixed residence in Tshumkwi. Uys presented G!kau with a script, which the actor, unbeknownst to the director, abandoned, providing subversive and unexpected laughs for Bushmen audiences. Although money was supposedly as useless to G!kau as dead leaves, he successfully asked for over half a million South African rands (approximately $80,000 US) to appear in the second part of the film. After retiring from film, he farmed bananas, beans and maize and grazed cattle. He July 1, 2003, he died from multi-drug resistant tuberculosis. He's buried in Tsumkwe next to the grave of his second wife.







"Eh Hee" by South African-American Dave Matthews was written as an homage to the music and culture of the Bushmen. The back story is that a young Matthews was told by a guide that in Bushmen music, "there are no words to these songs, because these songs, we've been singing since before people had words." Matthews described the song as his "homage to meeting... the most advanced people on the planet." Despite appreciating his gesture, I have always found Mr. Matthews' music somewhat difficult to listen to, so I will leave you with one of the Bushmen's songs.


Bushmen of the Kalahari Ju'Hoansi Bushmen Instrumental Music Music of !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.

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