Africa – A first journey into a beautiful continent. Part 3: Visiting the San tribe

Continuing our trip, we left Windhoek on another early morning and had a rather emotional moment, as parts of our group stayed behind. When I booked a 18 day trip, I didn’t realize that it was actually split in two parts. Cape Town – Windhoek and Windhoek – Victoria Falls. So four group members left and we welcomed eight new ones. Keeping things fresh. The good news for me though, after sharing with a German guy for the first part, I got to sleep on my own for the rest of the tour, as numbers were odd and I got lucky.

Our first stop after another interesting African border crossing was the Ghanzi Trail Blazers camp. The camp is a recreated San bushmen village, offering a westernized view on the life of the local tribes. The rustic traditional grass huts actually have a concrete floor and even lights, but electricity is switched off at 11 pm and you’ll be relying on your flashlight as well as shared facilities but separated by genders.

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Each hut has two tiny beds inside and thankfully a mosquito net, which was needed badly, as the ‘doors’ don’t really close and you could hear all sorts of insects and flying things celebrating when entering the quite small hut.

The main reason we stayed here, as I’m not going to get into details about a tour provider saving money on accommodations and selling it as the ‘really authentic’ experience, was to meet the people of the San tribe. The San are part of the bigger Khoisan tribe, which splits into the San and the Khoikhoi, previously known as the Hottentots.

*Private memory on*

The Hottentots were often misused by my mom and grandma to describe untidiness aka my room for most parts of my teenager life, as they always said “it looks like we’re at the Hottentots”.

*Private memory off*

From what we’ve learned on site, the tribe used to live freely in the area as hunters – gatherers, but  government-mandated modernization programs forced them to relocate them to a provided area, changing their lifestyle from semi-nomads to ‘modern’ citizens, relying on farming and a permanent home. They used to only own the clothes on their back, tools and of course weapons like bows and spears for hunting. Their ancestors are considered to have been the first inhabitants of what is now Botswana and South Africa.

Guests at the Trail Blazer camp have the opportunity through the activities offered to have a glimpse of San Bushman culture, which is fast disappearing, providing San Bushman with sustainable employment.

After a couple of cold beers at the bar, we met a few people of the San for a bush walk.

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We all went through a traditional greeting ceremony before they took us on a 45 min long tour through the area around the camp, showing off their knowledge about plants and roots, explaining in a very animated way of what these were used for and gave us a glimpse into their language, which is a typical African click language and really impossible for us to use.

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There was only one guy speaking English, as he went to school when he was younger, who translated all explanations and animated people to try leaves and roots. I personally tried some myself and it is really interesting how simple leaves can taste or how much they store. You can easily hydrate from some of the plants.

The younger women were carrying their kids on their backs, but as much of a kid animator as I usually am (I can turn to a 3 year old kid within a millisecond), those were just ignoring me.

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We’re not sure what would be happening to these giant caterpillars after the walk, but I was quite amazed by the size.

The atmosphere was friendly, as we had lots of smiles all around, but I just couldn’t get off the feeling that something was odd. We found out later, that the English speaking member of the group was not liked very much and he also tried to oversell a lot of the things they told or showed us, especially at the dance in the evening. A few days later, we heard that he was fired and I must admit, that was a bit sad in retrospect.

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For me as a photographer, this was still like heaven. Although it was a set up walk and not a real genuine experience, a look into the culture and even though just interacting mostly through hand signs and face expressions, it was leaving you with a feeling of connection. It is hard to describe I believe, but language really isn’t always the key to everything. Communication can easily be done in other forms.

The photography part of it still felt like a unique chance for portraits and a documentary styled series, which I hope you’ll get out of this blog post as well. They might be used to tourists taking their pics and some of them actually posed, but others were quite hard to get on camera.

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As the walk continued, we got to know more about their skills and usage of naturally provided tools for making fire, carrying water, etc.

An ostrich egg for example, is a perfect water transportation system. It’s shell is hard enough to not break easily and the San carried them in a little leather holster on their side. I didn’t get to taste, but it was a nice change from our plastic bottle infested world.

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Fire was made using a hand drill and while this is something I’ve seen plenty on TV, it was quite nice to see it live in action. It went very quick as well, and the ember was good to get a fire going.

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Beside the fire being a good time for a short break, the tribesman gathered around and also used it to get their ‘little’ pipe out. They did mention that it was nothing bad and all natural ingredients, but I’m still suspicious about what was stuffed into the pipe!

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The walk came to an end shortly after and most of us had smiles on their faces. I like to believe everybody enjoyed the experience. A pick up truck was waiting for them at the camp and they drove off sitting on the bed, which felt wrong, but is just signs of modern times.

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We met the San again later, as we had also booked a dancing performance after dinner. When traveling, I like to carry my little Fujifilm Instax Printer and a few cartridges of film with me. As an example, back in Myanmar I was able to hand out a few pics of school kids to them and their teachers, or gave a picture to a tea shop owner, featuring his old dad peacefully sitting in front of a stove. These moments are always special.

My bag was probably the heaviest of our group, but I didn’t regret bringing extra things like the printer with me. It was nice to print out a few of the shots that I’d made during the walk and give something back beside money.

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There’s a new version of the printer out, but both can easily be accessed by WiFi, either from your Fujifilm camera or your smartphone through an app. I don’t get anything for these recommendations, but check it out if you’re interested, it is a great thing to carry around. Of course you can also buy an Instax camera, but then you don’t have a digital copy for yourself!

For the dance, a bonfire was set up and it created a nice atmosphere. The women assembled aound the fire and started clapping and singing, while the men performed traditional dances of various types, mostly featuring wild animals and imitating their movements in the wild.

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It was a nice ending to a day in the Kalahari Desert, even though I wouldn’t really enjoy the night later. The air in the huts was a bit sticky and my mosquito net had a few holes in them, which gave me a bit of unnecessary anxiety. All in all, it was good to be there, spend time with the San and get to know them a bit better, as I had no idea about them or their culture before traveling to Botswana.

I’m also very excited about the pics I got out of the walk, but it was hard to shoot the dance in almost total darkness. The last pics were shot in high ISO (3200-6400) and wide open at f1.4 in case you’re wondering.

If you get to visit the Ghanzi Trail Blazers on a tour (most companies stop here), I hope you’ll enjoy the company of the San and please let me know what you thought about it.  One tip, upgrades to ‘real’ rooms are available 😉

 

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