Think Outside the Fence
by Bruce Northam

The problem with fences is, once built, you don't know if you're inside or outside. The thoughts of a Botswana bushman, very roughly translated.

Africa travel

Africa's Kalahari Desert Bush Peoples' age-old ways of life - innately bound to their ancient ancestors - are slowly fading. A few still lay claim to the idea of continuity, despite the inevitability of change. Traditionally, San Bushmen were expected to provide meat for their women and the women were expected to gather roots, fruits and herbs. Boys could get married by age ten, if they could bring home the meat. Women were initiated after puberty, and then stayed inside for four months before emerging to select a husband. If Mrs. judged Mr. a slacker, she could trade in for another man. Many clans never had chiefs and elders made the key decisions.

It all went up in smoke when white colonists assigned Kalahari tribes particular precincts of activity. The Bushman had difficulty embracing private property and animal ownership. They were perplexed for being arrested when hunting and eating cattle that was grazing on land their people used to inhabit and roam freely. But the bush fire is not completely out. In the late 1990's the South African president flew to a dusty squatter camp on the edge of the Kalahari and ceremoniously handed over to two bushman leaders - likely having no idea they were in Botswana - the rights to their ancestral lands from which they had been evicted half a century before.

Bush people are shy and tend to keep their distance from non-familial groups. Surviving on personally hunted meat, edible insects, wild fruits and vegetables is pretty much a thing of the past. Yet elements of their kinship structure hang on. For instance, they have difficulty understanding community and employment outside of their immediate families. I was told of instances where bush descendents trained for months for a job, then after three months on the job, just as they're approaching proficiency, they disappear and "give" the job to an untrained relative.

San Bushmen average 5'6" in height and every face tells a story. Their natural rows of peppercorn hair, Asian-almond shaped eyes, yellowish skin and high cheekbones melds an attractive likeness found nowhere else on earth. I meandered with my Botswanan guide, Teeho, cresting endless parallel sand dunes that are the epic Kalahari Desert's wavy signature. In search of animal tracks, edible plants and bugs, our path met a fence - officially called the Veterinary Cordon Fence. This 3000-km series of barriers, mostly 1.5 meters high, was built to keep the wild animals separated from cattle ranches. Unfortunately, it impedes natural migration routes of animals and Bushman, and their access to water when their routine water holes dry.

Teeho set his hand on the fence, fell silent, and peered through it like a savant conducting valuable research despite scant resources. He whispered, I stared through the fence, witnessing only desert sand and brush. He peeked my way and voiced again, then began pacing back and forth along the fence, wearing a pensive but aloof majesty. He sauntered back and forth several times, trading his glance between me and the "property" on the other side of the fence.

Later, in a sightseer lodge fifty miles away, I took on the role of code cracker, trying out various phonetic spellings and pronunciations of their primary native tongue. The most notable feature of Bushman is the use of the so-called "click" consonants, produced by drawing air into the mouth and clicking the tongue. Since conventional spellings are obviously inadequate to represent these sounds, an assortment of lines, dots, and other marks are used. I asked the staff what meant. A minute later, a Bush/Dutch mixed local sitting at the end of the bar chimed in, "Means lion."

In the middle of that night, lying on my back gazing into the southern constellations, the meaning of the bushman's communique fused. As he stared through the fence - the symbol of the private property alienating his people - he emulated a detained lion, pacing back and forth the way caged animals do in zoos all over the world, and pretty much everywhere else.


If trouble finds you, don't surrender the lesson connected to it. Unsettling things happen. Move on. For lucky animals, and a few lingering migratory humans, stay really means being able to go. The handful of nomads wandering across an increasingly partitioned planet must rely on very strong instincts to endure. It's OK to struggle, and occasionally slip, on the path you know is right.

Allow your mistake ledger to compile a stack of wisdom that you stand upon to peer over the top of walls that conceal an incoming waste of time.

"The moment the slave resolves that he will no longer be a slave, his fetters fall. He frees himself and shows the way to others. Freedom and slavery are mental states." - Mahatma Gandhi.

Bruce Northam is an award-winning travel writer and speaker. He is the author of Globetrotter Dogma and editor of In Search of Adventure: A Wild Travel Anthology.

Story posted 12/30/05.

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