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BUSHMEN: the hunters now hunt guerillas

(Page 2 of 3)

These demonstrations sometimes start with a mock ambush of a convoy carrying the visitors who, after getting over the shock of the initial land mine blast, usually are delighted with the spectacle of Bushmen blasting away at the brush.

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Between these exhibitions the Bushmen go about the deadly serious business of soldiering, usually in north-central Namibia, ferreting out SWAPO cadres and engaging them in firefights. One South African soldier says the Bushmen's marksmanship is "a matter of debate," but their keen tracking skill and composure under fire is not. One Bushman has been posthumously awarded the Honoris Crux, the highest military honor in South Africa.

But as they alternate roles between attractions and artillerymen, curiosities and commandos, something is happening to the Bushmen. The South African military says they are gradually being brought into the 20th century, with its attendant material benefits.

But Richard Lee, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, has been quoted as saying, "They are being ground to death in the South African war machine." According to Professor Lee, the very ethos of Bushmen life is being threatened by their exposure to Western ways of war.

Officers here at Omega Base bristle at such suggestions, however. "Our aim is not to try to Westernize them," says Lieut. Ben Wolff, a white commander, "but to make them better Bushmen."

The SADF's qualifications for that task are questionable, however. Only now, some six years after enlisting the first Bushmen, is the military consulting with ethnologists and anthropologists to determine the impact of soldiering on Bushman traditions and culture.

It is clear, however, that the impact is substantial. For one thing, the Bushmen here -- about equally divided between the Barakwena and !Kung tribes -- have forsaken the traditional nomadic life of their ancestors.

No longer do these Bushmen rove the sandveldm , foraging for roots and tubers, felling game, pausing at hidden waterholes, and constructing simple grass lean-tos. Instead, they live in rows of identical bungalows. Food and water are trucked into the base, and there is running water from wells. The Army is even undertaking agricultural projects to teach them rudimentary farming methods.

Some of the Bushmen here cling to traditional remedies for their maladies, concocted from wild herbs, berries, and roots. However, about 500 Bushmen turn up each month at the tin- roofed military hospital here on the base, where they receive Western-style medicines and even consultations with a physiotherapist.

The yawning gap between cultures is perhaps most strikingly evident to Bushman children, however. Since the Army has erected a cluster of classrooms on the edge of the base, the open veld has been supplanted as a school, and math problems have replaced mantises as objects for quiet, patient study. Their teachers? White South African troops.

These children do not imbibe the arcane skills of living off the land by actually doing it. Instead, they are given week-long "bushcraft" sessions by senior Bushmen officers once each month.

Late at night, some of the Bushmen here still gather around fires deep in the woodlands and perform the dances and rituals celebrating their traditional worship of the earth, animals, their ancestors, and the sky. But here at Omega Base, a young Army chaplain, Lieut. Gert van Rooyen of the Dutch Reformed Church , is busily converting them.

The base now has 159 "baptized and confessed" Christians, he says proudly.