BUSHMEN: the hunters now hunt guerillas

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The copper-colored woman looked toward the stars, holding up her infant to face the moon and praying it would be gifted with "the heart of the hunter." Her plea, according to writer Laurens van der Post, was for the child to receive the instinct for survival in the desolate stretches of southern Africa's Kalahari Desert. Mother and child were members of the Bushman race, one of the last nomadic groups of hunters and foragers in Africa.

Now, Bushmen truly are being trained to have the "heart of a hunter." But their quarry is not free-ranging land bucks or swift duiker antelope -- but men.

The South African Army is now inducting Bushmen into its ranks, teaching them to forsake traditional bows and arrows for R-1 rifles. And their phenomenal tracking skills, gleaned from centuries of stalking animals over the vast roadless stretches of southern Africa, are being employed to track down black nationalist guerrillas contesting South Africa's control of this disputed territory.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

In the process, the Bushmen's way of life is being changed -- perhaps permanently. And the time may come when, because of their role in a war that they litle understand, the Bushmen themselves may become the hunted.

Bushmen are a unique race, their wrinkled amber skin and slight stature setting them apart from either black Africans or white settlers of this region. Along with the Khoi-Khoi (Hottentots), the Khoi-San peoples -- later dubbed the "Bushmen" -- are thought to be the original inhabitants of the African sub- continent. But their nomadic wanderings, coupled with their penchant for hunting -- including domesticated livestock as well as wild game -- clashed with both blacks and whites migrating from the north and south.

The Bushmen "refused to be tamed," as Laurens van der Post writes, and were pushed into the remote wastelands of Namibia, Botswana, and Angola.

The vast, forbidding wastelands in and around the Kalahari Desert have been their protectors, keeping black and white settlements from encroaching while grudgingly yielding enough plants and animals for subsistence.

In this simmering, hostile environment, Bushmen have out of necessity developed tracking skills that other races hold in awe. Some Bushmen live in true symbiosis with the land, trusting snapped twigs as sentinels and animal footprints as signets on some higher plan for their race's sustenance and survival.

It is no wonder, then, that the South African Army -- locked in a guerrilla war with the South-West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) for control of namibia -- is only too happy to enlist Bushmen.

As a South African soldier explains, "Everything in this war goes according to the tracks."

Indeed, tracks have become all-important in the kind of bush war being waged here. Both SWAPO guerrillas, infiltrating from Angola and Zambia to the north, and South African soldiers on patrol leave tell-tale footprints: The other side often takes up the trail. A deadly stalking ensues, in which ambushes are common and a mis-reading of a spoor can mean injury or death.

So, in 1974, the South African Army set about attracting Bushmen into its ranks. Now, here at Omega Base in the far northeastern corner of the country, some 850 Bushmen sport the olive-brown uniforms -- and the 20th-century weaponry -- of the south African Defense Force (SADF).

In return for fighting SWAPO, the Bushmen are paid about $400 per month by the South Africans -- a considerable sum in these parts, and a staggering amount for people unaccustomed to cash. In addition, the SADF provides housing for some 900 women and 1,500 children of the Bushmen troops.

The military is quite proud of its efforts, and regularly steers parliamentarians, civic leaders -- and sometimes journalists -- through Omega Base. The Bushmen obligingly banter in their distinctive language, punctuated by soft clicks made with the tongue, and put on "firepower demonstrations" during which they unleash a fusillade at an imaginary band of "terrorists."

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.

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.

In a small workshop near the chapel, Bushman wives sit at sewing machines making clothing, sheets, curtains, and tablecloths under the tutelage of Annatkie Botes, wife of the base commander. By selling these products and charging soldiers modest fees to mend their uniforms, Mrs. Botes explains, the women are able to earn a small salary.

Lieutenant Wolff concedes that a cash economy once baffled the Bushmen. "When they first arrived here, their sense of money was very poor," he explains.

But now, he says, they are being taught to invest their earnings. Indeed, Bushman wives are even being offered insurance plans -- as a hedge against the death of their husbands in combat.

The soft clicking of the Bushman tongue is still used around Omega Base -- but almost exclusively among the Bushmen themselves. In fact, among the 250 whites here only Lieutenant Wolff can converse in Bushman dialect. The official language in the classrooms, at the church, or on the battlefield is Afrikaans, the language of South Africa's dominant white Afrikaner ethnic group.

Yet the Afrikaner officers here -- so fiercely protective of their own language and culture -- seem untroubled that they may be contributing to the devastation of someone else's.

Lieutenant Wolff says "we are going to get civilians" to provide expert guidance in easing the impact of Westernization on Bushman life, but admits, "to date we've had nothing like that." He does acknowledge that some problems have surfaced at the base. Women, for example, are beginning to be resentful because their traditional culture demands that they marry early and bear children at age 13 or 14 -- forcing them to drop out of school after the third grade.

Also, he says, Bushman troops sometimes yearn for unregimented ventures into the surrounding bush, and the military tries to accomodate unexpected absences or longer-than- planned leaves.

Units on patrol have to make unscheduled stops when beehives are discovered, to allow the Bushmen to indulge their proverbial passion for wild honey.

But that only underscores the growing distance between the Bushman soldier and his past. In earlier times, their predecessors might have trekked for miles across the desolate stretches of Southern Africa, pursuing a honey-diviner bird or a ratel (honey badger) headed for amber-gold honeycombs. For these Bushmen, however, raiding a hive is only a brief diversion from soldierly discipline.

Anthropologist Lee, according to press reports, has protested that the Bushmen "are important for science because they represent a way of life which was previously universal."

But what may be at stake here is far more than simply a wandering way of life: in fact, the very future of the Bushmen themselves may be in question.

Lieutenant Wolff admits that the Bushmen's involvement with the Army of the white-ruled republic means, "They will never be able to go back to angola," the country from which many of them fled as refugees during Angola's war for independence.

And if SWAPO should come to power in Namibia, as many analysts predict, retribution against the Bushmen cannot be ruled out. Their future well-being can hardly be promoted by articles like the one which appeared in Soldier of Fortune magazine last year which labeled the Bushmen as "essentially mercenaries" and headlined " their SWAPO kill-ratio is 36-1."

Lieutenant Wolff admits that the Bushmen have "no political sense" and know little about the causes in the war which they are helping to fight.

Indeed, when this reporter asked a Bushman trooper why he was involved in the conflict, he replied simply, "For the money."

But sometimes, Lieutenant Wolff says, "They do ask what's going to happen to them" in the future. His answer?

"At this stage, I can't tell them anything," he says. "I'm here for the fighting part, not the talking."

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...