The San (Bushman), the earliest known inhabitants of Namibia, belong to the Khoesan people. Generally short in stature, they have light yellow-brown skins, while their language, which differs among the various groups, is characterised by numerous click sounds.
The San in Namibia are divided into five main groups, each with their own history, customs and language. What was formerly known as Bushmanland is the area in Namibia that is most frequently associated with the San people. The Ju/’hoansi of eastern Bushmanland have retained some of their traditional territories and still pursue their traditional way of life to some extent by gathering veld food, while hunting with the use of traditional weapons is still pursued.
The Hai//om traditionally inhabited Etosha, as well as the Kunene and Western and Eastern Kavango regions. The !Kung, which had the widest traditional distribution in Namibia, include the Ju/’hoansi in Bushmanland where they have retained some access to their traditional territory. The Bwabwata National Park forms part of the traditional core territory of the Kxoe-speaking San.
These hunter-gatherers roamed the southern African plains for thousands of years in small nomadic groups. The wealth of rock paintings and engravings in mountains and hills throughout Namibia bear witness to their former extensive range. The oldest rock art dates back some 28 000 years. The Brandberg has one of the largest concentrations of rock paintings in Africa, while Twyfelfontein, Namibia’s first World Heritage Site, has one of the richest collections of rock engravings on the continent.
The San were systematically displaced and dispossessed of their traditional territories – first with the arrival of the Bantu- speaking people and later by the arrival of white settlers – and driven out to the most remote and harsh environments of southern Africa. Most of the San became farmworkers, while large numbers joined the South African Defence Force during the war of independence.
Beadwork made from ostrich eggshell, seeds, berries, roots and segments of porcupine quills have formed part of the San people’s traditional crafts for thousands of years. Glass beads were traded with other communities while plastic beads are nowadays also used.
Functional items such as bags traditionally used for collecting wild fruit and berries are made from softened antelope skin. Traditional San crafts can be bought at the Namibia Craft Centre in Windhoek and G!hunku Crafts situated next to the Nyae Nyae Conservancy office in Tsumkwe.
EXPERIENCING SAN CULTURE
The Living Museum of the Ju’Hoansi at Grashoek and the Living Museum of the Little Hunters provide a fascinating insight into the history, culture and customs of the San people. TUCSIN Tsumkwe Lodge in Tsumkwe conducts a variety of half-day and full-day tours that feature aspects such as gathering of veld foods, hunting and traditional dancing. Other activities include village tours and half-day tours. Muramba Bushman Trails are conducted by Reinhard Friedrich on his farm near Tsintsabis. He has an outstanding knowledge of the Hai//om San and speaks their language fluently. Visitors can interact with the Ju/’Hoansi-San by participating in several programmes at Omandumba Guest Farm in the Erongo Mountains. Omandumba is renowned for its large number of rock art sites and variety of paintings.