My Interview With a Hunter-Gatherer

photo(3)There I was, sitting down for dinner after my first afternoon tracking animals in the Kwara Camp of Botswana, Africa. The thick aroma of what smelled like a mixture of wild animals, along with dung and an unfamiliar earthiness, made me realize I was in a macrocosm of life far removed from the sterile man-made environment I had traveled from 24 hours prior.   I couldn’t help but wonder if there might be some trace of an olfactory memory encoded in my genes of this land I had left behind hundreds of thousands of years ago. I closed my eyes, inhaled the air deep into my lungs, searching for any remembrance of my past.  Nothing.  All I felt was  hunger after a long bumpy ride through the backwoods of  the Okavanga Delta in search of animals I had only seen behind cages or on the Discovery Channel.  I was a city girl in a foreign land. A land that felt to me like a reverse zoo of sorts. I was in their territory, on the inside looking out.

My ‘cage’ was a tiny, well appointed camp, positioned off a sandy dirt road an eight hour drive (or in my case, a short puddle jumper plane ride), from the nearest paved road, and located in one of the most remote places on the planet.IMG_2705

Before dinner, while being escorted to my tent by a guide wielding a flashlight (that was the only way we were allowed to walk around at night), I asked if I could sit on the front porch of my tent to gaze at a sky I had never seen, much less one so brilliantly littered with stars. The guide answered in his broken english, “If you do, you will visit heaven”.  I chose to go to dinner.

Sitting next to me at the dinner table was my group’s safari guide, Dix, who had just tracked us a lion lounging with his fresh kill next to him; some type of antelope with it’s bloody ribcage exposed just a few feet from our open air truck.  I suppose this was meant to wet our appetite before dinner.  What happened after that was an ancestral nutritionist’s dream come true.

I have to take a moment to explain that before my trip I had regrettably assumed that I wouldn’t get the chance to see first hand how bushmen lived.  This was a preplanned group safari designed for animal viewing, not for running off and hooking up with the local modern day hunter-gatherer (although those types of safaris do exist and you can contact me to learn more).  I didn’t know the stars would align that night and Dix would be placed in the chair next to me at dinner.  Dix was born and raised a hunter-gatherer.  A San bushman (simply ‘bushman’, I discovered, is a derogatory term and they prefer to be called by their specific tribe name), of the Okavanga Delta.  The rest of the night was a slurry of questions.  My husband, Harry, and I finally let him come up for air to finish his meal after he promised to let us interview him the next day.  Here  is the video.  Continue reading below for more tidbits of the conversation with Dix during my dinner with a hunter-gatherer.

Dix began hunting at the age of 6.  His first few kills were small slow animals. When I asked him if he ever felt in danger he told me the story of being on a hunt at the age of 8 and his brothers sent him home to get help with bringing back the kill.  The brothers warned him that if he ran into a lion not to run, but to stand tall and get big.  As he was walking he happened upon 4 lionesses relaxing under a tree.  They charged him. He raised his spear and yelled loud.  The predators stopped about 6 feet from him and he walked away.  I can’t help but think how different the ending might have been if he had turned and run.

Another encounter happened when he was working as a guide.  He had spotted lion tracks and was searching for the lion but the grass was getting too thick to continue.  As he was turning the vehicle around a woodpecker swooped down and brushed it’s wing on Dix’s arm. When he continued turning the woodpecker did it again.  He explained to his group that this was a sign to continue on through the grass, and when he did he found the lion directly under the tree where the woodpecker was.  Interestingly, he told us, that they respect the wisdom of the woodpecker and mimic them by putting the shavings of the tree, that woodpeckers peck, on their head to resemble the the bird’s red streak.  This helps to find animals during a hunt.

Dix explained that the San bushmen believe in reincarnation and that their ancestors watch over them.  As he drifts off to sleep at night  he often asks his ancestors to help him have a prosperous guiding trip the next day, and then has dreams in which his ancestors tell him where to find game, and he follows their directions to a successful siting.  His ancestors must have been giving him good advice during my guided trips with him because I think we saw every animal and bird that existed in Botswana.

Dix continued, telling us that he has 2 mothers.  He said he was raised by the village.  Everything worked well until money began to be used in the village, then a man could only afford one wife and fewer children.  Dix explained, as he swept his hand across the horizon, “Before money, everything we needed was free because it came from the earth”.  From the looks of the vast landscape, and the thousands of animals inhabiting it, there is no doubt that it has provided life for many generations.

His story of going to school for the first time is an amusing one.  Apparently, a school was started some miles away from their village.  He would always wear his loincloth to school and one day his older brother, who had been going to the school for a few years, brought him a pair of underwear to try out.  Dix said he had trouble figuring out how to put his feet through the holes, and when he finally got them on he didn’t like how confining and tight they were and decided against wearing them.   I didn’t ask him if he still went commando.

In the video interview we asked him if he ate insects.  He only mentions termites.  He said that termites add their saliva to the dirt to build the massive mounds we saw covering the landscape, some of which reach 80,000 years old. Termites also help to decompose the elephant dung and leave a fungus that grows a mushroom, further aiding in the breakdown.  In essence, it seems as if the termites are the digestive system of the African earth.  Here is a picture of my husband posing on top of one of these giant spitballs: photo(10)

Botswana has become the prized success story of Africa with one of the fastest growing economies in the world.  Meanwhile, fewer than 10,000 San are still living as traditional hunter-gatherers. For the past 20 years the government of Botswana has been trying to move the San tribesmen out of their lands. Dix expressed his concern about the recent laws that have been enacted to stop them from hunting in all of Botswana.  He said his little brother was a safari game hunter and now has to help Dix as a guide because he can no longer hunt.

It was evident, by the expanding waistlines I saw everywhere in South Africa, that the decrease in hunting and gathering is forcing an increase in the western type of diet and lifestyle. Even Dix has fallen prey to the daily dose of sugar and cell phones.  He loves his Cokes and the processed foods that have replaced his traditional diet.  I am not sure, if given the choice, Dix would return to his hunter-gatherer lifestyle.  He seemed very comfortable with the trappings of a more contemporary society, even though it is taking it’s toll on his physical appearance and, no doubt, his health.

Not to romanticize the difficult lifestyle of a hunter-gatherer, but going back to the fundamentals of eating and living in conditions that better accommodate evolution’s design for our body seems to just make sense. Combining the inherit wisdom of our past with the assets of our progress can make the difference between thriving and simply surviving in the modern world.

On a personal note, being in Africa, for me, was akin to getting high on nature. I felt my body slow down and begin moving at the same speed as the earth and the animals that thrive on it.  I had an overwhelming urge to strip down, to feel my skin touch the air, to feel the arid breeze carry away my worries.  My skin glowed and my mind was crisp.  My body and my thoughts were hyper-tuned to their surroundings. There is a rhythm to life that can only be felt while in nature and I was engulfed in it’s music.  Considering the fact, as stated in the book Go Wild: Free Your Body and Mind from the Afflictions of Civilization, that only a small percentage of humans have existed for more than one or two generations in an urban environment, it is not surprising that the hunter-gatherer in me felt at home in Africa.photo(12)