San vs wild: what the San people can teach us about living with climate change

| 23rd May 2012
San vs wild: what the San can teach us about living with climate change
Once derided as backwards, the southern African San tribe’s love of nature is now bringing them real rewards, as well as offering an insight into how humans can survive with little or no water. Ruth Styles travelled to meet them in Namibia

I’m standing in the middle of a thorn bush, watching in trepidation as hunter N!abi wriggles into a sandy burrow belonging to a porcupine. At 5’8 and slender with it, N!abi isn’t huge but he’s still a lot bigger than the den’s spiky owner. He wriggles, slowly widening the entrance then disappears completely into the darkness, spear in hand, leaving only a pair of battered Converse clad feet above ground. Then even they disappear. We stand and wait. Eventually he re-emerges empty handed, brushing sand off his shoulders and shaking his head ruefully. For the Ju/'hoan San of //nhoq’ma, there’s going to be no porcupine supper today.

The San or Bushmen people of southern Africa are one of the oldest peoples on the planet with a way of life that’s changed little over the last millennia. But while their lifestyle might not be radically different to that of their forebears, the world around them has changed dramatically. Their story has a similar trajectory to that of Australia’s aborigines, with incoming Bantu tribes then European colonists driving them out of fertile farmland and into the burning wastes of the Kalahari Desert where most now live. As with the aborigines, alcoholism has become a serious problem, while the hunter-gatherer lifestyle is threatened by climate change and over development. But the modern story of the San people isn’t all hard times and bad luck. In Namibia, San land is protected and despite the country’s strict anti-poaching laws, tribesmen have been issued with hunting permits on the proviso that only traditional methods – spears, poison arrows and traps – are used. And hunting isn’t the only way the San survive in Namibia. Responsible tourism is also playing a part.

To say that //nhoq’ma is remote would be an understatement. Three hours by road from the nearest town, Grootfontain, //nhoq’ma is close to the Namibian border with Botswana on the western edge of the Kalahari Desert. The surrounding land boasts a stark beauty, with its carmine sandy soil pockmarked by foamy clumps of silver elephant grass and hunched Zambezi teak trees. It’s hot, dry and a tough spot to survive in. But survive the San do – and they aren’t alone. Along with 400 different types of plant, the Kalahari supports a bewilderingly large array of fauna, including hyenas, lions, antelope and giraffe, as well as warthogs, meerkats and porcupine. It might look unpromising at first glance but for the San, the Kalahari is one big larder.

At //nhoq’ma, foraging is supplemented by the presence of Nhoma Camp, which along with employment, offers the San an outlet for handmade crafts and the chance to give guests an insight into their frequently misunderstood culture. Small scale and low impact, the 10-tent camp is a haven with stunning views of the Nhoma Omuramba – a fossilised riverbed – as well as the surrounding desert. Just metres from //nhoq’ma, Nhoma is a world away from the classic safari experience, with the local San calling the shots and dictating the itinerary. Up at the village on the afternoon following the unsuccessful porcupine hunt, we got to grips with San crafts, including arrow and trap making (complete with entertaining re-enactments) and culture. Sitting in sandy circle dominated by a huge plane tree and dotted with dome shaped huts made from foraged twigs and bits of wood, we learned how to make arrows from reeds and rope from strands of wiry grass. Earlier, Ikunta, #niaici and the two N!ani’s had given us a masterclass in fire making while out on the hunt, as well as pointing out a mind boggling array of useful flora. From a small twig that turned out to have a melon-sized bulb full of drinkable liquid to roots that tackle back pain and grasses that make a good salad, there was little the locals didn’t know.

But Nhoma isn’t the only camp where tourism and the San are working together. Close to the Namibian capital, Windhoek, is the N/a'an ku sê Lodge and Wildlife Sanctuary, where conservation goes hand in hand with helping local tribesmen climb out of poverty. Here, the eco-lodge and guest activities are run purely to fund the N/a'an ku sê Foundation, which along with a wildlife sanctuary for orphaned and injured animals, is home to a carnivore conservation research project that helps protect and rehabilitate wild cheetahs, leopards and brown hyenas. As well as conservation, part of the Foundation’s funds support a Clever Cubs School for San children and the Lifeline Clinic for the isolated San community in Epukiro. Run by Marlice van Vuuren and her husband, Rudie, N/a'an ku sê’s unusual approach has won it A-list fans, including Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who are helping to support the school. Another source of support comes from local volunteers who help the van Vuurens care for their ever-growing menagerie of orphaned and injured animals, who are nursed back to health before – if possible – being released back into the wild.

Most of the animals come from farms, including the pack of 20 African wild dogs that narrowly escaped being buried alive by a bulldozer as puppies. Others include orphaned cheetah cub, Cubby, baby baboon, Bobby, and the utterly terrifying male lion, Clarence. While Cubby is likely to find a new home in one of Namibia’s many game reserves, others aren’t so lucky and Marlice accepts that for some of the animals, N/a'an ku sê will be their home for life. Like the Global Leopard Project at the Erindi Game Reserve and the Africat Foundation at Okonjima, N/a'an ku sê aims to educate tourists and locals about the plight of Namibia’s big cats, while learning as much as possible about them. For the animals too tame or too injured to be returned to the wild, their presence at the sanctuary at least provides a handy educational tool for visitors.

Back at Nhoma, we got a rare glimpse of the spiritual side of San culture in the shape of the Elephant dance. A means of warding off illness, dancing is done by the village medicine men or n/umkxaosi, who use it to communicate with their ancestors to beg them not to bring bad things into the village. Drawn up in a semi-circle around the dancers, the villagers watched intently as the n/umkxaosi circled each other in the firelight. Around us, tiny Scops owls hooted softly in the treetops, while in the long grass, cicadas added their chirping to the chorus of human and animal voices. Almost uniquely, the San of Namibia have never failed to hear – or heed – nature’s song.

Need to know: A seven night trip with Chameleon Holidays and Travel can be offered as a guided or self drive option and includes one night in Windhoek on a dinner, bed and breakfast basis, one night at Erindi Private Game Reserve on a fully inclusive basis, two nights at Nhoma Camp fully inclusive with a day of activities with the Bushmen, one night at Okonjima Main Camp on a fully inclusive basis with two activities, with a final night at N/a'an ku sê Lodge and Wildlife Sanctuary on a full board basis with one activity included. The guided option costs £1,850 per person (based on four people travelling) including all accommodation and activities, airport transfers and meals as stated, English speaking guide and safari vehicle. Self drive costs £1,360 per person (based on two people travelling) including all accommodation and activities, airport transfers and meals as stated and a 4x4 vehicle. For more information, see

For more information on Namibia, see

Add to StumbleUpon
The Really Wild Show: Namibia's pioneering conservancies
From the endless red dunes of the south to the teeming game reserves of Damaraland, Namibia is home to some of the world’s most important eco-systems. Ruth Styles went to find out how local people are helping to preserve them
Lions and eco luxury on South Africa’s Eastern Cape
Pristine wilderness and eco-friendly lodges have made the Kwandwe Reserve a key stop on South Africa's Garden Route. Ruth Styles went to visit
Special report Sable shenanigans: how Zambia’s sable population is falling prey to unscrupulous traders
In Zambia’s newest national park live more than 200 sable antelope. Coralled in conditions that are far from ideal, the animals have languished there for almost three years; the victims of bureaucracy, unscrupulous operators and a disregard for conservation. Ian Michler reports
On patrol with Zimbabwe's wildlife defenders: the last hope for black rhinos?
The illegal wildlife trade threatens Zimbabwe's black rhinos with decimation. Ruth Styles reports on the Malilangwe Trust and safari company Singita's attempts to reverse the decline
The human face of conservation: bringing community and wildlife together
Across Africa, the traditional idea of safari parks is getting an overhaul - and where once locals were excluded, models with community involvement are finding long-term success

More from this author