As we’ve wandered through southern Africa the past few months, the magic of travel has given us some interesting juxtaposed experiences: Cattle and crop farmers and wildlife conservation. Citrus farms and a reserve set aside to save elephants who love oranges. The tribes of the Zulu and the San.
In KwaZulu Natal we drove through tribal lands of the fierce and strong Zulu. Home to the descendants of the warriors of Shaka Zulu. We watched, awestruck, dancers’ displays of strength and stamina, starting with kicks high over head and working up to walking on hands and lifting other dancers to the beat of drums that we could feel to our core.
As we wandered through the Drakensberg, we passed and met locals going about life. Their presence was powerful and bold. Tall, proud, dark people with broad, open faces. Direct looks that often softened to a smile when we waved or said “Hello.” We learned a little about their homesteads and history and culture through a book I picked up about the Zulu and then watching as we explored.
While staying at Giants’ Castle, we also visited the caves where the San, or bushmen, left their art. Images of animals left by a people who were literally hunted out of the area.
KwaZulu Natal was our last destination in South Africa, and the Kalahari was our first in Botswana. Well, after a few days in Gaborone spent chasing cell phone based internet. The Central Kalahari Game Reserve was originally a reservation, a place set aside for the San to live, unmolested by others. They are small and wiry people, made tough through centuries of living a hunter – gatherer life, and shy like the animals with whom they shared their landscape.Our first stop in the Kalahari was at the Grasslands Lodge. Being outside the reserve on the edge of cattle ranches, it is not the typical game lodge. There are certainly game animals around, and the property is the temporary home to predators who have strayed from the reserve and await relocation; a preservation effort lead by the farmers of the area. Their most impressive feature, however, is their relationship with the local San tribe and programs to teach visitors about their traditions and culture. Of course, the San now live a more westernized life, wearing jeans and working cattle in the area. Neeltjie Bower, the Grasslands Lodge owner, was the child of a cattle farmer, and the San at the cattle posts were her playmates growing up. She spent some time as a young adult working in the Okavango Delta region and saw how the tourists were very interested in learning about the local San, asking for cultural tours. Knowing that her own San friends at home lived closer to their traditional past than those in the North, still holding direct knowledge of survival in the desert, she headed home to start a program there.
In the evening, at the lodge, the San shared their traditional dances and games. The next day, they walked with us in the desert, digging up roots which hold water or are food, and made us a meal of nuts, jewel beetles, and wildebeest over a fire they built rubbing sticks together. Neeltjie told us how, originally, they wore western clothes for the tours, but as they realized how much the visitors enjoyed learning and understanding about their heritage, they began wearing their traditional clothes instead. Typically, they only wear them for weddings and special occasions.I love the idea that cultural tourism has done some good for these people in several ways. The San children join on the walks, learning traditions that might be lost to pursuit of western lifestyles as they share what they know about the land with us. Their public pride in their culture has increased when they see how it is valued by outsiders. The Zulu dancers practice and create traditional costumes for performances. And, it provides additional income to the families in both tribes.
As we explore and learn about other tribes and cultures of Africa, I think sometimes about these two and the contrasts between them. I hope that our curiosity and that of other travelers will help support the bold Zulu dance troop and the quiet San. Heritage that is preserved, rather than destroyed, through tourism.