The Peoples of the World Foundation
Education for and about Indigenous Peoples
The Ju|'hoansi People
Countries inhabited: Botswana, Namibia
Language family: Ju
Language branch: Ju|'hoan
The text on this page is copyright by Joachim Friedrich Pfaffe. He is an educationalist, psychologist and sociologist from Germany. Please contact us if you are interested in his work. The photographs on this page are copyright by Susan Schulman. She is a freelance photographer from the USA, currently based in England. Please contact us if you are interested in her work, or visit her web site.
"Tsumkwe 220km" — the road sign at the turn-off from the main road to the northern Namibian border with Angola is one of the last signs of the modern world. Thereafter, a gravel and sand track leads to Tsumkwe, the "capital" of what used to be known as "Bushmanland", traditionally called Nyae Nyae, and what is now part of Otjozondjupa Region in north-east Namibia. It has been over six years since I last drove on that track.
Bushmanland — home of the "Bushmen", politically correct called the "San". The San are certainly one of the oldest indigenous populations on our planet. They have been around for more than 20,000 years, with a history of living in small family bands. They never cared about riches or personal possessions, everything was shared among their people. Day-to-day existence was secured through hunting and gathering, although this was never easy in the desert and semi-desert environment of the wider Kalahari. Obviously, things have changed with the advent of the modern world and the doubtful benefits of "civilization". Today, most San live scattered over many Southern African countries, far away from their original traditional hunting grounds. Some of them are city "squatters", some farm laborers, and some have been resettled by their respective Governments to specific ghettos. Their passivity and lethargy appears to be very different from their traditional lifestyle, and many of them have been forgotten by greater society. One tribe in particular is unique among the displaced San populations, since they still continue to occupy their ancestral land in the remote area of Nyae Nyae: the "Ju|'hoansi" (pronounce: Dju-kwa-si), the tribe I am going to visit. There are only 1,400 Ju|'hoansi left, living in about 36 villages (traditionally called N!oresi), which comprise their traditional living area. Their complicated language is characterized by the typical clicking sounds which can be found in all San languages, some of which are similar to the "plop" of a wine bottle just having been uncorked.
Tsumkwe, the settlement I am travelling to now, has always been a symbol of social decay. It was originally founded by the South African army during the time of Namibia's occupation and served as an army and recruitment post. The South Africans knew very well that the Ju|'hoansi were excellent trackers, and were very eager to recruit them into the army. Nobody knew the bush in such an intimate way as the Ju|'hoansi did, and these skills were extremely valuable in a time of heavy guerilla warfare. The army certainly changed the very fabric of Ju|'hoansi culture forever. Money was introduced into a previously egalitarian, moneyless society of hunters and gatherers, many of whom now worked as South African soldiers in their fight against the Namibian liberation movement SWAPO. Naturally, with the money came the bottle stores. Frustration and hopelessness made it easy for South African businessmen to make a quick buck out of selling liquor to the Ju|'hoansi. The very fragile and delicate social system of the Ju|'hoansi could not withstand the imposition of warfare and exploitation, and the roots of their ancient culture were shaken and maybe even destroyed forever. When SWAPO became the ruling party of an independent and democratic Namibia on 20 March 1990, the Ju|'hoansi's previous army involvement certainly did not make them too popular with the new Government. Having always been very isolated from the rest of Namibia, they never realized that they were actually siding with the country's enemy. Ju|'hoansi did not only not contribute to the liberation struggle going on around them, but they even supported those colonial powers who discriminated against them all their life. Yes, the Ju|'hoansi have indeed been exploited and manipulated by many "masters", leaving them behind in a despondent and marginalized situation.
Despondency always attracts foreign aid, so the development workers came in, trying to overcome the growing social decay. The Ju|'hoansi made a particularly interesting target group. Unlike most San in Southern Africa, the Ju|'hoansi have always managed to maintain at least a part of their traditional lifestyle and pride, despite having been deprived of their hunting and gathering way of life. Already in 1981, nearly ten years before independence, the Ju|'hoansi requested outside assistance in order to assist them in setting up the "Nyae Nyae Farmers' Cooperative" (NNFC). Support was channeled through the "Nyae Nyae Development Foundation" (NNDFN), a non-governmental organization then dominated by US Americans. The purpose of both NNFC and NNDFN was to help the people in the area to help themselves. However, funding was very limited, and much of the support focused on farming and increasing their productivity. Ju|'hoansi worked for their own people and for their own future, with no or only little pay, and assistance happened in a straightforward grassroots approach. The NNFC developed into a body that truly represented the people of Nyae Nyae. This all changed after independence, when a lot of donor money became available. Vehicles were purchased, people were getting paid, and an ever increasing staff of development workers arrived in the area, attempting to facilitate a new consciousness, something like a Bushman Renaissance. A consciousness, whereby Ju|'hoansi could take their rightful place in Namibian society.
Yes, I was part of that dream. I left Tsumkwe in 1995, somehow hopeful. I spent over four years in that area, living among the people and sharing their day-to-day concerns. The Ju|'hoansi were always lacking one of the most important tools to defend themselves and to express their own desires: a written language, and the ability to read and write it. I always believed that a new consciousness needed to be one of the main outputs of a reformed schooling system, a schooling system that accepts the values of the Ju|'hoansi, and which marries them with the greater society in order to overcome marginalization. This idea was very much shared by the Ju|'hoansi. The "Village Schools Project" was born, started by a group of ten committed young community members within the framework of an integrated rural development project. The development philosophy of pursuing an "integrated" approach indicated that all interventions in different sectors — such as education, health, rural development, income generation and artisan training — had to link up and to cooperate in such a way that they constantly reinforced and supported each other. When the project started in the early 1990's, such an approach was considered highly enlightened. Even more so since it was the people themselves who took the initiative and who actually requested outside support and development assistance — instead of having forced the doubtful benefits of Western civilization onto them by "well-meaning" outsiders. I remember that there was a great deal of optimism and excitement present among the people. Visions were developed and lively discussions held. Finally, this particularly vulnerable and marginalized society developed a perspective for taking their own future into their own hands, developing an identity of being both Ju|'hoansi and Namibian, being proud of their own heritage. In the new and democratic Namibia, and within a political atmosphere of drastic changes not only on the African continent, there was general excitement about the end of Apartheid. People followed with great interest the release of Nelson Mandela and the first democratic elections in neighboring South Africa. This new enthusiasm was fuelled further by the development of a new world order and the end of the Cold War. The conditions for implementing change couldn't have been better at any time in Nyae Nyae's history. That is why the Village Schools and "mother tongue education" initiated a growing new consciousness, a consciousness that even re-allowed the term "Bushman" as long as it is their own people using it. Used during the colonial period in a derogatory way, it is now the Ju|'hoansi themselves, especially the young ones, who are trying to "ennoble" the term again by consciously using it when communicating with "non-San". Some months ago, I spoke about all of this at an international education conference. I could feel my initial excitement again, and suddenly I developed a desire to return. I was curious. I wanted to see what has happened to the communities and their dreams. I was interested in the progress of the schools. Did they really achieve a better life for the communities? Would the student teachers still be there? What about my old friends in the communities?
I'm excited about coming back now. While driving, my mind wanders. No wonder, since there is not much else to pay attention to — there will be virtually no traffic for the next two hundred kilometers. There will be no shops, no garages, no petrol stations. There might be the occasional encounter with a giraffe, or with a mamba crossing the track. The hostility of the surrounding landscape makes me recall a story where a traveler drove over a snake and was then supposedly killed by it — it just clung on to the moving tires and then managed its way up into the car through the windows. I don't really believe it, but decide to keep my windows closed and think about the project instead, which very soon after its inception had achieved a remarkable level of recognition. I remember my pride of having been selected for facilitating the development of the project's educational component. The Ju|'hoansi made very clear that a functioning education system would be crucial for the long-term improvement of their people's situation. Our "Village Schools" became synonymous for a functioning new approach to community-based education. Some even called it revolutionarily innovative. Teaching was conducted in their mother tongue, Ju|'hoan. Teachers were identified and selected by the communities, although some of them did not complete more than two years of formal schooling, due to the ongoing discrimination against Ju|'hoansi in the then Apartheid schools. The Ministry of Education agreed to give special support to marginalized populations, and to make special provisions for developing and implementing inservice training structures for the newly selected student teachers.
It is amazing how important a written language can be for the self-confidence of a people. The Ju|'hoan orthography only gained official status in 1991 after a user-friendly orthography reform had been carried out by the late linguist Patrick Dickens who didn't live long enough to see the fruits of his life work. I remember how excited everybody in Nyae Nyae was when they saw their names written on brand-new identity cards, using their own alphabet with the four click symbols "|", "||", "!" and "="! [Editor's note: These are the closest approximations to the click symbols using a "standard" character set. The actual orthography can be viewed only with special fonts.] Suddenly, they had been accepted by Namibian society. "Republic of Namibia" was written on the top of the card. Then came their photograph. And their name. In Ju|'hoan. Yes, they had rights now in their own country.
I am only about two hours away from Nyae Nyae now, which means I have completed about half of my four-hour drive through the harsh beauty of north-east Namibia. The land is barren and does not appear fit for human settlement. It is truly amazing that the indigenous San managed to live there for centuries. My intention is to write a story about the success of the Ju|'hoansi, although I don't really know what to expect. I'd heard rumors about the collapse of the project. People had told me that the situation for the people on the ground hadn't improved at all, but then I knew very well that their situation was extremely complex to start off with. Maybe my planned success story won't turn out to be one after all? Maybe I have to change my approach to the story — maybe it will turn into something completely different? There were so many forces the Ju|'hoansi had to cope with, such as war, dispossession and discrimination, and who knows if those scars could ever heal. On top of it, there was always a danger that only a limited few benefit from development initiatives. It is one of the most frightening side effects of development aid that, during the process of empowering the supposedly disempowered, a new elite turns their newly regained power against their own people. The NNFC, the local grassroots organization previously accepted as being the true representatives of the people of Nyae Nyae, is certainly not immune to such a development. I wonder if the Cooperative is still speaking the voice of their people.
Just before reaching Tsumkwe, there is an impressive signpost welcoming visitors to the "Nyae Nyae Conservancy", instructing them to report to the conservancy office. Apparently, the NNFC has changed its name. I am curious. Then a familiar scene: Ju|'hoansi, drunk, passed out, lying under the only traffic sign showing the direction to the Botswana border which is only 40 km away. Well, here I am in Tsumkwe again. I try to report to the Conservancy Office. It does not exist. So much for the impressive signpost. I go to the shop which still serves as a bottle store. Many still recognize me from six years ago, surrounding me, asking for money, for "smokes", for clothes, for a ride. It is all too familiar. It is what the project set out to address. But this is clearly not a Bushman Renaissance. What has happened to the people's visions and aspirations? People are crowding round, telling me that the schools are facing near collapse, and that those who were previously elected representatives of the people have now become disinterested in the people's concerns. I am told that the Nyae Nyae Conservancy has no mandate anymore to speak on behalf of the people, and that they are collaborating with those who previously exploited them. There is a lot of talk about deals with tourist companies organizing hunting safaris. Dissatisfaction is rampant. It is coming at me from all sides. It seems that living conditions have even deteriorated over the past years. It looks like those who promised to deliver the Ju|'hoansi from their marginalization are marginalizing them more than ever before — worse, from what they are telling me, it seems they are being exploited by their own people now.
On the way to my camp, I am stunned and disheartened. What else I will discover? Is it as bad as it sounds? This won't be a success story. I'm not quite sure any more what my theme will be. Complexity? The working title for my book is "San 2001". Not quite appropriate anymore, since it implies progress, vision.
Over the next days, I visit people in the villages. Kiewiet is with me; a highly respected community elder whose main interest has always been the improvement of the education system through the Village Schools. He tells me in fluent Afrikaans, which he learned during his time in the South African army, that people are unhappy about the schools, and that schooling is not taking place regularly. He still appears to be fond of army fashion, wearing a brand new pair of camouflage trousers. We speak to village headmen, and we hear the same story wherever we go: no more school, no money, no jobs. Most men are hanging around Tsumkwe, leaving the women and kids behind. Most of the children don't even bother anymore to go to school because nothing is happening there anyway. What about the myth of the strong social nexus of the San people? What about the strong family bands? It becomes clear to me that the mythologized Bushman doesn't exist anymore. Famous researchers on the Ju|'hoansi such as John Marshall, Lorna Marshall-Thomas or Megan Biesele always liked to portray them as the "harmless people" who are kind of detached from real life. This might be the fallacy that destroyed them even further while interacting with real life. First, the unsettling effect of being "hijacked" by the South African army. Second, the ambivalence encountered when dealing with the Namibian SWAPO Government. And, third, the "well-meaning" development aid that actually created more dependency and installed a San elite not cognizant of the needs and worries of their own people.
I decide to pay a visit to the manager of the Nyae Nyae Conservancy in Baraka, a village about 30 km east of Tsumkwe. The center of supposed development, the base station of the so-called community leaders within the NNC. They are holding a meeting. Later, people tell me that nobody dares to object or challenge the management although they want to. Aiming at reaching consensus and avoiding confrontation are most likely cultural traits that have always maintained the San's powerlessness. People who don't object will be overrun. Even by their own "leaders" residing at Baraka, which used to be a place of hope, the realization of a dream. The project, with a lot of international donor assistance, once established a garage, a small petrol station, a communal shop, an arts and crafts center. An excellent idea, bearing in mind that there are no facilities whatsoever within a radius of 300 km. Consultants came in, developing ambitious plans, designing training models for artisan training and further education. There had been talk about Baraka becoming the center of Namibia's north-eastern region. None of it has materialized. The once existing infrastructure — buildings, cars, tools, facilities — is gone, apart from a heap of broken cars, tools and donkey carts which once were a donation by the US Government. The only sound emanating from the workshop area is the sound of the huge diesel generator — but it only runs to provide electricity for a TV and video machine once purchased to show educational materials. Disillusioned Ju|'hoansi hang around, watching a US American action movie with lots of car chases. Nobody understands a word. The dream has been dissembled.
I go for a walk through Baraka. Baraka was built in the end-1980's as a base village for the then Nyae Nyae Farmers' Cooperative. With international donor funding, wooden hut-like structures were constructed to accommodate 12 families. This artificial settlement looks more like a tourist camp than a traditional village — no wonder, since all "huts" were imported from a South African tourist bungalow company. Today, none of these once relatively expensive structures can be called habitable anymore. Some have completely collapsed, just leaving behind their concrete floor as a remnant which very much resembles a giant UFO just landed in the bush. Finally, I visit my old hut which had been assigned to the Baraka teacher after I left. It is a sad sight. It is even sadder to find the teacher sleeping inside, drunk. There hasn't been school for quite a long time. "Family problems", he says. He frequently goes to visit family members a few kilometers away, although — strictly speaking — they live in Botswana, a foreign country. Language has no borders, and the fact that the Ju|'hoansi's traditional ground extends beyond the deserted border to Botswana demonstrates the irrelevance of political boundaries for an indigenous people. There is even a permanent ladder across the border fence, in order for the Ju|'hoansi to easily leave and re-enter Namibia, not having to worry about immigration formalities.
The NNC manager arrives. All the Ju|'hoansi I have seen are skin and bones compared to six years ago. Not him. He is a Buddha-like figure and must have doubled his body weight. He tells me how everybody is working very hard for the betterment of the life of the Ju|'hoansi. I'm not sure how he knows as from what I hear he is hardly ever there, preferring to spend his time in his nice house in Namibia's cosmopolitan and modern capital city, Windhoek. The manager gets support from the new education advisor, a middle-aged woman who describes herself as being a "displaced person", having been born in Jamaica and raised in England. Although we sit in the middle of collapsing buildings and disenfranchised San who lost all hope for their future, neither the manager nor the education advisor seem too concerned. "It is their culture", the lady says. "If the teachers want to go drinking, what can I do. They are voting with their feet." The lady's house is protected by barbed wire. So much for living among the "harmless people".
She was right about the voting bit, though. I am on my way to the once "innovative" Village Schools when I meet one of their teachers in front of the bottle store. Drunk, toppling over, not interested. He is not the only one. Apparently, they hang around Tsumkwe for more than a week at a time. School children hang out with them too — although a sign at the bottle store only allows them to drink alcohol after school hours: "No school kids will be served till 13 hours". In front of the bottle store, bored and drunk youth are kicking a dog. Some things never change. Dogs have certainly always been at the bottom of the Ju|'hoansi's hierarchy of creatures.
Desperately, I am starting to look for rays of hope. I spent four years of my life here. All that hope... that enthusiasm... the supposed dawn of a new era... Is there really nothing left? How can all of this be turned into something that makes sense? "Learning To Have Sense" — that was the title of my school readiness program for Nyae Nyae, built on the direct translation of a Ju|'hoan expression that describes the learning process. Has it all failed?
I am considering giving up. On the other hand, isn't this exactly the dilemma of the Western development worker who tries to evaluate an unknown situation with her or his own preconceptions? Maybe, just maybe, the Ju|'hoansi themselves are happier than we allow them to be. What I consider to be a sign of disenfranchisement, might be a certain view of life that displays a great deal of relaxation and wisdom. I am reminding myself about the Ju|'hoansi's relationship to life. Their priorities have always been short-term. Traditionally, it was most important to know where the next food would come from. Ju|'hoansi don't plan. It was outsiders who forced notions of sustainability onto them, especially within he context of international development aid. Obviously, the project has not been sustainable. On the other hand, sustainability has no relevance for the Ju|'hoansi. In one village I was told quite bluntly that the best help would be just to give out money to the individuals until it is finished. "And then what?" I asked. "Well, more money will come. You people are very rich."
However, there are individuals who might make a difference in the future. There is the young pre-school teacher who struggles with a meagre salary to provide education. There are signs of entrepreneurship, even if that means "theatricalizing" Bushmen identity and customs for the visitor. In Djxokhoe Village, the local medicine man offers to pose for tourists at a fee — although he loses interest after a couple of minutes, so you better not pay all of the fee in advance. Around Baraka, tourists can participate in a "hunting and gathering trip" — indigenous Kudu Nuts included which will be placed on the ground just before being found. Fair enough.
Sometimes, beliefs of the past clash with the harsh reality of the present. People leave a supposedly haunted village and change it for "urban" Tsumkwe which even flaunts a satellite dish. Nyae Nyae is a complex context which cannot be "objectively" described and evaluated. It is a highly challenging mix of tradition and assimilation, a mix that does not fit into simple categories of success or failure.
Leaving again after a few weeks, I am beginning to realize that this story will have to contribute towards a better understanding of the over-mythologized San. It will be very different since it will have to present the controversies of an age-old society coping with modern times. It will raise the question of what determines "development" or their Western-oriented notions.
No, this is not a success story.
It is a story of the Ju|'hoansi San daily lives — with all its beauty, harshness, cruelty, frustrations and fears.
And about the uniqueness of their situation.
Photographs © 2003, Susan Schulman. Text © 2003, Joachim Friedrich Pfaffe. To cite this article, for example in a term paper or school project, using the American Psychological Association citation style, copy and paste the following:
Pfaffe, J. F. (2003), The Ju|'hoansi People. The Peoples of the World Foundation. Retrieved
July 2, 2015,
from The Peoples of the World Foundation.