South Africa

OUR BURNING PLANET

Conversations with Kummt’sa: Climate collapse through the eyes of a San healer

Illustrative image. Photo: Mattiey Joannon/Unsplash

The reports of unprecedented ecosystem and climate breakdown are coming thick and fast now. The most scientifically watertight of them are saying, if we really want to save ourselves, we should start paying attention to the words and practices of the planet’s last indigenous peoples. So what does the lead healer of the Khomani San think? Is thinking even an adequate term for what he does?

Deon “Kummt’sa” Noubitsen, a healer in the tradition of the !Xo, owns the smallest shack in Andriesvale. The carcass of a springbok, recently caught by his uncle Jakes Jacobs, hangs from a plywood beam that supports the corrugated iron roof. Kummt’sa’s strongest medicines, the lion root and the donkey root and a mixture called kruidjie-roer-my-nie (touch-me-not herb, Melianthus major) are spread, alongside some of his gentler medicines, on the shin-high table next to his bed. Outside, the fire burns through the night.

Jakes Jacobs, Andriesvale, Northern Cape. Photo: Kevin Bloom

His first morning back in Andriesvale, Kummt’sa takes a walk into the Kalahari veld with Jakes, to read the signs. “It is something we must do,” says Jakes, “to pay our respects”.

When they return, Jakes recounts what they have seen. As has been the case for the past 10 years or so, the “sandy fruits,” which the Khomani San also call “soil food,” are mostly absent. The sacred xhoba, or hoodia, is nowhere to be found. This is not only because hoodia has been marketed as a weight-loss product to the inhabitants of the outside world, but because the rains do not regenerate the veld like they used to.

Instead of the signs of a thriving ecosystem, a realm just above the sand-line transected by the trails of spiders and beetles and ants, Kummt’sa and Jakes have been reading the spoor of night adders. The tracks of the deadly snake, like curlicues in the sand, have also been freshly imprinted in Kummt’sa’s yard.

He survived only by his knowledge of traditional herbs,” says Jakes, of the time in 2017 when Kummt’sa was bitten by a night adder, right here at the entrance to his shack. “He came back from hospital very weak, we treated him with snake bush.”

As far as Kummt’sa is concerned, there is a very good reason that the adders have been appearing like this in Andriesvale — it is because the Khomani San have lost touch with the ancient life force, or n/om. This is also why, he says, the xhoba doesn’t work properly for those who just want to be thin. Indeed, without n/om, according to Kummt’sa, there is no hope that humanity will survive the extreme weather events to come.

Look around you,” Jakes will say, during a walk through the veld the next day, “this is supposed to be the green Kalahari. The rainy season was meant to end in April. Does it look green to you?”

It doesn’t. What it does look like, though, is what much of South Africa will look like under low mitigation, when average temperature increases of 6 degrees Centigrade take over the north and west of the country, turning the land to desert and killing the nutrients, the insects, the grass.

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Daily Mavericks visit to the Kalahari took place in mid-May 2019, less than two weeks after the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, or IPBES, released what George Monbiot calledthe biggest and worst news humanity has ever received”.

The natural world, we learnt in the summary of the report for policymakers, is in the middle of an unprecedented crisis, with extinction rates tens to hundreds of times higher than they have been in the past 10 million years. Prepared by 145 leading experts from 50 countries, the report was a devastating blow to the humans of late-stage capitalism.

The threads that hold nature together are unravelling, IPBES declared, and it is the activities we take most for granted that are causing it: How we feed, water and house ourselves; how we travel from one place to another; the stuff we are spewing into the air from our power plants and factories; the stuff we are flushing into the rivers and seas; how (as in, how fast) we are having babies; how (as in, how fast) we are extracting things from the ground; how (as in, how fast) most of this is heating the planet up.

The phrase “indigenous” was mentioned 32 times in the 40-page summary, with the following on page six providing a précis of what the report’s authors — ecologists, zoologists, botanists, marine biologists and climatologists, among others — meant by their use of the term:

Regional and global scenarios lack an explicit consideration of the views, perspectives and rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, their knowledge and understanding of large regions and ecosystems and their desired future development pathways.”

In other words, after hundreds of years of beating them into submission, stealing their land and orphaning their children, the West was now being asked to listen to the indigenous people of the planet.

If we did not, these scientists seemed to suggest, the consequence could be the irretrievable breakdown of the natural world, followed shortly by the death of us.

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Kummt’sa, whose healer name means “take it with” in Ju/Wa, a name he was given as a young man by the great sanusi of Africa, Baba Credo Mutwa, does not equivocate about what he believes, as per IPBES, is our correct “future development pathway”.

Kummt’sa at the entrance to his shack, Andriesvale, Northern Cape. Photo: Kevin Bloom

Four days a week must be ecosystem work,” he says, “it will create a vast space in the sky breath, the light will also contribute.”

This sky breath is a direct emanation of the Sky God, which since the dawn of human time has been at the core of Bushman belief. It is by the Sky God that n/om, the life force, is conferred; most often in the fire dance or trance dance. Although n/om cannot be explained it can, and should, be transferred — the Bushman in a heightened spiritual state is connected by n/om to everything in nature; he is part of a vast web that enshrouds the dunes, rocks, plants, trees, insects, reptiles, animals, birds, rivers, clouds as well as every man, woman and child.

Which is not so far off the words of Professor Sandra Diaz, co-chair of the IPBES report, who said at the beginning of May that Western culture needs to shift from its belief in “progress” to “an idea of a fulfilling life that is more aligned with a good relationship with nature, and a good relationship with other people, with the public good”.

Likewise, neither is Kummt’sa’s suggestion of four days of ecosystem work so far off the nine-hour work week that think-tank Autonomy calculated would be necessary throughout Europe if humanity was to avert a climate crisis.

What neither IPBES nor Autonomy were able to articulate, however, was the manner in which humanity would need to pivot away from economic growth towards a state of natural balance. For Kummt’sa, on the other hand, who apprenticed as a herbalist for more than 20 years under Jan van der Westhuizen — known by indigenous healers across three continents as “Oom Jan”; the central character in Rehad Desai’s 2006 documentary Bushman’s Secret — the methods of regeneration are literally second nature.

The angle is everything,” he says, “you never come at a plant with your back to the sun, you never greet it with shade.”

The greeting he suggests instead is this: “a !e, !e a,” which means “go well, stay well” in N/uuki.

There is much more that is said, but like n/om, much of it defies rational explanation. Kummt’sa talks at length about the rhythm that resonates through the veld, about the heartbeat of the earth, about the fact that unless you are an animal yourself you will never understand.

Jakes, a healer too, sometimes calls his nephew “Dier”. As a young boy, to his 14 brothers and sisters, this was Kummt’sa’s name — animal. He took it as the greatest of compliments, he says, even if it wasn’t always meant that way.

And so, with Oom Jan now gone to the Sky God, the ancient healing lore of the Bushman has landed here, in the smallest shack in Andriesvale. If the world is ready to listen, Kummt’sa is ready to speak. DM

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