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War, wind and stars with the !Kung of Namibia

Our Burning Planet

ELEPHANT DANCE

War, wind and stars with the !Kung of Namibia

The fire is lit in Perspeka village, Tsumkwe Constituency, northeastern Namibia, in preparation for the night’s elephant dance. (Photo: Scott Fee)

In the Tsumkwe Constituency of northeastern Namibia, where the !Kung have been allocated permanent residence, a battle for the soul of San lore is silently raging. The battle lines are at the site of the elephant dance, which, in its spiritual essence, has the power to heal the darkness brought on by tourism, trophy hunting and the absence of rain. The Sky God, however, must keep some secrets.

I The ways of the !geixa

‘They have the giraffe dance there,” says Herbert !Kung, “and the ostrich dance, but they do not have the elephant dance.”

It is early morning in the village of Perspeka, and the fire, as always, belongs to the elders. It is now the second day running that the talk at this fire has been focused on the perennial problem of tourism. 

Herbert, the de facto headman, is still lamenting the fact that the most sacred dance of the !Kung, the large San group from whom he takes his surname, has been forgotten by the elders in the neighbouring village of Nhoma. Without the dance of the elephant, he says, the tradition is lost forever.

To add to Herbert’s frustration, Nhoma is awash in cash. 

In Namibia’s Tsumkwe Constituency, where the San account for more than a quarter of the population, the white tourists do not stop at Perspeka. The only thing that his village gets from those four-by-fours, says Herbert, is the dust they spray as they race past. And yet, he adds, everyone knows that Perspeka has the strongest !geixa — the one who channels the !gei, or spirit — in the entire semi-desert region.  

“I do not know how to tell you in words about the !xo,” says Dr !Kunta, the famous !geixa himself. “The !xo is the elephant, but it is also the fire and the smoke. It all started a long time ago. A very long time ago.”

Since Herbert and Dr !Kunta are swapping between Afrikaans and Ju/’hoansi, the ancient !Kung dialect spoken by some 15,000 people, it is difficult to know what is lost in translation.

There is also the confusing detail that !geixa appears to be a Nharo term, a language mostly spoken in the Ghanzi District of Botswana, just across the eastern border. But somehow, with the help of Kummt’sa — an indigenous South African whose perspectives on climate collapse Daily Maverick covered in 2019 — the essence of the discussion is neatly reaffirmed.  

In a nutshell, explains Kummt’sa, Herbert and Doctor !Kunta have been working through an excruciating dilemma. As holders of the !xo tradition, they see themselves as the custodians of !Kung lore, which means they must limit their interaction with the outside world. What this implies, of course, is that in a region where unemployment never drops below 70%, the residents of Perspeka suffer way more than most.

And in 2022, many decades after the assimilation of the last uncontacted tribes, it’s not as if they are immune to the comforts of contemporary life.

Doctor !Kunta, it turns out, is “heartsore” about the condition of his phone. It’s too old, he says, and whenever he tries to replace the battery, the shopkeepers in Grootfontein chase him away. He hasn’t been able to make a call in three years, he complains.

For the next 20 minutes, the conversation hovers on the !geixa’s broken tech, until Kummt’sa suggests that he throws the thing in the fire. At the spontaneous outbreak of laughter, Doctor !Kunta indicates that it’s time to head out.

!Kung Namibia
The author in conversation with Doctor !Kunta and the elders of Perspeka village, Tsumkwe Constituency, northeastern Namibia. (Photo: Scott Fee)

Our destination is the village of //Xaloba, from where, later that afternoon, we are scheduled to return to Nhoma. The previous day, we had arrived unannounced in Nhoma — and the local !geixa had been left with no choice but to accept Doctor !Kunta’s challenge. He could not join us for the dance that night, he had said — he was, unfortunately, booked to dance for tourists — but if we returned to fetch him the following evening, he would be “honoured” to come with us to Perspeka.

It is an event that the elders of //Xaloba seem to have heard about already. The showdown, apparently, is the talk of the Tsumkwe !Kung. 

In the battle between so-called progress and the oldest of all human traditions, which the latter has been steadily losing for the last 300 or so years, today we are on the frontlines.

“The !xo dance,” says Kummt’sa, after listening closely to the observations of a //Xaloba elder, “takes on two types of darkness. The first is the type that can kill you one-on-one, because of jealousies or ancestral problems, or sickness in the home. It is like witchcraft, or an arrow to the neck, if your body is not pure enough to handle the !gei.

“The second is the much larger darkness, which kills the ability of the people to live on the land, like tourism or trophy hunting or the rains that no longer come. The !xo, the elephant, is the deep rhythm of the land itself. She channels the n/om, or the !gei, from the Sky God. This is how she heals.”

The Sky God, we are told, is intimately bound to the !Kung’s strange relationship to the stars. These denizens of the cosmos, like people, had forever been known to possess “wind” — and like the wind, which is always changing shape, the Sky God will shift how he appears to human beings. This, says Kummt’sa, is where the Trickster God comes into play.

Herbert is now standing and speaking into his phone, an old model Nokia that is of the same vintage as Doctor !Kunta’s. There is the voice of a woman on the other end, and throughout the conversation we hear the repetition of the word “Nhoma”. When Herbert hangs up, we all look up at him expectantly.

“They say they are still coming,” says Herbert, “but they want to know what we are cooking for them.”

It’s funny, yet nobody is laughing. As the irony of the situation kicks in — the petrol money we must pay to make the 80km round-trip to Nhoma; the money they have for food that the people of Perspeka don’t — a silence descends on the village of //Xaloba.

At last, it is agreed that we will buy one sack of pap for the Nhoma !geixa and his henchmen, but the condition is that they must cook it on their own fire: the women of Perspeka will not prepare it for them.

Doctor !Kunta, who has not said a word during the debate, finally says something in Ju/’hoansi. Kummt’sa, with a wry smile, turns to us to translate.

“The war dance is off,” he says. “We will not be going to Nhoma.”

II The ways of the !xo

The Trickster God, it appears, has spoken. And for his next trick, a fact that has been staring us in the face since we arrived, there is the problem of Doctor !Kunta’s badly broken right leg. With tears in his eyes, or so it seems, Doctor !Kunta apologises in Afrikaans that he cannot dance for us. But he has another solution, he says, in the guise of Doctor Jakob from Duinpos.

As we leave //Xaloba, where the old !geixa, like the !geixa from Nhoma, specialises in the dance of the ostrich, a large male “volstruis” with generous black plumage is waiting for us by the side of the road — a sign, according to Kummt’sa, that the paths have been opened.

Up until that point, it was going to be Kummt’sa who would channel the elephant dance in battle with the Nhoma shaman, even though he had not yet been fully initiated in the ways of the !xo. Now, though, we are destined for the diamond package.

Doctor Jakob, as anticipated, looks entirely the part. He is in his late seventies or early eighties, his body wiry and strong, with a thin grey braid dangling from the bottom of his patchily bearded chin. We find him in Tsumkwe and drive the 30km to the village of Duinpos, where he fetches not only his loincloth, but five of the Duinpos “mamas” — the women, including his wife, who will join the mamas of Perspeka in the singing of the ancient songs.

The sun is setting as we get back to Perspeka, and almost instantly there are three adolescent boys who are dragging large branches to the customary site of the dance.

The elders, including Doctor Jakob and the Duinpos mamas, gather around the small fire in front of Doctor !Kunta’s shack — a tiny rectangular lean-to, its height too low even for the doctor or his wife to stand up, with thick black plastic as the material for the walls and the roof. While we are sitting there, the excitement slowly building for the healing festivities to come, a khaki Landcruiser roars into the village.

“They are Boer hunters,” says Herbert, after he returns from a short discussion with the vehicle’s occupants. “They have two days left on their licence and they are asking if we have seen elephant.”

At this, we all look to Doctor !Kunta, then to Doctor Jakob. The faces of the two !geixa are impassive, but Kummt’sa explains what it means — the !xo is a dangerous dance, he says, just like the !gei itself; that these hunters are coming now is a clear message from the Sky God, for evil or for good.

And yet it is only good, it seems, that the Sky God has in store. Next to the roaring dance fire is a another, smaller fire for the children, whose bodies are not yet able to handle the influx of the !gei. Hours before we start they have already taken their positions, mimicking the movements of the elders, which are imprinted on their young minds from all the previous dances they have witnessed.

Also for good, just before dinner, the Nhoma !geixa and his headman appear in the yard out of nowhere — they have not come to dance, they say, but to pay their respects. They have also come to apologise, and they have forked out for the round trip themselves. Doctor !Kunta and Doctor Jakob are standoffish; they appear to have endured such overtures before. But Kummt’sa, who does not fail to smell the “stinkwyn” (literally, stink-wine) on their breaths, accepts the show of deference and sends them happily on their way.

Watching them leave, it occurs to us that the “excruciating dilemma” of the holders of the !xo is also the central dilemma of humanity itself. There really is no difference, we concur, between the packaging of the dance for tourists and the killing of elephants for their tusks – both are things of incredible beauty, and so both, thanks to commercial attempts at ownership, are containers for death.

“It’s true,” says Kummt’sa, “which is maybe why they drink.”   

Then it is time for the meal, the only full meal of the day, which has happened the same way in Perspeka, night after night after night; a tradition that stretches as far back as anyone in the village can remember. The cooking fires belong to the mamas, as do the meals themselves. It is only after the women and children have eaten that the men are allowed to approach — if the leftovers are not sufficient, we are welcome to move on to the next fire.

Likewise with the dance, where the voices of the mamas rule. As the ancient tunes get louder, calling Doctor Jakob to his task, we are invited — as visitors — to officially open the ceremony.

The instruction, as translated by Kummt’sa, is to fetch the “physical object” that one of us has in our bags. There is no rational way that either !geixa could have known what we had brought, and so we fulfill the command without question.

The mamas calling Doctor Jakob to the fire of the !xo dance. (Video: Scott Fee)

 The dance itself, as agreed in a language beyond words, is not to be recorded. What we can say, however, is that Doctor Jakob, to announce the presence of the !gei, first holds the hot coals in his hands, then he convulses, then he channels the familial issues of everyone present, including us. The healing is in the seeing, and the muthi is placed at Doctor !Kunta’s feet.

Two days later, we are on the B1 highway down the spine of Namibia, en route to the South African border. The object that we had brought, the object that had opened the dance, had everything to do with the farthest of far stars.

The headlines that day are full of images from the James Webb Space Telescope, where the farthest of far stars are finally seen. DM/OBP

Gallery
Absa OBP

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