Over the last six years living on this African continent, I’ve had the chance to see a few amazing endangered species of animals. Black rhino, African Penguin, Mountain Gorilla. But this past summer we visited Namibia and I witnessed a sort of loss that I’d never before seen with my own eyes: an endangered people, a culture on the very brink of extinction.
You may remember the San Bushmen from the movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” That’s them. They are modern humanity’s oldest living ancestors— that is, you (whoever you are) and I can both be genetically traced back to them. The Bushmen have lived as hunter-gatherer nomads around southern Africa for the past 20,000 years, at least. They know how to seasonally harvest and use hundreds of plants in the region for food and medicine, they build temporary dwellings from resources they find and with the tools they fashion, and they hunt with snares and poison arrows. They are people you’d see on National Geographic, peaceful and totally badass.
But then there’s this little idea our world has: land ownership. After independence in 1990, much Namibian land was re-appropriated. Many groups of Bushmen, with no money or concept of ownership, were now trespassing on privately owned land, everywhere their nomadic ways took them. No longer free to roam, they were also no longer allowed to hunt as they once did, as conservation programs and game reserves came with strict rules.
We stayed on a giant farm/reserve where the owner told us that when her family had purchased the land, it included a certain acreage, an estimated number of wild game animals, the buildings, and oh, exactly twelve Bushmen.
We visited the homes of these twelve, where they live as permanent guests on their once boundless homeland. The government gives them some meat to compensate for the lack of hunting rights, and they make jewelry to sell to culturally-curious tourists who pass through. The children ran around with western underwear underneath their loincloths, speaking a language with multiple varieties of clicks while they expertly flicked through photos on someone’s iPhone. I couldn’t make sense of any of it. In one breath I was baffled that I live at the same time on the same planet as these people, and in the next could see nothing but the fact that so much that made them unique was turning to dust.
Only the elders have actually lived that traditional life. Their children and grandchildren, if they even learn those skills, will never use them for survival. Tens of thousands of years of indigenous knowledge is being lost at this very moment, within this one generation. This unnerves me to the core. Extinction is a verb, present tense. I could taste it, and at times I could barely breathe because something once so sturdy was so unmistakably fragile.
Some might argue that we no longer need hunter-gatherer minds among the ranks of our species. After all, we’ve invented tractors and slaughterhouses and the internet… drop the loincloth and go to school, for goodness sake! I asked the Bushmen (through an interpreter) if their lives are better or worse now, and they thoughtfully answered, “both.” They gained some things, lost others.
It seems like a question worth asking all of humanity, and I think we should be periodically called to take stock of the costs and benefits of development. Because tractors, slaughterhouses, the internet, and all the rest, both benefit and cost us something, culturally, if you think about it. Changing the way we live is never an uncompromising straight shot toward “better.”
I am happy for the Bushmen in some ways, and I would also say that there is something to be mourned in our collective unconscious, as that way of life ends. It is the loss of one incarnation of our most raw, survivalist selves, and a loss in our human diversity, the thing that ultimately makes us so strong. I don’t claim we should stop progress, and I know civilizations will keep moving forward. But in honor of that little group I met in the Kalahari that day, I would like to put my vote in for doing so as thoughtfully as possible, please.