“Now up there in the sky, the people up there, the spirits, the dead people up there, they sang for me so I can dance.”
“Whereas I see those men unhappy and embittered, who after procuring diamonds galore to glut their luxury, find that they have but useless flakes of glass, at their disposal. For what you need is not an object, precious though it be, but a god.”
Antoine de St Exupery, “Wisdom of the Sands”
“Modern man with his grievous and crippling realization of having lost the sense of his own beginnings, with his agonizing feeling of great and growing estrangement from nature, finds that life holds up Africa like a magic mirror miraculously preserved before his darkening eyes.”
Laurens van der Post, “The Dark Eye in Africa,” 1955
About 5 percent of the world consists of indigenous peoples who live in 80 percent of the world's most biodiverse habitat. That is why their vision is needed now more than ever. Hearing Laurens van der Post address a group of about 4,000 at St. John the Divine talk about the return of the light for Christmas, was to hear something of a gospel for our time. Whatever the mystique surrounding him, some called him the “conscience of the Western World.” But it was when he spoke for the first peoples of the world, the oldest continuous genetic group on earth, the Bushmen of the Kalahari, that made the greatest impression for their consciousness of the minute and first things of the world as well as their abiding to a cosmos we have lost touch with. Van der Post recognized that modern man had become an outcast before the universe and desperately needed to hear the language of the cathedral of nature, the only one that could restore mankind and his increasingly fragile being in this tumultuous time.
Hearing him fueled our interest to visit the Bushmen as so many anthropologists such as Richard Lee, Richard Katz, John Marshall, his daughter Elizabeth and Megan Biesele have done. The seed of so much of the Bushmen's lucidity is based on a vast intuitive knowledge that predates all history, when humanity were hunter gatherers and whose profound cosmology contains the oldest seeds and mythic sense of our place on earth. Their acknowledgment of the spirit of the creatures of earth are indispensable to who we are as a species. The Bushmen's deep respect for the gift of nature was the basic touchstone of what makes us human, qualities which modern man has consummately lost. The Bushmen “feared the loss of soul one of the gravest calamities that could befall” a person. In light of our precarious time on Earth, the Bushmen hold one of the keys to recollecting ourselves before the tragic dismemberment of nature, that threatens to pull the human spirit apart.
Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson
About a 100 years ago Jane Addams, the Nobel Laureate wrote, “Society cares more for the products it manufactures than for the immemorial ability to affirm the charm of existence.” It has been the great curse of our civilization to care more for the manufactured, processed industrial goods of society than the relations between ourselves and our ideals and ability to support the greater meaning of who we were on Earth, what our place is on this small planet. For Laurens the great cosmology and story the Bushmen harbored within their small frames was a direct link to the universe. They lived in a state “of extraordinary intimacy with nature” that few of us can fathom today in the uproar and haste of our modern lives.
Laurens wrote, “What particularly prevents us from knowing is that the world appears to have lost the sense of the importance of the small in life. Obsessed with mere size and number, we have been deprived of the feeling for the immense significance of the tiny, tentative first movements in the individual heart and imagination. Although our neglect of these impulses is destroying one system after the other around us, we go on ardently giving our allegiance to the great established order, as if its continuance were assumed. In our era of vast numbers and unreal collective abstractions, the story of this first individual and his imagination is more important than ever, if only because it establishes that at the very beginning of things man was an individual, a hunter before a herdsman, the single Adam made in the image of the first spirit before the making of the many.”
We had the fortune to meet Roy Sesana, the head of the First Peoples of the Kalahari, years ago when they were fighting for what remained of their land, amidst the infringement by the Botswana government who considered them a stone age people and who were thought of as an anomaly by the standards of the “computer age.” Roy emphasized the unique relationship his peoples had with their “brother the lion” and asked how they could be relocated just so the government could prospect for diamonds under their ancestral land. He once underscored, “We are the diamonds of the desert.” As with globalization all over the planet, Africa was undergoing a tragic makeover and losing ground to financial schemes continent wide. Whether it was in the search for hydroelectric power in the Selous, in Tanzania, bulldozing some of the largest reserve in Africa, or felling forests in Cameroon for lumber syndicates or palm oil extraction, Africa was playing catch up to the modern world, globalization and losing much of the essence of her first peoples and wilderness in the process.
Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson
Recently Kwhe Bushmen have been evicted from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve under the claim of conservation. They have been relocated in bleak settlements that are drier and which have far fewer resources than the wilderness that was their original home. They have become lonely, often desperate and alcoholic. All in the name of diamonds. The government maintained that they were hunting, when hunting was prohibited. Who on Earth would know more about taking only what they needed and honoring the animals than the oldest continuous genetic group on earth who go back over 3,000 generations? One elder said, “There is nothing we can do for ourselves. Our hands and feet have been cut off.” The Bushmen who were made first, “have come to be last, and those who were created last have come to be first.”
To spend a week being honored by the trance dance in the wilds of Botswana is to be transported back in time many millennia, but it is a still extant and miraculous social bonding experience unique on Earth. A group of elders who danced around the fire believed they have climbed the “threads to God’s village,” a central channel to Creation, an energy that can only be tapped by changing one’s breathing over several hours until a “boiling energy” was manifested in the body. “This sense of individual powerlessness or insecurity in the midst of millions, which paralyzes the contemporary man, seems totally absent from his spirit,” van der Post wrote. “Armed only with his native wit and his bow and arrow, wherever he went belonged, feeling kinship with everyone and everything he met on the way from birth to death.”
What is it about our civilization, whether African or European, that feels the need to annihilate everything that fosters life, whether human or non-human life in deference to a soul crushing industrial sense of commodifying everything instead of honoring and affirming life? “How different the first man of Africa was,” wrote van der Post. “This sense of being known, of universal kinship was so great that he could speak of the stars as members of his family. My own eyes were opened that night in the central desert when I saw a young Bushman mother dedicating her newly born child to a star." In the Kalahari we were entranced, quite literally by the oldest dance on Earth and wondered if more than mere vestiges of first man would survive the rampage of the 21st century.
The Cederbergs, north of Cape Town, contain some of the most exquisite rock paintings in Africa, painted by the San Bushmen hundreds of years ago. Lysander, not quite four, was amazed and absorbed by lions and elephants painted on the cave walls, like a young explorer seeing marvel from every corner of the late Paleolithic imagination. Van der Post saw these painting as well. In his classic “The Lost World of the Kalahari” in 1958, he wrote, "The spirits of the hills are not what they were. They are losing their power. It was a cry straight from his heart and the final utterances of an experience which seemed to be an example of the injury the coming of the European had done to the being and spirit of Africa. Samutchoso's gods were dying from a contagion brought by us and against which he and his kind had not our inborn immunities. Now to whom and to what could he turn? For even he, illiterate and unimpressive in the rags and tatters of our civilization, knew that without his gods life would lose its meaning and inevitably lead towards disaster."
Bushmen, as other first peoples of the world, have taken their plight to the UN, but no one will listen to them. Like the native elders in the American West who have spoken at the “house of mica” about putting down the nuclear sword, the Bushmen have been ignored, and are being made into "good citizens." The lust for diamonds has corralled their spirit into a prison. Everywhere the search for the minerals is crushing and homogenizing the indigenous peoples of the world. They could assuredly survive without us, but we will not be able to survive the coming droughts without them. Instead of listening to their tragedy and finding their story as a great blessing to the world, the Bushmen have been maligned and cast off. It is indeed a strange thing that we have made deities out of invisible gods while those who knew how to take care of the very real world around them, we have ridiculed and treated as inferior for hundreds of years. The changing Earth will teach us lessons we never knew possible. The spirit of the Bushmen, the oldest on Earth, will resound and we will have to learn to listen once again.
"The spirit is no longer seen as a gift that we hold in trust from life but as something that is narrowed to a conscious, willful, rational egoism," van der Post wrote. With all the Earth changes upon us, the so-called dominant society will be made to relearn what it has lost over the last few thousands of years. The "babel of voices and tumult within and without each one of us" each individual having become "a walking piece of organized chaos, incapable of communicating any more in a total way with his fellow human beings" will be forced upon us from climate change. Listening to the wind and the sand and the waters and the rains in new ways, will necessitate looking and seeing in ways that began long, long ago, ways of knowing that some of the Bushmen still harbor.
We have remarkable lessons to learn from the first peoples and the most urgent of all is how to reclaim who we are in relation to the life force. The Bushmen "felt known by the sun and the moon,” wrote van der Post. “Wherever he went he felt he belonged. But modern man has lost this feeling of being known. Look at what we call the crisis of identity in modern societies. Modern societies — European and American societies — are crammed full of human beings who feel they are not known in this sense of the word. They hunger for the act of recognition." The Bushmen are "both an example to us of what we should recover in our own spirit. And they are also a warning to us, that if we do not recover this sense, nature will turn on us one day, and we will be eliminated as the Bushmen were eliminated — because you cannot eliminate something precious in life without killing something in your own soul."
Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson
Learn more about Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson's work at their website.