Saturday, 21 November 2015

No.2 “The little Bushman stands guard”

An especially warm memory: Grahamstown poet Don Maclennan – mentor, friend, fellow-climber – brews tea in a billy over a twiggy fire, passes a mug to Irish poet Seamus Heaney.  Heaney crinkles up those almost Mongolian slits of his laughing eyes.  There are eight or ten of us, lounging about beneath the overhangs at Salem, twenty kilometres or so from Grahamstown, and discussing the russet fading Bushman paintings speckling the ledges above us.  Then, taking turns, we read through the 34 sections of Don’s collection of short poems, Rock Paintings at Salem.  (The last section said simply: "I am listening".) 

That was 2002.

I became interested in the ‘Bushmen’ – San, Khoikhoi, Basarwa, abaTwa, or however one might choose to name this nebulous, complex scattering of peoples – mostly through my exploration of ecological dimensions of literature: the ways in which novelists and poets represented and felt about landscapes, natural vegetation, animals.  There was the “little Bushman”, as Laurens van der Post called ‘him’, popping up everywhere as the necessary guardian of ecological well-being, balance and respect.  The radical opposite of rapacious, planet-destroying industrial modernity.  The Bushmen were the victims of our very own Southern African genocide, the “Harmless People”, the gentle ones, living their eco-friendly desert lives in “original affluence.”

Most interesting, for me, was the clutch of white poets who had turned to Bushman material for inspiration.  Thomas Pringle, of course, had the Bush-boy running at his side in his poem “Afar in the Desert” in 1821 or so; 180 years later, there was Don Maclennan responding to Salem’s mystery-laden paintings, artist to artist.   Then there were those who had drawn directly on the extraordinary /Xam Bushman testimonies, collected in the 1870s, now fully available online – 12,000 pages of notebook pages: the Bleek-Lloyd Archive.  Jack Cope, Stephen Watson (Return of the Moon), Antjie Krog (The Stars Say Tsau!), Alan James (The First Bushman’s Path), most recently erstwhile Zimbabwe resident poet Harold Farmer.  All of them turning the song-stories – kukummi – of //Kabbo, Dai!kwain and other informants into ‘poems’, versions of translations from a now-vanished language.  Watson and Krog even got embroiled in a weird ‘plagiarism’ spat, as if those old “stories that float from afar”, as //Kabbo called them, had somehow come to belong to them.


What is the attraction?  Guilt at the earlier genocide?  Disaffection with ‘civilisation’?  A wish to root oneself more securely in African soil, via the earliest known inhabitants of the subcontinent?  To connect better with ‘Nature’, however vicariously?  To connect with what seems the very fount of poetry itself?  For some – like contemporary Khoi-San identity lobby-groups – to resurrect a lost and marginalised ethnicity of belonging? – the kind of thing encapsulated by the return of poor ‘circus-freak’, colonial super-victim Saartjie Baartman, rather irreverently sent up by Diane Awerbuck in Home Remedies (see my first blog).

Whatever the motives, I became aware of how regularly the figure of the Bushman surfaces in our poetry and, even more so, our fiction.  There was a phase, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, of travel accounts and letters (including Thomas Pringle’s, recently edited by Randolph Vigne) detailing without much compunction the hunting of the Bushmen like vermin, like jackals or rabbits.  By the later nineteenth century, a certain nostalgic guilt was setting in – witness Waldo (foreshadowing Maclennan) mulling over Bushman paintings on the kopje in Olive Schreiner’s 1881 novel Story of an African Farm.  At the same time, anthropology was taking off as an academic discipline. Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd would be followed by the Marshalls, Megan Biesele, Thomas Dowson, Jeannette Deacon, pre-eminently David Lewis-Williams, and a veritable swarm of others – all subjecting the remnant groups of cornered Bushmen to the most intense scrutiny of any hunter-gatherer group in the world.  The anthropology would deeply colour other portrayals of Bushmen, even as discontents with the academics were voicing a certain unease.

The first discontent perhaps was the (in)famous Laurens van der Post, who in The Lost World of the Kalahari and The Heart of the Hunter did so much to romanticise the eco-attuned Bushman; he even tried to style himself as a “white Bushman”, and was one of the first to draw on the Bleek-Lloyd testimonies to do so.  If his biographer J D F Jones, in Storyteller: The many lives of Laurens van der Post, is to be believed, a lot of it was exaggerated, if not completely invented.  But his influence is not to be denied, and I suspect there is something in his critique of ‘the West’ worth re-evaluating.  From him flows a stream of representations of the Bushman as rescuer, tracker, guide.  One example: in Wilbur Smith’s The Burning Shore, Europeans shipwrecked on the Namibian coast are rescued by Bushmen and taken to a kind of doughnut-shaped Eden in mid-desert.  This motif is echoed in Lauren St John’s teen novel The Elephant’s Tale.

Now there are any number of the-Bushman-will-save-us-from-ourselves narratives, fictional and non-fictional and some uneasily in-between.  World water expert James Workman, in The Heart of Dryness, looks to the Bushmen to show us ways of surviving in an increasingly water-poor world.  John Paul Myburgh’s The Bushman Winter has Come marries Bushman lifeways with a New-Age rhetoric of finding-one’s-inner-spirit; similarly Uys Lafra’s The San Piper: Encounters with an Otherworldly Bushman, and Brad Keeney’s Way of the Bushman.  There’s the more level-headed What Dawid Knew by the ultra-traveller Patricia Glyn; and the fictional Cape gangland-meets-Boesman story by Don Pinnock, Rainmaker (one of whose protagonist’s guides is named, unsurprisingly, Mr Kabbo).

And there are so many more appearances – probably hundreds.  We just keep on wanting to listen to the Bushman.  And this is just white writing in English – what of all our region’s other groups’ and languages’ literatures? If you know of any examples yourself, do let me know. 

But the point of this blog is really an invitation.  No one, as far as I know, has yet written a thorough survey and assessment of the Bushman’s literary presence.  A fabulous PhD project for some one. Any takers?


  1. Are there any good theses you know of Dan where Bushman or KhoiSan ways of living are incorporated in ways which lead to merging their legacy with living descendants and acknowledging the need to recognise this?

    1. I don't know about theses, though some of books I mention may do what you're seeking. There are various KhoiSan identity organisations, some of whom I know are working more academically with their heritage and its living remnants; Priscilla de Wet is one, but I'm not sure if she's finished up yet (at Stellenbosch?).

    2. Another excellent blog, Dan! I wish I could see the details of the rock painting better. Perhaps I should mention the shaman and artist Vetkat Regopstaan Kruiper (d. 2007) and the efforts of his wife to bring attention to his work and to the plight of his people?

    3. Thanks Dan, I did try once to contact Priscilla, but will try again. I have read most of the books you mention, all interesting and some really so, but am still trying to find something more relevant to what I am trying to write about! Love your posts.

  2. PS. I found Don's little book of poems on the Salem paintings among Beth Dickerson's books just recently, and am so enjoying it. I spent a lovely afternoon at the paintings with Tony Dold and Michelle Cocks last year. Wonderful setting.