The Harmless People

A young Radcliffe graduate who was a member of three expeditions through the Kalahari Desert . ELIZABETH MARSHALL THOMAS lived for many months among the Bushmen inSouth-West Africa. In this excerpt from her book, THE HARMLESS PEOPLE, soon to be published by Knopf she show’s how these true aboriginals manage to survive in an all but uninhabit able land.

THERE is a vast sweep of dry bush desert lying in South-West Africa and western Bechuanaland, bordered in the north by Lake Ngami and the Okovango River, in the south by the Orange River, and in the west by the Damera Hills. It is the Kalahari Desert, part of a great inland table of southern Africa that slopes west toward the sea, all low sand dunes and great plains, flat, dry, and rolling one upon the other for thousands of miles. It is a hostile country of thirst and heat and thorns, where the grass is harsh and often barbed and the stones hide scorpions.

From March to December, in the long drought of the year, the sun bakes the desert to powdery dry leaves and dust. There are no surface waters at all, no clouds in the sky for coolness, very few shade trees, but mostly low bushes and grass tufts: and among the grass tufts grow brown thistles, briars, and the dry stalks of spiny weeds.

There are only three months of rain in the whole year; these begin in December, ending the hottest season, when the air is as tight and dry as a drum skin. Under the rain — which is sometimes torrential, drenching the earth, sometimes an easy land rain that blows into the long grass like a mist —the heat and drought melt away and the grass turns green at the roots. Because the season is short, the plants bud, flower, and fruit very quickly; in March the drought creeps in, just as the veld fruits ripen and scatter their seeds.

When the rains stop, the open water is the first to dry, making slippery mud and then caked, white earth. By June, only little soaks of water holes remain, hidden deep in the earth, covered with long grass. These, which are miles apart from each other, dry up by August, and then travel in the veld is nearly impossible. Because of this, large areas of the Kalahari remain unexplored.

We have crossed this desert three times, my family and I, and these expeditions numbered between ten and fifteen people, including my father, my mother, my brother, and myself, Euro peans who were linguists, zoologists, botanists, or archaeologists, and four or five Bantu men who were the staff. We traveled in four big trucks and a jeep and had to carry all our food and water, gasoline and equipment, in supplies to last us for several months. We traveled through great drought areas, once crossing four hundred miles of the central desert of Bechuanaland. All this was for the purpose of filming and studying the life and customs of the people of the Kalahari, who are called the Bushmen.

Bushmen are a naked, hungry people, slight of build and yellow skinned; the only feature they have in common with their large-boned, darkerskinned neighbors, the Negro or Bantu tribes living at the edges of the Bushmen’s territory, is their peppercorn curly hair. Otherwise, Bushmen are like the Asian peoples, often having Mongolian eyefolds and rather broad, flat faces.

They are handsome, though short — a man being a few inches over and a woman a few inches under five feet — and a little swaybacked. which makes their bellies stick out. They are handsome because of the extreme grace in their way of moving. which is strong and deft and lithe; to watch a Bushman walking or simply picking up something from the ground is like watching part of a dance. This is not a beauty of the’ flesh and therefore exists in everyone who is not an infant or stiff with age. Bushmen have long, slender arms and legs, and the men are built for running, all lean muscle and fine bone, and consequently they often seem younger than they are. They are delicately proportioned too, and they speak very softly.

They dress themselves in the skins of animals, a man wearing only a leather loincloth and a woman a small leather apron and a big kaross, a leather cape made from a whole animal hide, belted at the waist with a sinew cord and knotted at the shoulder, forming a pouch in back where a baby can ride. Sometimes Bushmen wear leather sandals, but mostly their hard, brown feet are bare.

The Bushmen and the Hottentots belong to the same racial and language group, and are perhaps the earliest human inhabitants still living in southern Africa. The Bushmen are materially one of the most primitive peoples living on earth. Although most of their groups own some metal objects, they do not smelt or forge metal but get it in trade from their Bantu neighbors. They use soft metal in the making of a few tools such as knives and little axheads, cold-hammering the metal into shape themselves. They make their other tools from wood and bone, grass and fiber, the things of the veld. They dig roots and pick berries to cat because they have no crops, the desert being too dry for anything but desert plants to grow naturally; and Bushmen, who quickly consume all the wild food available in one place, cannot stay anywhere long enough to tend crops or wait for them to grow. There is not enough water for livestock, and for this reason they have no domestic animals. Instead, Bushmen hunt wild antelope with tiny, poisoned arrows, sometimes made of soft, traded metal, sometimes made of bone.

In order to live the way they do, Bushmen must travel through the veld, changing their abode every few days in search of food. They rarely bother to build strong huts, making small domes of grass for themselves instead — just a little shade for their heads, grass which the wind soon blows away. Sometimes they do not even bother with this but push little sticks into the ground to mark their places. They sleep beside the sticks and arrange their few possessions around them, symbols of their homes.

Although at one time Bushmen lived all over southern Africa, the only land that is left to them now is land that no other peoples can use. But Bushmen have great endurance to hunger and thirst and need fewer things than other people; they can use shells and leather, grass and sticks, to make their tools and clothing; they can track the antelope of the desert over the hardest ground; and they know each stalk or vine that marks an edible root. So they survive in the most rigorous places. They live even on the vast, rolling steppes of central Bechuanaland, the territory of the Gikwe Bushmen, who for the nine dry months of the year have no water at all and do without it.

IN July, 1955, during the South African winter, our expedition came upon a band of Gikwe Bushmen. We had spent almost a month searching through the veld to find them; Bushmen are suspicious and shy of any stranger and hide when they hear people coming. When we did find the group, we gave them salt and tobacco, and they quickly became friendly with us. Soon they agreed to let us live beside them.

There were eleven people in the band: an old man named Ukwane, his wife, and his son; an old woman and her two sons; a young man named Gai, his wife, two sons, and mother-in-law. Their werf, or tiny village, was at the edge of a vast plain, under the sheltering branches of a little tree where the families had scooped three shallow depressions in the sandy ground, like the shallow, scooped nests of shore birds on a beach. Here, the people could lie curled up and let the cold night wind pass over them. Beside these depressions, the cooking fires were built.

The Bushmen’s possessions swung from the branches of the tree, which was festooned with strings of ostrich eggshell beads, bows, quivers, and scraps of drying vegetables. Under the tree the ground was littered with vegetable husks and a few small bones, for the people lived mostly on melons, roots, and small, snared animals. The melons, in fact, were a source of their water, because there was no water hole, no stream or spring or river. Gathering them is the work of women, who chop their pulp into liquid.

The melons grow only in the winter and spring on vines in the dry grass of the plains. In the hot season, they shrivel and die. Then, if it were not for a root called bi and for the game antelope, the Gikwe would have no source of liquid. The summer is the hardest season of all for the Gikwe. They go into the veld early in the morning, gather bi, bring it back to the werf before the sun is hot, scrape it, and squeeze the scrapings dry. The people drink the juice they squeeze. Then they dig shallow pits for themselves in the shade. They urinate on the bi scrapings and line the pits with the now moist pulp, then lie in the pits and spend the day letting the moisture evaporating from the urine preserve the moisture in their bodies. They lie still all day and at dusk go into the veld again to gather food — roots and dry berries — returning to their werf before it is dark, for in the hot season the big snakes, the mambas and cobras, move out of their holes only at night.

In all seasons, game antelope are a source of liquid to the Gikwe. The antelope of the desert do not need to drink water because they get enough liquid from roots and grass. When Gikwe Bushmen shoot an antelope, they drink the blood and the water in the rumen. They do not depend on this as their source of water because hunting is far more difficult and uncertain than veld food gathering. But meat is greatly esteemed as food; hunting is a fine skill. Bushmen say that meat makes people fat and happy and makes the women love the men. A good hunter is a highly valued person in a band.

ONE day, after we had become well acquainted with Gai, he showed us the shoulder bone of an antelope and told us that he was going to make and poison an arrow. He was planning to go hunting, he said, but he had very few arrows, and as he spoke he cut the spinelike ridge from the shoulder bone and pushed it into an open melon. This, he said, would moisten the bone so that it would not be brittle. Some time later, when the bone was soft and pliant, Gai removed it and whittled a tiny arrowhead and foreshaft. He made the foreshaft first, then carefully whittled the head, leaving a tiny ridge up the middle for strength but shaving the edges so thin you could see light through them. When the arrowhead was finished, Gai fitted it into a length of reed. Bushmen make their arrows in two or three loosely joined sections and poison only the foreshaft. When the arrow is shot into an antelope, the reed shaft drops away, leaving the small poisoned arrowhead imbedded in the antelope’s flesh. The arrowhead cannot easily be scraped off, as it could if it were joined to the reed, and the poison has a chance to dissolve.

When the arrow was made, Gai turned it over and over, sighting down its length to see if it was straight. It was. He then took from his hunting bag a handful of round, nutlike tiny shells which we recognized as the cocoons or pupa casings of the poisonous beetles, the source of poison for the deadly arrows.

Gai had stored his poisonous cocoons in a small bag inside his hunting bag to keep them safe, and now he took them all out and felt them, shook them, to see if they were fresh. Then he took his arrow, his cocoons, a straw, and a scrap of leather he had been saving which was so thin and ragged it had very little use, and moving all these things to a place in the grass far away from the werf, he sat down to work. He did not work in the werf because a drop of poison might be spilled and months later would still be dangerous. He then called for a fire, which one of the young boys brought in the form of a few sticks in one hand and a live coal in the bare palm of his other hand.

At last Gai was ready and his fire burning. After inspecting his fingers carefully for cracks in the skin, and telling us to sit upwind from him so that no drops of poison would blow on us, he scratched open one of the cocoons. It opened easily, and Gai fished inside with the straw, dragging out the grub, which struggled feebly with one slight, almost imperceptible convulsion and then lay alive but motionless, curled on the palm of Gai’s hand. The cocoon was small, and the grub must have filled it entirely, for, once outside, the grub seemed twice as large as its casing.

Gai laid it across his thumbnail and tapped it gently, then twisted off the head and, squeezing the body, forced the paste inside onto the foreshaft of his arrow and smeared it evenly with his straw. When the foreshaft was coated all around with the poison of several grubs, Gai dried the arrow by the fire, then coated the foreshaft again. He did not poison the arrowhead at all, for if he did, any child might accidentally nick himself and die. There is no known antidote for the poison of these arrows, but because the Bushmen are careful, and because only hunters are permitted to touch the arrows, accidents almost never occur.

It has always amazed me that the Bushmen ever discovered these beetles, which are only one species among thousands in southern Africa and which the Bushmen say are poisonous only in their pupa stage. So far, very little is known about the beetles except that their species is Diamphidia simplex. The adult beetles lay their eggs on the leaves of certain marula trees, and the young larvae, when they hatch, crawl down the tree to pupate in the earth among the roots.

It is here that the Bushmen find them. The pupae themselves are enclosed in tiny brown casings with brittle shells, exactly the color of the earth around them. Nothing that the Bushmen eat grows among the roots of marula trees, and although the marula trees have edible nuts that drop and are gathered from the surface of the ground, there would be no likely reason for Bushmen to be digging there. Bushmen do eat certain beetles, ants, and caterpillars, which, they say, are sweet as honey, but even if a Bushman were to eat a poisonous beetle he would not die (unless he had a cracked lip or an ulcer), for the poison works only in the blood stream and even the poisoned black meat taken from the site of the arrow wound can be eaten with impunity.

Bushmen have refined and perfected their systems of poisoning, sometimes adding a binding fluid gotten from a bark to make the poison cling to metal arrows, sometimes adding the juice of a grass which, when dissolved in a wound, has an irritating effect and causes the animal to rub its wounded spot against a tree, thereby stimulating the circulation and hastening death.

I RARELY went hunting, because I am a woman and the Bushmen consider women ruinous to hunting. Hunting, they believe, is chi go, a male thing, and women only dull the arrows, spoil the aim, and ruin the luck of hunters. Once, however, I insisted upon accompanying a hunt, and Gai agreed to take me, possibly because he was not sure that I, as a non-Bushman woman, would spoil it for him. Many of the Bantu people throughout Africa believe that magic powers do not apply or extend to Europeans, but so far the Bushmen have not had a chance to find out, and rather suspect that taboos and magic apply to everyone in the world.

Before the hunt, I agreed to stay far behind the men, so that I would not make noise or get in the way, which seemed to satisfy Gai. Early in the morning, he, my brother, and I set off, my brother and I taking nothing with us except a camera, Gai taking his bow, his arrows in their tubular quiver made of a hollow root, and his spear.

ft was a cool, fresh morning; we walked in single file and in silence across the plains of yellow grass. Gai watched the ground and the horizon for a sign of game. Bushmen say that hunting is easy in open country; a hunter can see an antelope long before he is seen himself, before the antelope can take alarm; the hunter can then bend over so that his back resembles an animal’s and can stalk the antelope easily.

We did not see any game on the wide horizon, and at midmorning, tired and thirsty, we walked toward a forest of thorn trees to rest in the shade. We were almost at the forest when Gai held up his hand to signal us to stop and then slipped off among the trees, crouching, sliding between the bristling thorns like a wild creature. I saw then why he had stopped; we had crossed the fresh, heart-shaped tracks of a gemsbok. made only moments ago, a gemsbok walking, for the tracks were shallow and not far apart. When I looked through the bushes and saw Gai standing perfectly still, poised, silent, I knew that he was too absorbed to notice or care if I followed, so I did.

Gai was a handsome sight, screened by the white thorns, for he was slender and lithe and golden skinned. As he stood poised with his knees bent, he raised his head ever so little to see between the thorns, like a cat judging distance before springing, and as he looked his hand went to his shoulder and removed a poisoned arrow from the quiver. He knew the gemsbok was near, but I do not think he saw it. It was not moving either and probably did not know that we were there.

We stood motionless for a long, long moment while Gai turned his head very slowly, searching. Suddenly I noticed something move in a bush near us, and when I looked carefully I saw that if was an ear. The ear showed plainly, oval and still, outlined against the blue sky between two branches; then it flicked twice and vanished. We heard a slow crunch, crunch of footsteps walking in the dry leaves. Gai had seen the ear too, of course; he crouched again and took up a handful of dust which he let slip through his fingers to test the wind. The dust drifted toward the west, almost imperceptibly, and as he looked at the bush where the ear had showed, his hand moved up again to his quiver and took out four arrows quickly. These he thrust into a strip of leather that he wore around his waist, so that they fanned out like the tail of a turkey. Setting his quiver on the ground, he began silently to move forward, crouching as he stalked. He went quickly, foxlike, in a semicircle, to approach the gemsbok against the wind, for though the gemsbok would have been able to see him if it were to turn its head, it could not smell him and would not know that Gai was a man. The game antelope do not recognize hunters as human beings unless the hunters are standing up.

Gai moved faster and faster, his long back showing above the top of the grass, his bright fan of arrows catching the light. He was so smooth and naked that he slipped through the grass and bushes silently, with nothing on him to catch or tear or make a sound. In the middle of the clearing he stopped, fitted his arrow against the bowstring, and pulled the bowstring back. I saw the muscles standing out on his arms and thighs, then heard a whir as the arrow flew and saw Gai start to reach for a second arrow. In the next instant I heard a great snort and crashing of branches. A huge female gemsbok broke from the thicket and bolted past me, her long horns down on her back, her throat stretched, her gray hide heaving. She came so close to me that I could see her nostrils widen and hear her blowing as she ran, snorting in terror. Gai ran behind her in a short, close run like the rush and charge of a lion; he pulled the second arrow from his belt, stopped, shot it, ran a few steps more and shot again. The gemsbok was far away now. her footsteps faint. Gai’s stride lengthened, his long legs reached forward further and further, gaining speed, until he ran in a stride that was open and free like a greyhound or a cheetah, and in a moment he too was gone.

Presently he walked back calmly, picking up his arrow shafts one by one. The gemsbok had been about thirty feet from where Gai was standing when he had shot, but now Gai walked forward and without searching took up his reed shafts from the ground where they had been lying among other reeds. He looked them over carefully and then looked for a drop of blood which might show if the gemsbok had been hit or only grazed. He did find blood, great pearshaped drops of it, which showed that the arrow had been well placed, and further on, where he had shot his second arrow, he found more blood, dark on the sandy ground, and after noticing carefully the direction taken by the gemsbok, for it would be no use to follow the gemsbok now, we went home.

THAT night, Gai did not say what had happened but remarked very casually that he had shot a steinbok, one of the very small antelope. It is the custom of Bushmen to do this; a man must communicate to the others the news of an antelope wounded so that he can get help with the tracking, but he does not like to tempt fate by saying what the antelope actually was. That would bring bad luck.

Usually, several men follow a wounded antelope. When the antelope crosses hard ground, or when its tracks are joined with the tracks of a herd, the men spread out, and one of them will surely be able to find the tracks of the wounded antelope again. A hunter could track an antelope alone, but it might take a long time for him to do so, and in hunting it is important that the antelope be found shortly before it dies or very soon after, for otherwise vultures, hyenas, and jackals will eat the carcass. Moreover, if the antelope is large, several spears will be needed to kill it and usually a hunter owns or carries only one spear.

The following morning, before dawn, when mist was rising from the veld and birds were calling in the soft, sweet air, Gai went with Ukwane to the spot where he had shot the gemsbok. Before they left, the men drank melon pulp and ate. Then, taking their spears, bows, and quivers of arrows, they walked off in single file. They looked ready for anything; they were not burdened down with food and water because the veld would give them these, and they went silently on their hard, bare feet, walking easily and rapidly until they were out of sight. That was the last we saw of them for three days.

They came back early in the morning of the fourth day, again in single file, against the dim sky where birds were flying. They walked into the werf, sat down, and told the people that they had found and killed the gemsbok, which lay in the veld not far from where she had been shot. She had traveled in a circle, and because she was near, the people set out at once to butcher her. Much of her body’s liquid would have been wasted if many people had not gone to carry it away.

We found the gemsbok lying on her side in a field of grass, with a swarm of redheaded flies already at her mouth. Vultures were in the sky above her, and we knew that we would have had no meat if we had delayed much longer.

Gai squatted beside her and began to stroke her udder. He squeezed a teat, and milk squirted into his palm. The gemsbok must have left a calf, alone and lost now on the plains somewhere. As Gai licked the milk, Ukwane squatted beside him. The gemsbok was big enough for both men to squat at her udder milking, Ukwane under her lifted thigh. Almost everyone came by with a palm outstretched for a squirt of milk. Ukwane called for me to come too, and when I did he milked a white stream into my palm. I licked the milk away. It was strong and rank and gamy, not at all like the mild, sweet-tasting milk of cows, yet it was liquid, and the Bushmen milked her dry.

Afterwards, Gai and Ukwane butchered her, Gai preparing himself by casually sharpening his knife on her narrow, heart-shaped hoof. Always working so that her wounded side was up, the two men cut her skin free, not spilling a drop of blood. Near the carcass they dug a shallow pit which they lined with the skin, hair side down, and as blood would well up into the cuts they made butchering, they would collect it and place it in this bowl. The carcass itself, now red and pink and white, they rolled onto a bed of leaves and branches to keep it clean, and they cut off the front and hind leg of the upper side, forming a bowl of the carcass so that no liquid would escape.

Ukwane lifted the rumen out carefully, like a great water sack that might burst suddenly, and hurried with it to the pit lined with the skin. There he slit it, and water gushed out, every drop saved by the skin. Ukwane and Gai removed handfuls of the contents, a yellow, pulpy mass of partially digested grass, and they squeezed each handful dry into bowls and blown ostrich eggshell containers that the women had brought forward. They did not mind two great, white worms that were discovered living in the rumen, for as soon as enough water was collected, the people all had a long, satisfying drink. The people also drank the blood, scooping it in handfuls to their faces. Soon they were stained with it, and the old women looked savage.

From the body contents of that gemsbok the Bushmen bailed out several bucketfuls of liquid, enough to supply them for almost a week. They cut the meat into strips which they would dry in the sun and use as they needed. There was enough meat for a week or longer, as there were only a few people and the gemsbok was almost as big as a cow.

Soon the gemsbok had vanished. All that remained from the butchering was the pile of squeezed, dry grass from the rumen and a few lumps of feces that the redheaded flies buzzed over. The meat, bones, head, hide, and brushlike tail had been distributed to the people, and all had carried their portions away.

Many days later, when the meat was eaten, nothing was left but the long bones, gray with weather. Then even the bones were divided and cracked for the marrow, and here and there, for days after that, we saw the people crouching in the werf, hungrily digging for the marrow with straws.