The Ju/’hoansi, of Namibia, lived the same way millennium after millennium. Then the military stipends started coming in.
Tsumkwe is the closest thing to a town in Namibia’s Nyae Nyae district, the epitome of remoteness in a country where almost everywhere is remote. Tsumkwe is also the capital of roughly 3,500 Ju/'hoansi, perhaps the best known of the few groups of people who continued to live as hunter-gatherers well into the 20th century.
If Tsumkwe has a center, then it is the Tsumkwe General Dealer, a small thatched shop and gas station that stands at the town’s only paved intersection. It is here that most Ju/'hoansi gravitate whenever money finds its way into their pockets, to purchase dry foods, alcohol, soft drinks, cookware, tools, blankets, and medicine.
Installed in the last couple of years, a solar-powered, cellular-connected ATM now occupies a central position in the General Dealer. When it actually works, it is the only means by which the 100 or so Ju/’hoansi in Tsumkwe with salaries can translate their digital paychecks into cash without travelling 200 miles to the nearest larger town, Grootfontein. The machine still elicits occasional gasps from some of the older Ju/’hoansi. “If you feed this machine the right numbers,” one old Ju/’hoan man explained to me with a wink, “it magically shits money.”