The Difficult Choice Facing Young Bushmen
Apr 09, 2018
Is there inherent value in preserving tradition? What if tradition, for you, meant rejecting modern life in favor of your ancestral lifestyle of hunting and gathering in sub-Saharan Africa? This is the very real choice facing Ketelelo and Kitsiso, two young Bushmen in Botswana, in Daniel Koehler’s moving documentary, A House Without Snakes.
Simultaneously a specific depiction of life on the front lines of modernization and a universal story of the dream of self-betterment, Koehler—funded by a Fulbright-National Geographic fellowship—patiently observes the young men over the course of a year. The film cuts back and forth between their stories, offering an intimate perspective, devoid of paternalism, on the challenges they face reconciling the past, present, and future. Ketelelo, an orphan and himself a new father, is relentlessly pursuing a career in engineering by way of an extremely competitive scholarship to Michigan State University. Kitsiso, meanwhile, is curious about—and appropriately skeptical of—the siren song of modernity. “Sometimes I wonder: Should I go to town and go and find [out] the way other people live?” Kitsiso says in the film. “It is up to the youth to decide the future.”
Prior to making this film, Koehler had spent many years in sub-Saharan Africa. Nonetheless, he was cognizant of being a foreigner in a community that he described as “understandably wary of researchers.”
“The biggest challenge was earning trust,” Koehler told The Atlantic. “The San [indigenous hunter-gatherers in Southern Africa] have been over-researched and often romanticized as noble savages. The last thing I wanted was to be yet another helicopter journalist and contribute to such stereotypes, so I spent a lot of time building relationships and understanding the story on the ground. That approach led to trust, which is reflected in the access and intimacy of the final film.”
According to Koehler, Ketelelo is now wrapping up his third year at MSU and is “performing well.” Kitsiso is studying tracking so that he can work as a tour guide, using his culture as a source of income.
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Author: Emily Buder
About This Series
A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.