Feb 27, 2012

The Nama and the San

The hunter-gatherers and beachcombers of the early Cape

Of all the African people living in South Africa one can probably say that the only truly original indigenous people remaining are the Nama and the San – small-framed, apricot-skinned beachcombers and hunter gatherers who walked the land for food and fished along the rocky shores in turbulent waters more than three hundred and fifty years ago.

 With a tiny physique, an earthy complexion and wrinkled appearance, the San have good eyesight, can see great distances and were skilled trackers who could study a pile of manure or animal dung and tell you which animal had made the deposit, the age of the animal, and the direction it had gone. The San had rock paintings all along the coast as if to dress up the places where they had been and left their signature; they were hunter-gatherers with a wonderful sense of poetry, music, and art.  

 Remnants of the San remain, and have been made famous in the well-known film by Jamie Uys known as The Gods Must be Crazy – where a Coke bottle falls from the sky and causes a tribe member to start walking to the end of the earth to return it to the gods. The act of trying to give back a Coke bottle to the gods is evidence of their delightful nature. The San speak both Khoisan and Afrikaans and make a click sound when they speak. Hunted by the early settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries, they fled north and disappeared.

The second group, the Nama, close in colour and stature to the San, who also had Mongolian features, originally lived around the Orange River in southern Namibia and northern South Africa in the mid nineteenth century. Before this, they lived in Namaqualand and were called Hottentots. 

Today, about 60,000 Nama live in Namibia, and an entire community reside in the four districts in the Richtersveld, a mountainous and stony landscape, in Eksteenfontein, Kubus, Sanddrift and Port Nolloth where they have houses along sandy streets with some trees, a café, a school, a church with a piano. The Nama, however, have their problems; alcoholism, teenage pregnancy, and fear that their culture and language will soon disappear. The children are uninterested in learning the language of their elders and many of them now speak only Afrikaans. 

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