Land, Language, and Leadership


When the light-skinned people came, they brought new things. They took the Jul' hoansi and they all went to live together in Tjum!kui where the white people taught them work and gave them white people's food. It happened sometimes that they would suddenly leave their work and go and look for bushfoods, but the white people wore them down and eventually they gave in. Some worked and worked and at the end of a month they got five shillings....

As I see it, white people don't want Jul'hoansi to be educated and become like them, because if Jul'hoansi became educated they would have a better life. If you worked with a white man for the government, only he would do well, and you, the Jul'hoan, would not. ...when the Afrikaaners came to the Jul'hoansi they did not ask them whether they could or could not come and live on their land. When they started looking after the game, they told the Ju/'hoansi, "Now we are going to make a game reserve on your land, and the animals on it will be yours and you can hunt them." The Ji/'hoansi told them, "We don't believe you. We do not want a game reserve on our land, because if there is one you will not allow us to hunt. And besides, now we are people with cattle, and if a game reserve is established, where will out cattle eat?"

We can see the Afrikaaners intend to deprive us of our land....the Afrikaaner said that the Ju/'hoan was stupid. But they didn't remember that they were supposed to be the ones who has come to touch the Ju/'hoansi. When the Afrikaaner said he was going to teach someone, that meant hitting him.

This quote comes from an English translation of perhaps the first written composition in the Ju/'hoan language by a Ju/'hoan person. Titled "MiSin='Ang" ("I Was Just Thinking"), its author is Kxao =Oma, a young man who also argues for the ennoblement of the word Bushman. He wrote the piece shortly before Namibian independence in 1990, using an orthography created under the auspices of the Nyae Nyae Farmers' Co-operative, a grassroots organization of the Ju/'hoan formed in 1986. Until 1991, Kxao's older brother, Tsamkxao =Oma chaired the NNFC, and Kxao holds the position of Cooperative Manager.

The growth of literacy in the Ju/'hoan language rather than Afrikaans - "the language of the oppressor" - reveals a cultural critique that has been honed in the community, in silent and painful circumstances. The twin tools of a socialist education - via the farmers' cooperative - and enlightened "self-literacy" give newly literate Ju/'hoansi the chance to have their fresh, critical voices heard.

Dedicated to securing land tenure in Nyae Nyae (formerly Eastern Bushmanland) for its 1,000-plus members and potentially many other Bushman people, the NNFC has had substantial success not only with communal land rights and linguistic self-determination, but also with economic development and the diversification of subsistence options. Expressions such as Kxao =Oma's are joining a large body of oral documents created and stored by NNFC to serve as a history of the organization and its role in Ju/'hoan political empowerment. Since 1987, the co-op's internal meetings, along with its meetings with government officials both before and since independence, have been recorded with the help of the Nyae Nyae Development Foundation of Namibia (NNDFN). These recording document the unprecedented step toward political self-determination made by the Ju/'hoan both before and after Namibian independence.


The Ju/'hoansi and their efforts at local empowerment and self-expression ex-emplify a "bottom-up political dialogue. As a people, they have lived under two strikingly different state governments in just four years - the South African-run colony of South West African-run colony of South West Africa and the independent democracy of Namibia led by the South West African People's Organization (SWAPO). Thus, the Ju/'hoansi have had to adapt to polar extremes of bureaucratic policy. Their negotiations - carried out with growing skill with the help of the NNFC - testify to the power of people speaking on their own behalf in their own language.

Since the 1960s, when anthropologist Lorma Marchall and her family completed research among the Ju/'hoan or "!Hung" on Nyae Nyae, Ju/'hoan society has changed profoundly. The Ju/'hoansi have made a transition of immense proportions in a single generation. Some of the elements of this shift were chose by the people themselves, as they became aware of new possibilities; most, however, were imposed by geographical and historical circumstances. In general, the Ju/'hoansi are creatively integrating necessary changes.

At the time of the Marshalls' research, the people whose beliefs and customs they studied had been the only permanent residents of Nyae Nyae for thousands of years. Living by hunting and gathering in this area requires about 22 square miles per person to support a stable population. For a long time, this was available to the Ju/'hoansi, whose lives, though arduous, were based on sufficient resources.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, the Ju/'hoan Bushmen way of life went from bad to worse. Amisguided government scheme offered them enticements to migrate to an administrative center called Tjum!Kui, which rapidly because a rural slum. Because the Ju/'hoansi no longer occupied their land, it became the target of attempts by the South West Africa Directorate of nature Conservation to set it aside as a game reserve, excluding ordinary human habitation. The directorate planned to allow a few Ju/'hoansi to remain in Nyae Nyae, dressed in traditional skin clothing, as picturesque tourist guides. Clearly, such a plan would have devastating effects on the community life and livelihood of the Ju/'hoansi. In 1970, following the work of the government's Odendaal Commission, the Ju/'hoansi were left with some 3,600 square miles of land, enough to support only about 170 people of their approximately 2000.

By the late 1970s, the people at Nyae Nyae realized they had to go back to their n!ores (traditional resource areas) if they were to hold on to them. They also saw that they must supplement hunting and gathering with alternative economic means in order to survive on a reduced land area. As they discussed their problems in Yjum!kui, stronger leadership for the n!ore groups evolved from necessity. People gave their herts and minds to individuals they thought could lead them out of the "place of death," as Tjum!kui had come to be called. One such leader was =Oma (=Toma) Tsamkxao of/Aotcha who led his people back to their n!ore in the early 1980s. "He stopped our feet (from wandering)," his followers said.

In 1981, three groups left Tjum!kui to reaffirm their ties to their ancestral n!ores. By a decade later, 30 returned n!ore groups were living on the land in Nyae Nyae. This widespread social movement paralleled the so-called "Outstation Movement" in Australia, in which aboriginal peoples reestablished communities in the outback and sought to sustain themselves communally. The Ju/'haon communities, too, aimed at a mixed subsistence, and had help in doing so from John Marshall, who with Claire Ritchie, a filmmaker and development anthropologist, returned to Tjim!kui in 1978 to explore new economic possibilities with the people of Nyae Nyae.

Marshall and Ritchie saw that the Ju/'hoan communities required support if they were to withstand the threat of the game reserve. With private donations, they launched the Cattle Fund, which made small grants to communities to develop water resources and begin cattle herds and gardens to supplement hunting and gathering. The fund, which later became the Ju/wa Bushman Development Foundation (JBDF) raised a significant amount of money from international agencies to help strengthen the people's claims that they were making productive use of their land. The idea was to counter the forces of disintegration - including hunger, poverty, unemployment, illness, and anomie - that had so transformed Ju/'hoan life from the self-sufficient one it has once been.

Outside politics became an inescapable part of Ju/'hoan life in the late 1970s, when the South African military attempted to recruit Bushman trackers in the war with SWAPO. Military camps were set up at Tjum!kui and other places in Western Bushmanland, and several hundred Ju/'hoansi took jobs in the army, little realizing what they were getting into. The relatively enormous army pay created income differentials and community conflict. Inexperienced young soldiers spent dangerously large amounts of money on liquor, with chaotic and sometimes violent results.


Realizing the many forces arrayed against their community's harmony and progress, the Ju/'hoan reacted by forming (with the help of the JBDF) the Ju/was (Ju/'hoan, it's name underscores the people's goal of a self-determined mixed subsistence based on more than hunting and gathering.

JFU members struggled to combat such problems as the threats to cattle posed by a large lion population (artificially increased by nature Conservation officials for tourism purposes), the destruction of water installations by elephants, and the hostility of officials who did not believe that the Ju/'hoansi could manage their own communities. The JFU represented the n!ore groups from Tjum!kui who had returned to their land; it also worked to enable dispossessed groups from other areas, such as the Gobabis farming district to the south, to settle on land along n!ores lines of settlement and use of resources.

The JFU's most important work was in communicating the new understanding and skills needed to reestablish the Ju/'hoan communities at a time of great political change. Traditionally, the Ju/'hoansi had no political organization larger than localized, kun-based living groups. To meet the challenges of self-sufficiency and form a voice on land rights and development, the Ju/'hoansi began exploring the possibility of board ending their tolerant, egalitarian way of self-government into a version of representative democracy for the entire region.

The NNFC's structure was formalized in 1988 with a document of statutes in Ju/'hoan and English. Each Nyae Nyae community elected two address matters of n!ore allocation, n!ore group viability, cattle allocation, and the organization of farming labor. A leadership structure was formalized as well, and ongoing refinemenr of this structure has enabled community members to create their own community and regional rules. One of the most demanding aspects of change for the Ju/'hoansi is the struggle to adapt the cultural rules and values of the old foraging way of life to a livelihood of agriculture and mixed subsistence.

The NNFC deliberates upon regional matters - for example, the applications of new groups fro n!ore waterpoints and building materials, the best way to interact with local government entities, and the need for co-op members to support one another when outsiders want to settle on land without abiding by co-op rules. The NNFC emphasizes that only carefully limiting the numbers of introduced stock will preserve the health of the land. The co-op also disseminates information about such community services as health care, schooling, and vocational training, and keeps members abreast of relevant national and international news.

The single most important area of awareness the NNFC has promoted related the land-rights struggle to the independence process when South West Africa became Namibia. Prior to independence, the NNFC had carried on an extraordinary public-awareness program, getting the world out to the far-flung villages of Nyae Nyae about UN Resolution 435 concerning the ending of South Africa's illegal mandate over South West Africa, SWAPO's war for liberation, and the challenges and opportunities the villagers would face as citizens of a nonracial state. By the time of the first free election in 1989, a large number of Ju/'hoansi turned out as informed voters. Thanks to the JBDF-NNDFN, the NNFC established close contact with UN officials stationed in Tjum!kui and learned to rebut the antiliberation propaganda of the departing South African Defense Force. Co-op communities voted at polling booths flown by helicopter into their remote area. Being part of the process that ended the Afrikaaner-dominated regime and petty apartheid made an indelible mark on Ju/'hoan consciousness.

One year after independence in 1991, the Ju/'hoan raised their newfound political voice to good advantage at the Namibian National Conference on Land Reform and the Land Question. NNFC representatives effectively presented their case for security of communal land tenure. As a result, the conference resolved that there would be special protection for Ju/'hoan land rights, and it recognized the n!ore system as the basis for land allocation in Nyae Nyae.


As Ju/'hoansi political awareness grew, the people of Nyae Nyae were also consolidating the communities economically. With the help of the NNFC and the NNDFN, the Ju/'hoansi drilled wells for water; built stout kraals (corrals) for small cattle herds; started gardens; expanded handicraft sales in Windhoek; and made plans for community stewardship of natural resources.

These improvements did not come without turmoil. The once egalitarian Ju/'hoansi, whose economy had centered on individual pursuits like hunting, had to face challenges both in leadership and the organization of work and its rewards. They had to adapt the strengths of their reliable sharing system based on kinship and small living groups to new demands, like the differential incomes and activities making up a community mixed subsistence. They also had to adapt a face-to-face method of relating in small groups, where each person had a say, to decision making by representatives charged with community trust. The creative ideas that have come out of solving these cultural problems are among the most hopeful indicators that the Ju/'hoansi are surviving great change.

The Ju/'hoansi are entering an unprecedented time of cultural progress, spurred on by Namibian politics combined with international forces being brought to bear on Southern Africa in general. Perhaps the most important factor in establishing an effective lobby has been the indigenous voice in Namibian politics.

The Ju/'hoansi used voice to fine advantage at the 1991 National COnference on Land Reform, and have since further influenced policy makers for special protection of Bushman land rights. Very recently, at a conference convened by the NNFC itself, Namibian Lands Ministry official agreed to work with co-op leaders on a pilot project for the Nyae Nyae area in land-use planning, an initiative that will have profound implications for the country's economic development and use of natural resources.

At NNFC meeting and meetings with government officials, Ju/'hoan voices enter directly into the global dialogue on the cultural survival of minorities within existing political structures. Land and leadership are entwined in a "new" democratic language that is, for the Ju/'hoansi, age old. Their voices, far from demanding only mainstream rights, from a fresh chorus of multicultural suggestions and possibilities, some of which may genuinely invigorate thinking in other parts of the Third and Fourth worlds.


The terms !Kung and San, familiar to anthropologists, appear here as Ju/'hoan and Bushmen. Linguists and anthropologists have used !Kung to described a subdivision of the "San" or "Bushmen" peoples of northern Namibia and northern Botswana, but the term is less known to the people it refers to than is their mane for themselves, Ju/'hoansi (previously spelled "Ju/wasi," "Zhu/twasi," and so on), meaning real or genuine people. To adopt this term is acknowledge Jy/'hoansi empowerment.

San is also problematic. It is not well known to most of the people themselves. Those who do know it have suffered its use in a pehorative context.


The Ju/'hoansi are defining educational priorities in a movement that can be described as practical "self-literacy" for self-determination. The Nyae Nyae Farmers' Cooperative has advanced the Ju/'hoan agenda of effective national and international communication by formally adopting an orthography of Ju/'hoan language for educational and political purposes. This orthography is used to teach Ju/'hoansi to read and write in their own language. it is also used in curriculum materials produced under Namibia's new Basic Educational Reform Program, which is committed to primary and adult education in minority languages.

There had been some support for the SOuth West African colonial government's 1987 orthography. However, that had been developed under the auspices of the Dutch Reformed Church, giving it a strongly negative cultural valuation, and was also cumbersome. During the past 22 years, as the promoters of this orthography translated a single book of the Bible, they failed to produce one religious convert or teach one Ju/'hoan person to write more than his or her name.

By contract, in the two years since independence, several young Ju/'hoansi have become skilled writers and readers of their own language and have taught quite a few others. These Ju/'hoansi will become the core of a planned Village Schools Program that will teach the first three years of school in the Ju/'hoan language. Such "self0literacy" has profound implications. Formerly nonliterate people now choose what they want to take out of the verbal realm and put into paint. They also critique some of the many reams of print that have been written about their culture. Literacy has helped them realize that not everything in a book is the truth.

Namibia's Ministry of Education had formally adopted the new orthography, applauding the fact that the way it rendered "clicks" (represented as=) and other features make the literature of related languages available to those who learn it. The orthography has led to the creation of an 8,000+-word professional dictionary (English-Ju/'hoan and Ju/'hoan-English), as well as a "Foxfire"-type educational project in which young people intervier with their elders.


Nyae Nyae support organization:

Nyae Nyae Development Foundation of Namibia P.O. Box 9026, Windhoek, Namibia Phone: (264) 61-36327 Fax: (264) 61-225997

(You can also contact the NNDFN through Cultural Survival, 215 First St., Cambridge, MA 02142(617)621-3818.)

Kalahari Support Group c/o Keizersgracht 682 1017 ET Amsterdan The Netherlands Phone: (31) 2208-96524

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