I pray the breezy warmth of a budding English spring has rendered my silence of small consequence. By fair providence our ship flew down the outline of Africa and put in at the southern cape. The journey, tolerable in its particulars, was rendered enjoyable by my making the acquaintance of a gentleman who, sharing my fascination with the natural world and something of an old hand in these parts suggested we travel inland together to a region known as the ‘Kalahari’. The captain, having not insignificant business to attend with the chandler and some personal calls agreed to a brief sojourn.
Dearest, I shall not fill these pages with the minutiae of the floral and faunal species which compete for the favour of one’s eye – though their diverse, interrelated and inventive perfection is astounding – for during our travels we chanced upon a most remarkable people: a tribe of hunter-gatherers.
Oh what fascination! With their weathered bodies, naked to the sky save a loin cloth and leather bag of gathering implements they appeared akin to those lithographs of the ‘savage’ we saw, I forget where, and yet how misleading!
Their language full of clicks and laughter, was unintelligible to me though we engaged a local who had some competence. Nevertheless, their mindset was clear without words: One of existence rather than growth, sufficiency not surplus.
We made our camp, transported on mules (how encumbered we felt relative to the tribal elders!) a civilised distance from theirs and spent several days with them. They seemed unperturbed by our presence and by degrees we were able to become somewhat intimate.
Some 13 of them inhabit 5 family domes of roughly thatched grasses, all facing intimately inwards though towards separately tended fires. Individual but together, without hierarchy beyond age. As they gather, this continues – each digging roots and collecting berries for themselves though each attentive to his companions, giving and receiving favours reciprocally.
While there, my pocketwatch developed a fault, the dust no doubt, and so for many days I had only the sun and moon to mark the passage of time, here less a march and more a waltz. This combined with long walks under the wilting sun – though freshened by water ingeniously discovered in trees and from scratches in the ground – rather set the mind and soul to pondering.
I could not help but reflect on the varied, supportive though arid environment they inhabit, how lightly mother nature wears their presence! Here no smogs from unchecked mills, no waste. Yet how many worlds would we need to behave all thus? Are there still more lands to conquer? Otherwise we must needs hope mother nature is tolerant of her children as we play clumsily in her great laboratory, destroying her vibrant concoctions to make space for our sterile, self-serving imitations.
Yet fear not, my dear, though I appreciate I do not idealise. Theirs seems a precarious existence without the insurance of a surplus for a dry day, their daily intake a mere snack, their internal communal strength a brittle twig before the all-conquering growth of our civilisation. Our guide told us of local conflicts with encroaching civilisation, limitations from the colonial regime on the tribe’s ability to carry on their traditional hunting, and of a desire to integrate these tribes though only on the lowest rungs of society.
Nevertheless, though you may scoff at the idea of learning from such a thoroughly unmodern tradition, there is one aspect I must hold up as both explanation and prescription. One of the evenings we joined in a so-called healing dance. Night’s cloak contrived with the full moon’s steady highlights, to turn dark skins light and light skins dark. The orange flickering fire went rippling outwards, first over the women, seated, clapping a beat into the night; vocalising rhythmically, individual and collective; on outwards to the men, circling, protectively; dancing, rattle strings bound to bare legs adding their shuffling rustle; stomping, requesting the very Kalahari sands to send their shaking response up our spines.
Powerful? Yes – surely such energy came from more than 13 souls! Spiritual? Perhaps. Yet, more a collective healing, a smoothing of tribal tensions with an energy formed together: like a cathedral hymn on Christmas Eve, or a sports ground cheer, smoothing individuality into a sense of togetherness.
What an unexpected start, even before I set in India herself! With cooperative winds these words may reach you even as I arrive there and I will watch attentively for the post ship in anticipation of your response to warm my heart and cool my head.
With ardent patience, my thoughts keep us close though my feet follow a longer route back to you.