A charming Ju/’hoansi folktale describes the way grandmother cared for a few droplets of blood that came on the wind to her after the death of her granddaughter, Elephant Girl. The droplets grew steadily, first in a bottle, then in a skin bag, until Elephant Girl was nearly ready to reappear. One day, while the rest of the camp, including Elephant Girl’s little daughter, was away gathering, grandmother removed her grandaughter from the bag and fixed her up properly with new clothing and ornaments. When everyone returned toward sunset, there they sat laughing and telling stories together, to everyone’s joy.
Megan Biesele and Nancy Howell began a wonderful article they published originally in 1981 with this folk tale, which sets the tone of privilege and respect that old people enjoyed in traditional Ju/’hoansi society. The story dramatizes the warm, caring relationships that the Ju/’hoansi have with their elders. The article has just been added as a PDF to the Archive of this website.
Biesele and Howell indicate that old people who are physically able help as much as they can with food gathering, and they participate happily with children in games, joking, and teasing. But when they are ill or infirm, the members of the band care for them since they have given generously to others throughout their lifetimes. Old people are valuable because of their detailed knowledge of the animal and plant resources in the areas where they live. They also understand how to maintain Ju/’hoansi community life and patterns of sharing, and they often know best how to prevent conflicts from arising over resources.
The old people of the traditional Ju/’hoansi band were considered the owners of the water resources at the water holes where they camped, and they were respected for their knowledge of the food resources in the region. In addition, they were valued for their understanding of the kinship system.
The elderly participated with the younger, more vigorous members of the band in arriving at consensus decisions. They also participated as much as possible in food gathering. The older women could sometimes join the younger people in gathering wild vegetables, but while the older men had difficulty contributing to the arduous hunts, they did help by snaring birds and small game.
Storytelling is a particular specialty of the Ju/’hoansi aged. They normally entertain the children with stories when their mothers are away. Children also learn important skills, social attitudes, and traditions from their older relatives. Children are named after grandparents, not after their parents, and these namesake relationships help form special bonds that skip a generation or even two generations.
Furthermore, elders have a special places in the initiation rituals that accompany the growth of the young people. The old people symbolically help create new adults out of the youths. Because the children learn so much from the old people, who spend a lot of time with them, children tend to view their grandparents as very special, nurturant, loving people.