After visiting a village near the town of Tsumkwe, in eastern Namibia, a newspaper from that country describes in glowing terms the traditional customs of the Ju/’hoansi people. This is the third daily paper in ten years to focus on the Ju/’hoansi of this area.
In 1997 the New York Times sent a reporter to the Tsumkwe Lodge in the town of Tsumkwe. He profiled some of the problems that the Ju/’hoansi in the community face—cheating by the government, cheating by the neighboring Herero, cheating by a local NGO, and even cheating by the San themselves. He indicated that the owner of the Lodge, Arno Oosthuysen, was also cheating “by encouraging the myth of the wild Bushman for dollars.”
On November 11, 2000 (page 17), the Financial Times published a story by one of their reporters about his visit to the Tsumkwe Lodge. Mr. Oosthuysen took the journalist out to the village of //Nhoq’ma 80 km away, where the Ju/’hoansi men spent an afternoon demonstrating their hunting and trapping techniques and the women showed how they make jewelry out of ostrich shells.
Last week the German-language newspaper Allgemeine Zeitung Namibia published a story about a similar adventure. The journalist, Neil Digby-Clarke, visited what is now a permanent tourist facility, the Nhoma Camp, at the village of //Nhoq’ma. His article gives more information about the community than the earlier story in Financial Times did.
Digby-Clarke was clearly quite impressed with the way the owners of the tourist business, Arno and Estelle Oosthuysen operate. “Their respect for the delicate environment, eco-systems and the San people that surround them in the region in which they live and operate marks Arno and Estelle as special people, with a real concern for the future,” he reports.
In 2000, the people of the village apparently made an agreement with the Oosthuysens that gave them the exclusive right to bring tourists into the village. In 2003 the couple developed a tented camp for tourists which they then donated to the village. The five tents provide accommodations for up to 10 tourists, who even enjoy hot running water in their facilities (the water heated by a donkey engine). It costs N$1850 (US$250) per night to stay at the village.
Last week’s article says that after deducting costs, marketing, and management fees, the income from the tourists goes entirely to the people of the village. According to the website for the facility, the Ju/’hoansi community, consisting of “about 40 adults and 80 children, has earned between N$60,000 and N$105,000 per year since 2000 from cultural activities as well as accommodation in the camp.” That equals about US$8,000 to US$14,000 per year.
Digby-Clarke indicates that the income the tourists provide has generated a lot of enthusiasm from the Ju/’hoansi villagers. Naturally, the highlight of the visit is observing the traditional desert lifestyle of the village people. The visitors can watch the men demonstrate their hunting and trapping skills, which they still practice to some extent.
The tourists might also see the people gathering and using Mongongo nuts (the article refers to them as Mangetti), a staple of their diet. This traditional food source was so important to their diet that Richard B. Lee devotes chapter 7 in his book The !Kung San: Men, Women, and Work in a Foraging Society (1979) entirely to the Ju/’hoansi uses of the Mongongo nuts. The people of //Nhoq’ma village also show the tourists how they gather traditional bush vegetables such as underground tubers and bulbs, and they demonstrate their other desert survival skills as well.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the article is the description of leisure activities in the village. Unfortunately, it is not entirely clear from the text how much the journalist witnessed himself and how much he was relying on the descriptions of people such as the Oosthuysens. In any case, he describes several different games, such as one where women and girls pass a fruit about from person to person. Sometimes the men try to “steal the ball” from the players. The author was impressed by the merriment of the people as they enjoyed these activities.
Digby-Clarke also describes a traditional healing trance dance, though it is appears from the article and from the website of the tourist company as if the dance is held every time there are tourists there for the night. If so, it is not clear if the dance has any authentic meaning and healing experience for the Ju/’hoansi themselves, or if it is simply a staged experience for the tourists.
In any case, the venture sounds as if it is better than many others. A 2005 journal article (reviewed here in April) by Renée Sylvain provides a detailed analysis of the ways that some tourist schemes in Namibia, which promise to show visitors traditional Ju/’hoansi people, in fact exploit them.
If this article and the tourist company website are accurate, it appears as if there may be at least one tourist operator who does respect the Ju/’hoansi people, treat them fairly, and give them a reasonable return for their willingness to show their traditional culture to foreign tourists. Of course neither the newspaper article nor the website deal with the fundamental issues that Sylvain discusses, such as the ways tourism affects the Ju/’hoansi feelings of authenticity and identity.