Extracts of John Marshall’s epic film about the Ju/’hoansi, A Kalahari Family, available for several years in five videocassettes, were released to the Web last year by Documentary Educational Resources. Over an hour of the five films, the first 12 to 18 minutes of each, is now available (see citations below). The descriptions of the Ju/’hoansi in the first 90 minutes of the series, “A Far Country,” closely match the accounts by Marshall’s sister, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, in her new book The Old Way, which was reviewed here last week. The two works are remarkable companions.
The film portrays the Ju/’hoansi at the Nyae Nyae waterhole called /Gautscha, in western Namibia, in the 1950s. Marshall’s conversations decades later with his close friend /Toma and /Toma’s wife !U form the backbone of the film.
Part I includes serious, important discussions, some of which are part of the free release to the web, though many have to be seen on the complete video. At one point, /Toma tells us, when he was young, his family was living at a place where there was water, but they had no right to it. The people started to fight, and /Toma’s father was shot by a poison arrow. /Toma wanted to shoot back, but his father said no. “I am dead,” he told his son. “No matter. You must hunt and marry. You must take care of my family, and have a family of your own.”
/Toma and his brother hunted. Marshall includes /Toma’s story of the way he chased girls, and the reactions of the one, !U, that he subsequently courted and married. Her mother was an owner of the /Gautscha water hole. After they were married, /Toma then had the right to live at /Gautscha too. The film includes some beautiful footage of people filling their ostrich egg water bottles.
But problems could come up because of their control of water. Outsiders would visit and might have been invited to remain, but the people realized there would be a problem if they were encouraged to stay. They should only visit temporarily. The film shows people sitting around discussing the issue of outsiders staying too long at the waterhole.
“You must understand, there is nothing to eat here. I know these visitors want to stay,” says one man.
Another adds, “their place has no water, but ours has no food. This place is so poor, even the storks don’t stay. They get angry, they run, they fly.”
/Toma concludes, “still, it was hard to say no to visitors.”
The film provides numerous intriguing accounts of the lives of the people. After a rancher on the edge of the desert kidnapped and enslaved some of the Ju/’hoansi, the Marshall family got involved in helping to bring the captives back. But there was a major problem.
A young, married woman had been separated from her husband. She had been captured and enslaved while he had been able to escape and return to /Gautscha. At the ranch, she felt abandoned so she took up with another man and had a baby with him. When she and the others were finally rescued by the Marshall family, she brought the child back to the camp, there to confront her husband who had escaped earlier.
A fight between the two men seemed inevitable. The young woman’s father was quite angry. She was married, he said, so she shouldn’t have had relations with another man. But she felt her husband had abandoned her on the ranch. Marshall filmed the angry confrontation, with everyone crowding around to witness:
“Do you think I am scared to kill you,” the older man says.
“You can kill me. I won’t fight,” the younger man replies from 20 feet away, as they both glare at one another.
“Come on, we’ll settle it with arrows,” the older man says, his face tense and angry.
Someone comments, “But [the man] protected the women, and if it weren’t for old Marshall …”
“Screw old Marshall,” the older man interjects.
“… the wives would still be on the farm.”
“The farmers wouldn’t feed us and my husband ran away,” the young woman says, with the rest of the band watching intently. “When there is no man to work, farmers don’t feed women.”
!U then recalls to the camera how /Toma got between the quarreling people to prevent the fight from escalating. “Hold it,” he said. “Don’t kill him, we will leave [the woman] alone.”
/Toma warned that if the young woman was not given back to her first husband, he would kill him. !U concludes her recollection that her husband had learned to stop fighting quite effectively. “Stopping fighting is as important as healing illness,” she says.
An additional theme in the film is the difficulty of subsistence in the desert in the 1950s. “After knowing the family six years, at last I was fully understanding what it was like to be always thin and hungry, and to watch your children die,” the film-maker acknowledges.
!U says that it is hard to get fat on bush vegetables such as berries. “None of these bush foods made us strong and fat. They left us always thin. Being fat is very important for women. But who can get fat on dry berries? Being thin is dangerous,” she says.
Marshall summarizes the hunting he had been observing for years: “I was learning that hunting with little poisoned arrows and tracking for days was a slow, hard way to make a meager living. Weeks of work had yielded us one wildebeest. When the meat was eaten, the skin might make a blanket but that was all. … [/Toma] once put it simply—‘we stay here and do this because if we went out of Nyae Nyae, we would be killed or captured by the whites.’”
The additional four parts of A Kalahari Family portray the Ju/’hoansi after the 1950s: their lives in a settlement, changes in their economy and society, and, sadly, the discrimination and violence they experienced.
A Kalahari Family, Five Videocassettes. Documentary Educational Resources, 2002. In 5 parts, 332 minutes (6.5 hours)
Part 1, “A Far Country,” 18 minute extract on Google Video
Part 2, “End of the Road,” 12 minute extract on Google Video
Part 3, “Real Water,” 12 minute extract on Google Video
Part 4, “Standing Tall,” 12 minute extract on Google Video
Part 5, “Death by Myth,” 18 minute extract on Google Video