Behind the wheel of a dusty VW bus sits a big, bald
white man wearing little more than a short red skirt, strings of beads
across his ample bare chest and a blue cloth hat, like an upturned
flower pot, on his head. He stops at a gas station in the conservative
farming town of Upington, south of the Kalahari Desert. The black
pump attendant recognizes immediately who he is. They share a private
joke. He laughs, belly-jiggling and contagious as the flu.
The dash of the car is
cluttered with a beaded oxtail fly whisk, a cell phone, a large pocket
knife, a stick of dried meat and a spiky bitter melon. In the passenger
seat sits a former wildlife biologist from San Francisco with a kitten
perched on her tanned shoulders and the double string of white apprentice
beads tied around her wrists. In the back, amongst bags of herbs,
traditional medicine, divination bones, beaded costumes and a computer
hard-drive, the drying skin of a road-killed spring-hare emits a gamey
When the man walks inside
to pay, heads whiplash, staring. Two farmers, with sun-broken skin,
smirk behind their morning papers. A beaming black woman walks up,
claps her hands in greeting and express her gratitude for the rains
that fell last night.
I’d met Peter von Maltitz
and his partner Ellen Purcell in Upington four days ago. They’d driven
ten hours from their farm in the Eastern Cape, I‘d bussed in from
Johannesburg. We spent the night on the bank of the Orange River,
which turns this section of the arid Northern Cape green with irrigation-intensive
farms. The next day we drove the 300 km north to the Kalahari Desert,
where the borders of South Africa, Botswana and Namibia meet.
With reporter’s notebook in hand, and the
manic kitten stalking my toes, I tried to flesh out our prior half-dozen
cryptic e-mail correspondences. Peter, still a farmer, and once a
computer programer, plant pathologist and homeopath, is a traditional
African healer and shaman, or Igqirha in the Xhosa language. His healer
name is Zanemvula which means “comes with the rain.” Patients across
the South African color spectrum, often at their medical wit’s end,
see him for treatment. As a diagnostic aid he’ll throw the bones,
then prepare indigenous herbs and other strange things for their treatment.
Additionally he requests (not makes) rain. He is back in the Kalahari
to connect again with the indigenous San people (also known as Bushmen).
Four months ago, in October 2003, he rain-danced with
them to try break a yearlong drought.
For 100,000 years the San
hunted and gathered across Southern Africa, adorning cave walls with
their exquisite art. Then 200 years ago the white settlers came from
across the seas, and the black tribes came down from the north, and
the only place the San were not hunted was in the Kalahari desert,
which no one else wanted. In this harsh land, calling the rains was
integral to their survival. Then the desert became a game park, and
the San were expelled three decades ago by the apartheid government,
who regarded them as less than human, but not animal enough to stay.
Torn from their land, the few thousand remaining San now face cultural
and physical extinction.
Three days after the ceremony in October
the rains came. The San prayed again for rain in mid-January. The
next day it flooded in Upington. Drought stricken farmers once hired
the San to call the rains to their land. Peter’s hope is to revitalize
this practice; create a rain-calling SWAT team of San when the land
is held hostage by drought.
At the Loch Maree General Store, Peter makes inquiries where to find
Jan van der Westhuizen, the shaman for the San living around the hamlet
of Andriesvale, 50 km south of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. Last
October they had rain-danced together. We find Jan walking back from
a meeting at the community center. His dread-locked hair is circled
by a lion-claw headband. In one hand he holds a diary. In a small
beaded pouch he carries a cell phone. As he walks, a dangling quarts
crystal thumps against his thin chest.
Jan invites us to his home,
a grass hut in a compound of tin and brick shacks. Eyes scramble to
adjust to the darkness. Jan introduces his wife who sits on a blanket
with two toddlers. She smiles a greeting with perfect teeth and eyes
dark as caves. We find a place to sit. A skeletal man squats on the
floor. Around his spit-slick mouth his hands flutter like an injured
bird. “His parents shared the same blood,” Jan says. “He understands
well, but can’t speak. I’m trying to treat him. If I feed him the
roasted head of a tortoise maybe then he’ll come out of his shell
and find his tongue.”
On a pile of blankets against the grass wall
sits an older woman dressed in rags, her stunted body and tiny head
the effect of infant alcohol syndrome. “This is what’s killing my
people,” Jan says, “the alcohol, the tobacco, the sugar. I treat so
many diabetics and people whose lungs, already weak with TB, are destroyed
by smoke.” And recently the first cases of AIDS was diagnosed.
In Afrikaans Jan and Peter talk shaman shop
about these illnesses and treatments and the changing weather pattern
since they last danced for rain together. They exchange herbs, compare
dosages, plan to go plant-gathering the next day.
The talk turns to divination. Jan’s wife
reads tea leaves. When sick people come, she looks into their future
so Jan can prescribe the best treatment. From a leather pouch, cracked
with age, he pulls a fist-sized round rock with a hole, wide as an
eye, drilled through the center. His great-grandmother foresaw that
he’d be a healer and would need the power of prophesy. For
forty years she sat around the fire at night boring the hole. Before
she died she gave instructions that the rock be given to Jan when
he came of age. Now, when he looks through the hole where the sun
has just set, he sees images of the future. “It’s peaceful, this future,”
he says.“ But there are so few people. I don’t understand yet what
happened to them all.”
Jan is trying to convince
the park authorities to allow his people to return to their ancestral
land. “There’s a break in my people’s spirit that can only be restored
by living again in the old way. Most have forgotten how to dance for
the rain, how to pray. But they will learn again. They must. It is
their gift to give to this land. When the feeling in the heart is
right it’s simple for us to talk to the earth and the sky.”
With boot-shod feet I stumble clumsily behind Jan the next day. Alert
as a tracking dog, he glides barefoot between grasses and thorns,
searching for a cactus called Hoodia. He wears only a leather loin
cloth. In one hand he carries a digging stick and short spear, in
the other a canvas gathering bag.
At first he finds only dead cactuses, black
and shriveled. “So many plants in the desert are struggling,” he says.
“And it’s not just from lack of rain. The pollution from the mines
and the factories are poisoning them too. And then there’s the hole
in the sky that lets in the bad light...”
We walk on, searching. The sun, already at
midmorning, a hot iron pressed against the back of the neck. Eyes
sting with sweat and squint against light, sharp as thorns.
Jan stops, kneels: at his
feet, herbal gold -- a young Hoodia with clusters of forked seed pods
still attached. He cuts a branch, scrapes off thorns with his spear,
takes a bite, offers it around.
What the hell, I think,
if the pharmaceuticals have a patent on this plant to extract a substance
that suppresses hunger so western women can stick to their diets,
it can’t be too poisonous. I take a bite, chew, and taste cool, bitter
slime spread over dry tongue, and can imagine how deliciously the
body would savor this taste after walking for days without food and
water in the desert.
Peter gathers seed pods, which he hopes to
cultivate. The pharmaceutical industry understands just one property
of this plant, but there are many more, if prepared in the right way.
Neither will tell me these shaman trade secrets.
Jan breaks two dreadlocks from his head,
and buries them under the cactus.
At a stone and thatch building just off the main road, the San gather
for a meeting. The roof extends over a sand-filled concrete circle.
A well-meaning NGO built this place so they could dance for the tourists
in the shade. But when, after great expense, it was finished, the
San refused to dance. Not because they did not want the tourist money,
but because they could not dance under a roof. Now it stands, underused,
with broken windows -- an expensive patch of shade in the desert.
A small fire burns in the center of the concrete
circle. An old woman, eyes hidden in wrinkles, wears a black fedora
hat at a jaunty angle. She talks in a language of impossible clicks
and chirps to young people around her. She is the last person alive
in the community who still knows the old language. The school hired
her to teach the children before it’s too late.
Like a strange postmodern
composition, ringing cell phones duet with her descanting voice. Every
second adult it seems has one hanging from a belt, or pressed against
an ear. A young man plays ringer options to his friends. The notes
of Green Sleeves hang incongruently in the air.
Jan squats on the ground with a group of
men, plotting strategy to return to the park. His spear and digging
stick lie at his bare feet, hard as rawhide.
By the fire a dead bat-eared
fox bleeds into the sand. The pink tip of its tongue protrudes between
sharp teeth. Red dust covers its large black eyes. Four puncture wounds
show in its chest, I touch the fur, soft as rabbit pelt. A teenage
boy comes over, tells me how he tracked it this morning with his dog,
which then killed it. The dog, a sleek brown animal with a long snout,
lies panting in the shade as a puppy gnaws on its swollen teats. The
skin, he says, he’ll tan for tourists, the meat he’ll eat, and the
kidneys are a good remedy against poisons. I caress the ears, big
as my hand, and try to imagine the sounds they once heard.
An old man stares blindly out into the sun.
Each person passing gently touches his bare shoulders. When talking
to him, they hold his hand, tenderly as a child. His grandfather and
brother too lost their sight.
Peter treats a woman sick with the flu. He
goes to his car, rummages around bags, returns with a wild ginger
root. She recognizes immediately what it is, slices a thin sliver,
and tucks it between gum and cheek.
The young hunter holds open his hand, shows
three bone pennants, each intricately burned with the design of an
ostrich, an eland, and a dancing figure. “No one can burn with the
detail I can,” he says. He’s selling: $3 each. This young entrepreneur
has turned his desert survival skills into making pennants and pouches
and rock art and necklaces for tourists who stop at his grass hut
on the side of the road.
I buy one of course; my money
a small drop of oil on the wheels of this fringe economy. And he will
spend it at the Loch Maree general store, that sells everything from
green tomatoes and fan belts to blond Barbie dolls and laxatives.
Maybe he’ll buy a little salt to season the tough
fox meat, along with a bag of sugar and a pouch of Boxer tobacco.
Or an uncle will spend it on cheap brandy. And quickly my money will
land in the hands of the store owner in who’s large walled house I
visited. The interior, all black marble, thick rugs, dark wood, mounted
animal heads, and two huge dogs that lay at the feet of four San servants
cleaning, scrubbing, cooking.
As the sun sets that night we arrive at a small San camp, a twenty
minute ride by car through the desert. Grandma Anna, 110 years old,
greets Peter, Jan and Ellen from her perch on a tattered blanket under
a tree. We sit down, talk weather, health, and the latest about a
San man shot dead by the police a few days ago. Two children play
with a puppy. In a grass-walled enclosure a young women prepares the
evening meal over a fire. Another woman emerges from the grass hut
with a book in her hand. Jan greets her with a wave. She mutely waves
back, sits next to the fire and reads. “She’s deaf,” Jan explains,
Peter takes the lid off
a can of water, unwraps a ground mixture of eight herbs from a brown
paper bag, pours them in, and with a forked stick twirled rapidly
between palms, whisks the liquid to foam. The beads across his bare
back shimmer and click like insects. Sweat glistens around his headband.
His bare legs are covered in fine sand as he kneels at his task. When
herbal froth swells over the rim, he leans forward, touches lips to
foam, slurps like a drinking animal, sits back with a grunt. He stirs
again and invites Jan to drink. And so it goes, until all nine gathered
for this rain dance have tasted the herbs that help them pray with
courage and humbleness, and patience.
They then walk quietly to
the top of a small dune. Bare skin welcomes the evening’s soft breeze.
The set sun highlights the cloud-rimmed horizon, as the first star
pinpricks the purple sky. Jan takes a child by one hand and has her
walk in a circle around him. She takes her brother’s hand, they circle
again, and with each circumference another person clasps an outstretched
hand, until all nine people revolve like planets.
They then face out in a
circle and get down on their knees in the still-warm sand. Jan and
Peter each pray in Afrikaans. Then Grandma Anna prays in a language
that has called the rains for eons in this desert. The circle turns
in, all drink again of the herbs. Peter tosses some into the air and
the drops fall on upturned faces. Right then, there is no other place
to be in this world but here where the veil between humans, gods and
the elements seems so thin.
They return to their cooking
fire. The precious liquid is left in a bottle with Grandma Anna. The
children get their food. The deaf woman goes back to her book. A dog
gnaws on a jaw bone. The night sounds of the desert surround us.
At midnight the rains come. First a sporadic patter on the tin roof.
Then a lull, as thunder and lightning draw tighter in time. A suspense
of indecision: will it blow over as it has so often, or will the sky
baptize the earth?
Then it comes,
and the roar of rain drowns out all but the loudest thunder.
I lie next to the open window, feel spray
on skin, and breathe in the scent of ozone, wet sand, moist leaves.
For hours it rains, and I listen, and try to comprehend the consequences,
if what I witnessed on the dunes somehow influenced this storm.