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Priceless indigenous knowledge in the sole possession of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, France shows that the disastrous consequences of the hunting ban that former President Ian Khama imposed on the basis of what some allege was self-serving pseudo-science are more numerous than previously thought.
For a good part of 2012, Philip Hindley, a researcher from the museum (whose name translates as the French Natural History Museum) visited Bushmen communities in the Ngamiland and Ghanzi districts of Northwest Botswana to study a communication system that they have used in tracking and hunting wildlife for centuries. Back in Paris, Hindley went a step farther and did a linguistic analysis of this system, in one respect constructing “a taxonomic lexicon of nominal iconic gestures that depict animals.” Not all language is verbal and Hindley’s focus was on audio and gestural means of communication that the men use during hunting. This highly sophisticated system is used communicate information to fellow hunters in order to coordinate hunts and indicate the identity of the spoor, the prey species, or the predator that has been spotted. He found that while Bushmen hunters sometimes use whistles, clicks and bird-like chatter to command attention for colleagues out of visual range, their communication is mainly gestural. Nominal iconic hand gestures are used to communicate the identity of the game by reproducing salient features, such as horns, tusks, ears, and tails.
Hindley found that animation of the hand within the signing space was sometimes used, in addition to the nominal gesture, to indicate the gait of the animal. To illustrate the latter point, he writes in an academic paper that was published at the precise period that the Khama administration was imposing a hunting ban: “For example, the most widely used gesture for the common warthog was performed with the fingers bent over and the fifth digit and thumb projected outwards to represent the tusks. This was often accompanied by a rotation of the hand within the signing space indicating its gait. Additionally, changes in the speed of rotation were used to indicate the speed at which the animal was travelling. These movements, which were termed adverbial gesturing, added both a verbal and an adverbial element to the nominal gesture. That is to say, they expressed not only what the animal was doing (running) but also how it was doing it (running fast) and, in some cases, additional behaviours of the animal. For example, a Naro interviewee used animated gestures to indicate African wild dogs trotting or stalking prey.”
For four years now, Bushmen hunters have not been able to hunt game on account of the hunting ban that Khama imposed in December 2014. Whatever its merits (and it is hotly contested that it has any), the ban didn’t consider the fact that centuries-old indigenous-culture knowledge may be lost forever as a direct result of its imposition. Besides the Bushmen hunting communication system, other ethnic communities are also losing cultural practices that are tied to hunting. Among some Batswana tribes, a roll of fat (leraka la noko in Setswana) from the hump of a porcupine is eaten as a delicacy, often by male adults only. One of the special ways in which leraka la noko is prepared is by using a little-known pit cooking technique that no chef school in Botswana teaches. A hole is dug in the earth, the fat is seasoned with salt only, encased in a traditional species of aromatic firewood and put in the “pot.” The wood prevent contamination as well as enhances flavour. The hole is then sealed by putting rocks (which serve as heat conductors) and soil back on top. A fire, under which the buried fat will slow-cook for hours, is built over it and the family expectantly communes around the fireplace until the pit is opened.