Jumanda Gakelebone’s recollection is that at the age of eight, his male relatives started teaching him how to track wild animals. While his father and uncle also provided such instruction, it was the feet of his grandfather that he sat the longest, drinking from the old man’s deep well of traditional knowledge.
The syllabus consisted of modules on identifying animals that made tracks, following the tracks, estimating the age of the tracks and how far away the animals that made them could be as well as distinguishing between the tracks of a male and female animal. Five years later at the age of 12 and when he had started his formal western education at Salajwe Primary School, Gakelebone (who is now councillor for New Xade and is better known as the spokesperson the First People of the Kalahari) was introduced to hunting small game like steenbok. Bigger animals like antelopes were added to the kill list as he became steadily deadlier with the bow and arrow.
“I was also taught how to set snares,” he recalls of the good, old meaty days.
Kuela Kiema’s bushcraft education was not interrupted in a fashion similar to Gakelebone’s because he started primary school at the ripe age of 14. The learning he remembers is with regard to tracking the aardvark (thakadu in Setswana) which digs out and eats ants using its sharp claws and powerful legs. A nocturnal animal, the aardvark emerges from its burrow in the late afternoon or shortly after sunset, forages for food and retreats to its burrow in the wee hours of the morning. In the meaty old days, Kiema’s people (the Kua) hunted this animal for food and when they chanced upon its tracks, the first task would be to determine the age of its tracks.
“The age gives an indication of how deep it is down its burrow and how long it would take to dig it out,” says Kiema who holds the distinction of being the first Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve resident to obtain a university degree.
The CKGR menu also included ostrich eggs and Kiema says that he learnt to locate these eggs without once having to waylay the layer female ostrich. While it may roam the bush in what might be a deceptively random fashion, the ostrich consistently moves in the particular direction of its brood which it has to visit periodically to incubate.
“Even when you pick up a trail of a flock of ostriches, the pattern of the layer female will be discernible and if you move in the right direction, you will definitely find the brood,” Kiema says.
That is not half as fascinating as the bush knowledge he shares about using a highly sophisticated and ancient global positioning system to locate a honeycomb. How do you track the prized possession of animals which, like bees, don’t leave tell-tale tracks because they fly?
“Simple,” Kiema explains. “You just observe their behaviour and in some instances you may have to travel for a long distance before you locate their honeycomb.”
In one respect, a swarm of bees hiding a honeycomb deep in the bush behaves no differently from an ostrich with a brood that it has to attend to periodically. Kiema says that the bees would also be inclined to fly in a particular direction even when opposed by strong winds.
“A swarm might descend on a flower-rich habitat to suck the nectar. When they take off, there will fly in one particular direction even when that means fighting against the wind. If a hunter also goes in the same direction and scours the bush, he will come to the honeycomb and often that may mean having to travel for more than five kilometres.”
The wealth of cultural knowledge that both men possess has been accumulated over centuries and handed down from generation to generation. It is not taught in modern schools. However, with the government having ejected the Bushmen from the CKGR as well as having withdrawn their hunting privileges, the transmission of such knowledge has been disrupted. The government forcibly relocated Gwi and Gana communities out of the game reserve to the settlements of New Xade and Kaudwane. The first batch of 1740 left in 1997 and the second (of 530) left in January 2002 when the government stopped providing essential services in the form of water, food as well as health and social services. Then followed a marathon court case whose outcome allowed only litigants to return to the game reserve. The rest remained in Kaudwane and New Xade. However, even for those who managed to return, tracking instruction is not provided to the young because of the hunting ban. Gakelebone says that it would be pointless to teach children how to track wild animals when they can’t kill them.
“The end goal of tracking an animal is to kill it. Why teach someone to track an animal that he can’t kill?” he poses.
In his particular case, the someone he has not been able to teach how to track animals is his own 13-year old son who needs a permit to enter the CKGR. Having been a litigant in the 2002 case, the father doesn’t need a permit. Kiema says that not too long ago he discovered that the younger generation (those below 21 years) is completely clueless about the bushcraft that became second nature to him.
“I was asking a group of young people about edible tubers and no one could provide the right answers. In one respect that is because they spend most of the time in school; in another, it is because they don’t have access to the CKGR,” he explains.
As became almost tragically evident some four years ago, having this knowledge can mean the difference between life and death. Kiema says that a 23-year old cousin of his got lost and strayed into the CKGR where he was found two days later by a search party comprising of game scouts.
“When they found him he was hungry and badly dehydrated. Interestingly, the area where he was found was rich in wild food that could have sustained him but he didn’t even know that. He is part of the new generation that doesn’t have bush survival skills. The instruction that we received prepared us for survival in the bush in case we got lost,” Kiema says.
Fortunately, the situation may not be as desperate as it seems and to salvage it, Botswana might have to turn to Namibia. Some of the kith and kin of Botswana’s Bushmen are in Namibia where an NGO called the Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation runs a programme that, among others, is funded by the WWF and USAID. Through this programme, the NGO has enlisted the support of Bushmen elders to educate the young about centuries-old cultural practices that may ride off into the sunset. At least according to Travel News Namibia, in January 2013, the Tekoa Training Programme (which was to be expanded into a Training Centre) had already trained 60 youth on how to track wild animals “in the biodiversity-rich woodlands of their home in Bwabwata National Park.”
Botswana could do the same thing because there are people like Kiema and Gakelebone who can act as instructors. The training could also be expanded to law enforcement agencies like the Botswana Police Service. While beating a confession (and the last meal) out of suspects in the privacy of a holding cell might save a lot of valuable interrogation time, having police officers who can track suspects would put the Service more solidly in the 21st century. Last year, a journalist witnessed first-hand the marvels of bush tracking when someone with this ancient skill tracked the footprints of the thief who stole his laptop from Tsolamosese in Mogoditshane to a house in Block 9, Gaborone. The South African Defence Force (SADF) operating in South West Africa (present-day Namibia) infamously incorporated Bushmen trackers in the Caprivi Strip into its special forces in the early 1970s. The trackers became invaluable to the special forces and were later constituted into a battalion (31 Battalion) under the command of Commandant Delville Linford of the SADF.