Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Vanishing Race

One more thing that I’d recommend to everyone who comes to South Africa: go see Bushmen Rock Art.

My friend and I visited the Kamberg Rock Art Centre, as recommended by Philip, the guide at the Sani Lodge.  We arrived earlier in the morning and watched a short educational film about the Bushmen tribes and how the voortrekkers exterminated them – but, don’t fret, their spirit still lives on in their descendants who mixed with other tribes.

Like many films produced by conquerors with a guilty complex, it was melodramatic, overly-simplified, and patronizing: evil voortrekkers gunned down the last of the traditional Bushmen tribes years ago and now we need to make up for it by protecting their legacy of rock art.

Rock Art

Rock Art

The tone reminded me of play I watched a few years ago entitled The Edward Curtis Project.  Edward Curtis was an American photographer who took thousands of photos documenting Native Americans in their “natural” habitat during the 1800s.  The play juxtaposes his life and the struggles of a modern Aboriginal woman.  Curtis called First Nations a “vanishing race” – a term that main protagonist does not agree with.  Native Americans are still alive!  Like western cultures, their cultures have also evolved significantly over the past couple hundred years.  She contends that westerners want to idealize “traditional” ways of life to the point that it blinds them to contemporary issues.

Similarly, Bushmen still exist today even though their nomadic lifestyle no longer does.  Our guide himself was descended from the Bushmen people.

Our guide tells us some history of his people.

Our guide tells us some history of his people.

To see the paintings, we needed a certified guide to open the locked gate in the fence for us.  I asked the young man if people from the village could still see paintings or if they needed to pay as well. 

“They don’t need to pay money, but they need to make an appointment.”

“How does that make you feel?” I asked.

A pause.

“Angry.”

The rock art is a holy place for the Bushmen.  Their ancestors painted the rocks with Eland blood for their people.  What’s the point of putting it behind a fence?  The shamans wanted people to interact with their art.  I don’t believe in art for the sake of art alone: it’s important because of how it makes people feel.

I understand that it’s essential to keep the art from being vandalized, but there must be a better way than cordoning the area off?  I think the surrounding tribes must rue the day the paintings were “discovered” in the 1980s by westerners.

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