'We co-existed with wild animals'

Humans have co-existed with wildlife since the dawn of time PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES
Humans have co-existed with wildlife since the dawn of time PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES

Culture played an important role in resolving the conflict between elephants and us back in the olden days. There were certain traditions that were observed and beliefs that we practised mostly during the harvesting season when elephants would come to our fields and this was observed in the evening within and in the fields.

We were always advised to use a knife to collect melons and whatever was in the fields, otherwise just pulling by the hand would bring attention from wild animals, especially elephants. We called it tama, a taboo. There was a certain way of disposing of melon leftovers (dixhaba tsa magapu). You were not allowed to throw them into the thorn bushes, but we put them gently on the ground for cows and donkeys to eat outside letswabi, a traditional enclosed kraal-like farm dwelling. 

We observed taboos even when going for hunting in the bush, when going fishing in the river and even to collect thatching grass and reeds. It worked and we have experienced that and they know it. You break the norm, something strange might happen but we avoided that, so we observed the tradition and it is something we still hold to today.

They know and some might be shy to openly talk about it, but it is our culture, our life. We survived through all this.

There were concoctions for dogs to make them fearless in the bush, some observations not to be attacked by wild animals in the bush, observation not to encounter hippos and crocodiles in the river. We did all these and even as children we knew how to behave when elders went out into the bush or to the river, so as not to cast a bad spell on them while they were away.

It is the way that we related with nature and its inhabitants, wild animals. With all these observations, we managed to dwell peacefully at the lands and in our homes without much disturbances from wild animals even though there were plenty in the bush. We know that there were lions, kudus, duikers, porcupines, buffalos, wild dogs, hyenas, baboons, monkeys and elephants and we followed our traditional way of keeping them at bay from our nearing surroundings.  We would wind around the bush with our traditional business of collecting berries and setting up traps for birds.

We would distinguish between the footprints of a duiker and a goat, of a buffalo from that of a cow, of a wild dog from that of a dog, of a lion, of a hyena and so on. We had deep knowledge of nature. We would tell apart the footprints of a male elephant to that of a female; the direction the snake was heading and coming from.  We were knowledgeable about nature and we appreciated its existence. We used birds to signal danger, to locate honey, to foretell what might be going on at home when we were in the bush. We communicated with birds to locate a place with plenty of fish in a lagoon. Different radio calls (sounds of birds) signalled something. Some would signal dangerous snakes like black mambas. Some would signal what the time is as there were no watches in those days.  In the bush, some would signal that you were not far from the river. Some would signal where a dangerous animal was heading and which way by the direction it was flying. All the above helped us in living in harmony with wild animals. The conflict was minimal. Traditionally, we collected veld products from the bush for various purposes. Mpopusa thread is used to stitch papyrus mats (moseme or lditjatja in our language) and its sap is used to cure ear sores.

Papyrus is used to make traditional mats and sometimes ujenje, a floating kind-like balloon that you use to cross to the other side of the river. We ate the baobab fruits and sometimes mixed them with fresh milk to make plain yoghurt. The thread (lelodi) we would use for knitting digwele or snares to trap birds. The other lelodi was harvested on camelthorn trees, mekoba and most on not fully-grown trees. The bark was harvested on the girth and a certain part was left for the tree’s transpiration processes. This was done for trees to recover. Big baobab trees were used as landmarks in the bush. They would be labelled with markings using an axe to show direction or to tell who came there and did what. People who get lost in the bush would use such landmarks to locate the nearest settlement or villages. It is how we communicated in the bush. Some trees were marked with an axe, side-by-side, to mark a route so that you do not get lost when you come back. That was when vegetation was in tact.

We had plenty of activities all year around and we depended on changes in the vegetation to tell the arrival of a new season and this helped us get ready for what is about to happen. It is how we observed and followed the calendar of the year. During the dry season when we moved out of the fields to our homes in the cattle posts, we would shift much attention to the river. We will eat motsaudi fruits (African mongosteen) and it is also used to make soft porridge similar to that of tartaric.

This will be the seasons in the months of September to December. Mucxincxa, the wild date palm fruits, sembowa (wild grapes) would be ripe this time around. We collected and ate without any hindrance from animals. We only shared the spoils with baboons, monkeys and birds. It was a season when the levels of water in lagoons, ponds, the delta and magwedawu has gone down and people can catch fish using fishing nets, hooks with worms for bait and some on the other side collecting water lilly, makhungara, nqluma, maqxwi in the ponds. There was a hive of activity and people had less to worry about. We would eat muyesho (traditionally braiied-fish) after a long day’s fishing expedition. Some would be smoked to preserve them for future use, tse di khunikilweng. Some will be collecting thatching grass, reeds and tjita, an edible rhizome.

The lagoons and the ponds used to sustain us together with our livestock. People collected all this from the river, some for sale and some for consumption. It was also around this season when men would travel far into the bush to cut trees to make dugout canoes that were used for transportation in the river.  There was life in the bush and on the riverside. We juggled between the two and the equation balanced. There were wild fruits in the bush and on the flood plains and all these were seasonal. A season never passed without something to find for both from the two.

During this season we would come across animals like crocodiles, red lenchwes, sitatungas and hippos. Buffalos and zebras would come through the flood plains looking for pasture, mixing with our cattle. A few days later, we would hear the roars of the lions following behind. On most occasions this happened in the Delta where the animals lived where there was plenty of good pasture.

It was at places like Ghuwangcxa, Pepere, K’au, Sijwara, Kamu, Kembe, Hamunyana, Xaixqoro, and Duba. These were good places for wild animals and we would spend some years without them crossing over to our side.  Wild dogs would come but would not stay long because we disturbed them. Hyenas were regular and they were active during the nights on rainy seasons.  They did not cause much damage. Dogs would bark to scare them away. We had security for our properties (that is, our dwellings,  fields and livestock) and ourselves. We managed to live a fulfilling life with the little that we had. We stayed longer in one place and we ploughed our fields rotationally without moving from this place to that, a trend that was also observed by a team of researchers for The Future Okavango (TFO) project. People did not run away from wild animals. We used any means to scare them away. We did all this from generation to generation till the arrival of elephants.

There were elephants, but not like the numbers we see today. The numbers have increased tremendously. We rarely came across them during the day and they would cross quietly to the river at night and descend before sunrise. Elephants will drink water and bath or cool down and that’s all we knew of them. We believed that they were afraid of our smell that’s why they avoided coming close to human beings. Even if they were close, we would hold our dogs back from barking at them because that would rouse their anger and would attack us.

This helped to avoid confrontation with those massive creatures. This worked and also at the fields. If you heard somebody beating a drum or making a huge fire, we knew that they would be signalling the presence of elephants and we would do the same. This would block them and they will retreat to some quiet place. It is how we worked the magic with elephants in the olden days. Things have changed of recent. We are failing to keep up with the pressure of such a population. Even in places where there used to be no elephants, now they are there. Things that we used to do have been taken over by these wild animals. We have surrendered our traditional lifestyle to elephants.


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