Kalahari Nights


The bushmen chatter amongst themselves excitedly as we enter their village, Xai Xai, in the western Kalahari. Suavely smoking cigarettes of coarse tobacco rolled in newspaper, the younger men translate the clicks of the elders as we are introduced to the tribe. Some of them are dressed in animal hides, embedded with beautiful beaded artwork and matching headbands. The younger men wear worn out looking western clothes.

That afternoon we head to a small clearing, surrounded by makeshift grass-covered humpies. The 4 or 5 older men are there, as are most of the women we had met earlier. They are dressed up. Some have feathers sticking out of their headbands, most have ceremonial sticks. Our guide chats to the assembled, translating our questions. As darkness falls we all sit down. The women gather in a semi-circle facing the fire. All is rendered silent as a single female voice emerges and washes over us. Others join it, together with a slow clapping of open, outstretched hands. The voices are hypnotic and each is different, like air blowing over odd-shaped upright bottles: hollow whispers merging, becoming louder and louder in unison. The men begin to move. Together they shuffle in line, quickly forging a circular track around the fire.

Breaking formation, the eldest comes over and presses his hands onto backs and chests, blessing us in turn. He shrieks like a clucking chicken and with elaborate action pulls demons from our bodies, casting them into the fire or over our heads into the blackness. He finishes and jumps around to excite the singers before rejoining the line. Controlling tempo, the ladies gradually increase the energy of the
dance. Hands slap with greater urgency and songs became more intense, sometimes hysterical. A kaleidoscope of shrieking and cooing, melding perfectly in time and space. The men shuffle faster, old bones creaking.

Suddenly one breaks the formation and throws himself onto the ground. Writhing, he claws at the Kalahari sand, throwing it over his body as if in agony. Nothing else changes. Other men continue to circle, now more and more unevenly, spiralling upwards, in trance and out of body. High above to their ancestors. Some shriek, jumping around, remonstrating with forebears who want to steal the living over to the dead. The agony of exchange causing body temperatures to plummet or soar; some men now leaping into the fire to grab and eat hot coals, others rubbing themselves into the cold sand. The women remain singing, forever controlling the situation, reminding them to return.

Gradually everything is calm. The gentle ebb and flow of the singing trails off into the black Kalahari night. The men, exhausted, limp to their humpies or lie where they are; the women stay quietly chatting by the fire. Hours have passed. I return to my tent, my mind exploding. Synapses jumping: ancient rituals, forgotten spirits, trances and lost ways of life. The Kalahari night holds dying secrets. I am lucky to have witnessed one.

J Barrett

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