Sunday, November 1, 2009

Back to Africa!!!

Namibia Diary

Day one:  Back to Africa…  

Less than a month later, after missing South Africa like one misses a friend or lover… I am back in the ‘dark’ continent.  This time it is Namibia, just West of South Africa, to explore the famed Kalahari desert.

I say ‘famed’ with a wry smile (you can’t see it; I’m smiling, and it’s wry) because… Well. Just enter ‘Kalahari’ on a Google search and see what you get. Words like ‘harsh’ ‘desolate’ and, oh, let’s see… ‘most inhospitable climate’ tend to crop up. 

I’m being facetious. A little. Because Namibia also contains some of the most breathtakingly beautiful vistas and landscapes I’ve seen in a while (photos to come tomorrow, in the meantime do a Google Image Seach). In South Africa I fell for the people; I suspect in Namibia the big romance will be for the land itself.

Sweeping desert dunes like a moonscape. Big sky country that easily rivals the Prairies. And sunsets? Our first night here we drove out to the desert just before 6pm to capture some time-lapse images of the falling sun. We never wanted to leave.  

Previous to this trip Namibia was known to me in name only. Maybe it is the same with you. So to give you a better idea: the country itself is about 4 times the size of Great Britain. But it has a population of only 2.3 million – in other words, the population of Toronto.   

That means the majority of the country is uninhabited, and it’s easy to see why: great, dry plains and sand dunes are not ideal for sustaining… well, anything really.  Anything living, unless of course you count snakes and scorpions. And believe me, they count.

30% of the entire country lives in the capital, Windhoek – where I am right now, as the film crew is gearing up for our trek into the desert.

(Windhoek – iss German, ja? You see Namibia was once semi-colonized by Germans; and there was a great to-do during the Second World War, and… More on this later).

Now: WHY we are here...

In keeping with the ‘disappearing cultures from around the world’ mandate we are about to inure ourselves to the Bushmen of Namibia – known officially as the ‘San.’ The San are a nomadic tribe that has lived in the remote desert for literally tens of thousands of years. And they have not changed much in those years, as they are almost never exposed to white man, or western society.

If any of this sounds familiar it is because you have seen the great 1980 comedy THE GODS MUST BE CRAZY. It is a strange little film with a devoted cult following about a tribe of San… and what happens to them when an American pilot drops a coke bottle out of his plane and into their community.

In the film the San believe it is a sign from God, this coke bottle, and so they begin to worship it like an idol. From there hilarity ensues. Imagine the comic possibilities!

Well many people have asked me if I intend to bring a coke bottle with me. Ha ha, nudge wink, but I don’t believe the San people are down with irony.

No, we are going to approach this disappearing culture with humility and grace, as always, and live with them for a week. The burning question right out of the gate is: how have these wonderful people managed to survive for so long in the face of so many challenges? Harsh climates, no rainfall, barely any game meat to eat…

Further still: what in their cultural life, and spiritual life, sustains them? By all accounts (and yes there are a few rare accounts) they are a happy people. There is no inter-tribe fighting amongst the San, and they resolve all conflicts with games and playful rituals…

It sounds ideal, actually. If only we could reconcile that whole Middle East thing with a rousing game of charades, or Scattergories. I digress…

And of course there is the music piece.  The San love to dance around a campfire – the night before a hunt, for one; and also a more spiritual dance called ‘Trance Dance.’ This latter ceremony is a lively calling to the ancestors, to help heal whatever illness may be plaguing the tribe. From physical ailments to spiritual malaise, and everything in between.

And we are going to participate in both dances.


‘Bow to your corner… Promenade!’

…okay maybe not.

The exciting thing – or ONE of the exciting things – about this shoot is that we cannot plan much at all. In South Africa we were able to organize an itinerary of sorts from day to day. But starting tomorrow, as we begin our journey across the harsh Kalahari, we have no way of knowing what we’ll find. The San are Nomads.

And now, so are we.

We will likely prepare weapons to hunt. We will likely gather water from roots under the soil. And we will likely dance.  Behold the white man overbite.  

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