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People is an ethnographic study of the Bushmen, Africa’s last hunter-gatherer society. In particular, the account of the study retells Thomas’ experiences of living with the Gikwe and Kung tribes. However, these stories took place in 1955; since then, much has changed in the Bushmen society. The epilogue, titled “The Bushmen in 1989,” explains how Western society has negatively influenced the society of the Bushmen. Over the last few decades, South African farmers have infiltrated the territory of the Bushmen and turned everything awry. It is true that farmers have interacted with the tribesmen for much longer than this; but after World War II, new farmers arrived who did not seem to care about letting the Bushmen live their own lives. With the government on their side, the farmers forced the Bushmen to work for them, with the terrifying punishment of losing land if they acted otherwise. Furthermore, many Westerners wanted to turn the Bushmen territory into a game park for wealthy Europeans. In order to keep the land, many Bushmen attempted to run farms themselves and “contribute” to the governmental society. In this way, the farmers were not only being more productive with the land, but they were Westernizing the natives. This is what has nearly destroyed the Bushmen society. What many outsiders have failed to understand is that the Bushmen were not unaware of Western society. After all, they interacted easily with Thomas and her group
of anthropologists back in 1955. They understood what trucks were. Because they were long allowed to live their own way, Western society did not harm the Bushmen. Outsiders tend to think that the Bushmen were destroyed by Westernization because they could not understand it. This may be slightly true in a few particular cases, such as the introduction of alcohol; but for the most part, the Bushmen had simply decided for a long time to maintain their old ways of living. The Bushmen, then, were not harmed because they could not handle Western society; rather, they were harmed because Western society was not compatible with what they wanted in life. For Westerners, industrialization and the expansion of the global economy fill their needs. Bushmen, on the other hand, simply want to be left alone for the most part. They never had the urge to expand their society in any way, and they certainly never had a need for money. This was also a problem when they started working on farms, because they were paid with something they could not use amongst themselves. The point here is that, contrary to popular belief, Westernization is not the same thing as an inevitable evolution of society. No society is better than another; different systems are compatible for different peoples. In any case, this is the message in the book’s Epilogue. It is well-placed, not only because of chronological reasons, but because in all the previous chapters the reader learns how well the Bushmen succeed on their own. For instance, when Thomas’ group finds an 18-foot snake near their camp, one of the natives nonchalantly walks up to the snake’s hiding place and tries to kill it. Although he fails, the snake leaves. The group is astonished at how unworried he is about such a dangerous creature. Surely, the Bushmen learned centuries ago how to deal with all kinds of animals. This is a good example of
what evolution of society actually is. Rather than necessarily developing the arts, literature, a currency, and other basic pieces of Western society; the evolution of a society is the adaptation to the environment. Western society has gone through this process, in the same way that they’ve tried doing with other, more “barbaric” societies – but it is not the only way. However, even if one wanted to argue that the arts, literature, and other cultural subdivisions must be in a society, then the Bushmen would easily pass the test. Music, as Thomas reports, is an immensely important part of their culture. Ukwane, one of the older members of the Gikwe tribe, loves singing. His works, called “mood pieces” (this is what all non-medicine Bushmen songs are called), are simple yet beautiful displays of his emotions. Possibly the most remarkable thing about this is that Ukwane played these songs with half a melon and the reed of his hunting bow. One song, entitled “Bitter Melons,” describes the feeling of sadness when melons found in the wild turn out to taste bitter. It seems as though the message of the song is quite simple, and some Westerners may laugh at this; however, I would defy them to produce any song that did not have to do with love or killing someone. Bushmen songs relate to a great number of events, and the music itself can truly fill the listener with the emotion of each one. The “mood songs” are aptly named. Dancing, also, is an important part of Bushman life. When problems arise, or when the people have the urge to do so, the men perform a medicine dance. The women can dance also, although for the most part they simply watch. Thomas was blessed to see one such dance, which started with only a few girls dancing around a small fire in the evening. A crowd grew quickly, and soon the entire camp was involved with rattling the
instruments, singing, and dancing wildly. Some of the men went into a trance or began screaming. It sounds as though it was similar to an African-American evangelical church service, which makes quite a bit of sense. The dance lasted all night, and finally ended in the morning. As for literature, the Bushmen are indeed not literate. This is not a problem, though, because they are an oral society – or, at least, they were. Up until a few decades ago, every piece of knowledge in the community was passed down from the elderly, who had experienced the fullness of life. Advice about living and the many details therein were passed down through the oral tradition, but that is not all. Many remarkable tales would be passed down from one generation to the next, and thus writing it all down was unnecessary. Several stories involved Pishiboro, which is “one of the names of God.” In one story, for instance, Pishiboro marries an elephant; when his younger brother decides to eat the elephant, Pishiboro gives in and joins him. Later, when the elephant’s family comes for revenge, the younger brother creates an anthill in which Pishiboro can hide. It works, but eventually Pishiboro dies anyway. What this story means is beyond me. However, a story is a story, and it works for the Bushmen. Unfortunately, as the Bushmen slowly became part of Western culture, the oral tradition became lost. The elders are now no longer members of great esteem; in contrast, they are merely old people of no use. It is interesting how it is the same way in Western culture; why would we want to spread something to other societies if it made key members useless? When thought about in this light, Western expansion seems a bit ridiculous.
The oral tradition is also of importance because it holds the laws and customs of the people. These customs are taken very seriously, as Thomas’ group quickly learned. For instance, if one hunter kills an animal, he has the right to the largest share of the meat – although generally speaking, the hunter will share his portion with his close kin. Also, a woman must not go off with European men without a tribesman accompanying her. These are only a couple examples of many rules which the Bushmen hold dear. It is quite sad, then, that the Bushmen way of life has disintegrated so vastly in the past few decades. Many Bushmen have been killed by their own kin. Arguments are much more frequent. All the work that Bushmen perform is paid for with very little money, which in turn is spent on alcohol. Thomas argues that, deep down, the Bushmen still want to hold on to their old ways; hopefully, she is right. On the surface, however, they have abandoned their old way of living for something much worse.