Among the Unreal People
In the hot flat bush in far northeast Namibia I crossed a bulging termite mound of smooth, ant-chewed sand, and with just the slightest elevation of this swelling under my foot soles the landscape opened in a majestic fan, like the fluttered pages of a whole unread book.
I then resumed kicking behind a file of small-bodied, mostly naked men and women who were quick-stepping under a sky fretted with golden fire through the dry scrub of what was once coarsely known in Afrikaans as Boesmanland (Bushman Land) — pouch-breasted women laughing among themselves, an infant with a head like a fuzzy fruit bobbing in one woman’s sling, men in leather clouts clutching spears and bows, nine of us altogether — and I was thinking, as I’d thought for years traveling the earth among humankind: The best of them are bare-assed.
Happy again, back in Africa, the kingdom of light, I was stamping out a new path, on foot in this ancient landscape, delighting in “a palpable imaginable visitable past — in the nearer distances and clearer mysteries.” I was ducking among thornbushes with slender, golden-skinned people who were the earth’s oldest folk, boasting a traceable lineage to the dark backward and abysm of time in the Upper Pleistocene, thirty-five thousand years or so ago, the proven ancestors of us all, the true aristocrats of the planet.
The snort of a startled animal out of sight stopped us. Then its hindquarters swishing through brush. Then the leaping clop of its hooves on loose stones.
“Kudu,” one of the men whispered, bowing to listen to its departure without glancing aside, as though saying the familiar first name of someone he knew. He spoke again, and while I didn’t understand, I listened as if to new music; his language was preposterous and euphonious.
That morning in Tsumkwe, the nearest town — but not a town, just a sun-scorched crossroads with many hovels and a few shade trees — I had heard on my short-wave radio: World financial markets are in turmoil, facing the worst crisis since the Second World War. The Eurozone countries are approaching near-meltdown as Greece is expected to collapse into bankruptcy, its government having turned down a $45 billion loan to write down its debt.
The people I was following were laughing. They were Khoisan-speaking, a subgroup of !Kung people who called themselves Ju/’hoansi — a clucking, hard-to-pronounce name meaning “Real People” or “Harmless People.” Traditional hunter-gatherers, they had no history of using money. Even now, pushed to the margins of so-called Bushman Land (they knew this part of it as Nyae Nyae) — and irregularly settled, with some cattle and crops — these people seldom saw money and hardly used the decaying stuff. They still supplemented their diet by hunting and grubbing and foraging — and accepting pitiful handouts. They probably did not think about money, or if they did, they knew they would never have any. As the Greeks rioted, howling against their government, and Italians cried poverty in the streets of Rome, and the Portuguese and the Spanish stared hollow-eyed at bankruptcy, and the news was of failure, worthless currencies, and austerity measures, the Ju/’hoansi were indestructible in all their old ways, or seemed so to me in my ignorance.
The young woman in front of me dropped to her knees in the sand. She had the lovely, elfin, somewhat Asiatic face — but also suggesting the face of an extraterrestrial — that most San people possess. That is to say, pedomorphic, the innocent and fetching face of a child. She traced her fingers around a threadlike vine sprouting from the sand, crouched, leaned on one elbow, and began digging. With each scoop and handful of sand her eyes brightened, her breasts shook, and her nipples trembled against the earth, one of the minor titillations of this excursion. Within a minute she extracted a finger-shaped tuber from the dark, strangely moist hole she’d made and cradled it in her hand. As she flicked dust from the root, it paled beneath her fingertips. Smiling, she offered the first bite to me.
“Nano,” she said, and the word was translated as “potato.”
It had the crunch, the mouthfeel, the sweetish earthen taste of raw carrot. I passed it back and it was shared equally, a nibble each, nine bites. In the forests, deserts, and hillsides across the world, foraging people like the Ju/’hoansi are scrupulous about sharing food; it is this sharing in their communal life that binds them together.
Ahead of us, kneeling on scattered nut shells and the leaf litter of a thornbush, two of the men, facing each other on the ground, were taking turns spinning a two-foot-long stick between their palms — chafing this spindle which, very shortly, raised a puff of smoke from the friction of its bottom end in a darkening piece of soft wood. The stick they call male; the dimpled wood block on the bottom, female. Sparks glowed from the hot drilled block, and one of the men coaxed more sparks, lifting the glowing, gently smoking wood, blowing on it with lips framed in a kissing expression. He scattered shells and dead leaves on it, then a handful of twigs. We had fire.
Strikes in Greece have cut off power in many cities, and the government is expected to default on its debt, plunging Europe into deepening uncertainty, putting the fate of the euro in doubt. The ripple effect could endanger the viability of American banks. Rock-throwing mobs protesting mounting austerity measures have begun looting shops in Athens . . .
It was like news from another planet, a dark, chaotic one, not this dazzling place of small mild people, smiling in the shadows of low bush, the women unearthing more roots with their digging sticks, one reclining in a patch of speckled shade, nursing her contentedly suckling baby.
They were spared the muddled and weirdly orphic metaphors of the failing market — The subprime crisis was only the tip of the iceberg for an economic meltdown and Loans could not stop the hemorrhaging of stock prices and The red ink in Spain’s regional governments surged 22 percent to almost $18 billion and New York City’s economy faces an extreme downside risk from Europe’s debt crisis, because its banks hold over $1 trillion of assets — and the mocking realization that money was just colorful crumpled paper, hardly different from a candy wrapper, the market itself little more than a casino. For the tenth straight day . . . The panic, the anger, the impotence of the people confined in stagnating cities like caged monkeys. Should Greece default on its debt, it will find itself in a death spiral.
As the fire crackled, more roots were passed around.
“Look, Mister Bawl . . .”
One crouching man with homemade twine of split and twisted vines had fashioned a snare, pegging it to the spring of a bent-over branch, and with tiptoeing fingers on the sand he showed me how the snare snatched at the plodding feet of a unwary bird, a guinea hen perhaps — they were numerous here — one that they would pluck and roast on the fire. They indicated the poisonous plants and talked about the be...