Cultural Studies of African Bushmen Tribes

By Rebecca O’Neal Huddleston, University of Southern Mississippi

I have often thought that indigenous cultures, be they in Asia, South America, or Africa, were all the same. In most media, it is difficult to distinguish even between continental differences through visual imagery because, usually, the saddest and most desolate people are shown to inspire pity and anger. Most indigenous people around the world share a common love for simplicity and necessity. I once watched a film called “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” which is about a tribe of African Bushmen. However many times a person might watch the movie, it is still rather hard to distinguish the special traits of their society. Though there are many tribes of Bushmen in Africa with many different traditions and beliefs, almost all live under the social and cultural notion that ritualistic ways of life are simple and best.

Although the Bushmen, to this day, remain indigenous comparatively to other cultures, they are in many ways similar to civilizations more advanced and cultured. Language and communication are specifically important in connecting the community. The day’s events are discussed over the night fire, gossip and news is dispatched to those that were away, and stories of the day’s hunt are told and retold to any that seem interested in where their latest meal originated (Guenther 157). Men and women participate equally as basic contributors to these rituals. Culture in their society is not so different from other places on Earth, because the basic necessity of culture and society is language.

It seems that most prevalent stories and myths in Western culture display men as a dominant character and women as the weak incompetent counterpart. It is not so in Bushmen folklore. Women in myths appear more frequently, and they are more resourceful, and, on the whole, are mainly independent of men (Guenther 156). Basically, the stories that Bushmen tell about the past and spiritual tales are, for the most part, matriarchal. These stories portray men as bullies, contributing intense aggression towards both male and female challengers (156). It might be easy for a neutral party to determine that these stories were originally circulated by mothers to their daughters to promote self-worth and feminism.

Another similarity between indigenous women and those of a more industrialized culture is the hidden mischief underneath their sweet attitudes toward their husbands. With the exception of hunting, which is solely a male occupation, labor services are divided almost equally between women and men. However, if a hunt does not bring back enough meat for dinner, the men will turn to gathering for food, which is otherwise a job reserved for women. “This is not for fear of starvation, but from anticipation of his wife’s annoyance” (Barnard 116). Many women in higher societies today share this frustration with inconsiderate (or simply unfortunate) husbands that do not come through at the end of an equally hard day’s work for her.

It is surprising that, as uncultured as it seems like African Bushmen might be, they are actually more able to function in relationships with less dramatic effects. Women and men court each other equally, and there is generally no doubt when a female or male are interested in one another. “In Nharo (a particular Bushmen group) society girls or women generally make it quite clear that they want to be chased, for example by quickly lifting the front of their skirts and then running away; even married women behave in this way towards their husbands” (120). Being chased by the men suggests that, if the women are caught, they belong to the man or boy who caught them.

Unlike a more cultured society, Bushmen marriage rituals are much more risqué and sexually-oriented than I originally imagined. Seeing as a few other African tribes today have arranged marriages, I naturally concluded that this culture would follow suit (Meekers 61). However, the Bushmen people are a very different society. Once a male or female has been initiated into manhood or womanhood through ceremony, they can partake in sexual intercourse. Most of the time, when the partners are still new to the whole experience, the intercourse is just like casual dating. When a girl or boy chooses only one partner, though, it is said that they are husband and wife. This way, it is much simpler to “get a divorce” because, generally, the woman will have rights to the hut and the children if she so desires them. It is also incredibly common that many marriages, specifically first marriages, do not last long (Barnard 119).

When African Bushmen partake in marriage, it is basically saying that a male is “taking” a female to be his wife (120). It is uncommon in the society for a woman to be “taken” against her will and raped. In fact, when told that it is not entirely uncommon in other parts of the world, the people were absolutely horrified that someone could do that to another person (120). This is possibly difficult for them to understand because the people choose to participate in a vast majority of casual sex until they find a partner that suits them. However, this early practice of sexual intercourse could be one of the main reasons that HIV/AIDS is so prevalent in indigenous Africa. It could also account for the number of young mothers unable to determine the father of their children (Motzafi-Haller 547).

As is traditional in many indigenous tribes and cultures around the world, the African Bushmen use a ritualistic technique to initiate young men into the tribe as adults. It customarily includes “a period of seclusion, tests of hunting skills and physical hardship, the transmission of secret knowledge to the initiates, and dancing and ritual tattooing” (Barnard 117). The tattooing is simply a series of cuts the man’s right wrist, upper arms, back, right elbow, and between his eyes. Although most of the cuts can be executed by a woman from the man’s tribe, the cuts between his eyes may only be performed by the medicine man (117). Once the ritual is complete, the boy has become a man.

Unlike the initiation of young men, women of many Bushmen tribes go through a much lonelier ritual. During the span of the girl’s first menstrual cycle, she is placed alone in a hut facing a wall. She is allowed to leave only when it is absolutely necessary, is spoken to by no one, and cannot be looked at by any man. At times, the women of the village will dance around the hut where the girl resides briefly lifting the back of their skirts revealing their bare posteriors (117). Occasionally, a man (usually, the girl’s grandfather) will dress up in a ceremonial eland bull costume and dance at the end of the line of women, symbolizing men chasing women. The ritual only ends when the costumed man presents the girl with the gift of a necklace (117).

In Bushmen society, women and men, as well as children and adults, relate to each other in one of two ways: either a ‘joking’ relation or an ‘avoidance’ relation. Generally, joking relatives are a combination of “same-sex siblings, grandparents, namesakes, cross-uncles and aunts, cross-nephews and nieces, and grandchildren” (118). It is not clear what the specifications are for one to be an ‘avoidance’ relative. This is possibly because, often, one tribesperson may consider someone an avoidance relative while the other person considers the first to be a joking partner (118). Joking partners often engage in “sleeping side-by-side, sitting together with their legs entangled, farcical ‘fights’ and generally abusing each other” (118). Of all the joking partners, the most preferred are usually the grandparents and same-sex siblings, as these relatives spend a great deal of time together.

Probably the most prevailing bit of tradition that remains today in Bushmen culture is the medicine man. Unlike many other societies that simply practice physical medicine, the Bushmen also consider spiritual health just as important (122). Because there is only one common religion among the people in the community, it is easy to have one man in charge of the health of the minds and bodies in the village. I state that the man is in charge because, though many women perform rituals such as tattooing and herbal remedies, only men can be responsible for the spiritual health of his people (122). He is also called when someone is very sick (incurable by herbs); then, medicine dances are performed, and other private medical rituals are necessary (122). Though other cultures might believe that medicine is a skill that only descendents might be privy to, the Bushmen people believe that it is a learned skill; thusly, anyone might learn and perform it.

Though years have affected the lives and cultures of many people around the world, the Bushmen tribes of Africa live in a world set apart from those changes. World wars, poverty, and starvation, however newsworthy, somehow miss the indigenous society. People live as they lived many years ago, concentrating solely on food, shelter, water, and small comforts. Jose Bergamin once said, “Tradition simply means that we need to end what we began well and continue what is worth continuing.” In other words, the people in this simple culture have found their niche living off the absolute necessities of life. Any other way is simply excessive.

Works Cited

    Barnard, Alan. “Sex Roles among the Nharo Bushmen of Botswana”. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute. 50.2 (1980): 115–124. 0001-9720(1980)50%3A2%3C115 %3ASRATNB%3E2.0.CO%3B2-W.

By Rebecca O’Neal Huddleston, University of Southern Mississippi


3 thoughts on “Cultural Studies of African Bushmen Tribes

  1. Some of the statements presented do not line up with average bushman tradition. I also question the resources. Besides that, the writing style is smooth.

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