There is not another social/language group on this planet which has been studied, written about, filmed and researched more than the San, or Bushmen, of the Kalahari. Despite this, or indeed because of it, popular conceptions about them, fed by their image in the media, are often strikingly out of step with the realities. Thus they warrant a separate section devoted to them here.
The aim of these next few pages is to try and explain some of the roots of the misconceptions, to look at some of the realities, and to make you think. Despite having spent a lot of time with San in the Kalahari, it is difficult to separate fact from oft-repeated, glossy fiction. If parts of this discussion seem disparate, it's a reflection of this difficulty.
What's in a name?
Historians, anthropologists and social scientists are divided, and often perplexed, about what name to use for the people known as 'Bushmen'. The confusion is compounded by the mix of different tribal tags used in historical texts, often for reasons of political correctness.
San, Bushmen, San/Bushmen, Khoisan, Khoi are all used, often apparently randomly. In Botswana you'll also hear RAD (Remote Area Dweller) or Masarwa/Basarwa used, but the former is exceedingly vague and the latter often considered insulting. Some avoid the term 'Bushmen', regarding it as debasing and sexist, often using 'San' in preference – which others claim to be a derogatory Nama word. Meanwhile 'Khoisan' is a language grouping, not a specific race or tribe, and encompasses the Khoi (or Khoe or Khoi-Khoi or Khoi-khoin), and hence also Namibia's Damara and Nama people. All have similar 'click' languages, but they live very differently from many of the people that we think of as the Bushmen.
Ideally, we would use the term by which these people use themselves, but there lies the rub. Ask villagers in the Kalahari and they will describe themselves as members of the Ju-/wasi, the !Kung, the Hai-//omn – or any one of a dozen other language groups. If we used these much more precise linguistic terms they would overly complicate our discussions and require an accuracy that is beyond me.
These people have no label for the broad racial category that we regard as 'the Bushmen'. They simply don't think of themselves as belonging to one race of people. Therefore, the concept of an overall grouping of people that we call 'Bushmen' must have originated from someone other than the people themselves. In truth, it is an invention of those who came to this corner of Africa later – a legacy of colonialism in its broadest sense.
Given the questionable validity of any term, I have used San throughout this book: not because I believe it to be more accurate than the alternatives, but simply because this is a term that is widely used in southern Africa, and widely understood elsewhere. It's also the term adopted by the Kalahari People's Fund, and agreed by various San communities in Namibia (see www.kalaharipeoples.org). That said, it's a vague term; just try to make it precise and you'll realise how inadequate it is. I apologise if it is, in any language, derogatory; it isn't meant to be!