What we can take from the Bushman way of life


Why James Suzman thinks we all should read his book:

If we judge a civilisation’s success by its endurance over time, then the Bushmen are the most successful society in human history. Their experience of modernity offers insight into many aspects of our lives, and clues as to how we might address some big sustainability questions for the future.

affluence without abundanceReview by Vivien Horler

Affluence without Abundance – the disappearing world of the Bushmen, by James Suzman (Bloomsbury/ Jonathan Ball)

This is an astonishing book of a scale which manages to address almost every issue faced by people today.

Yes, it is about Bushmen, in part, but it is also about economics, farming, patriarchy, and why we value work so highly.

Or, as James Suzman put it in an interview with the New York Times in July:
“When I set out to write it, I was thinking more in terms of doing a corrective on popular literature on the Bushmen. …As it evolved, it became more about big ideas: the origin of money, our sense of equality, our sense of time, and how these all integrate to create quite a sophisticated coherent view of our world, and in some ways quite a critical view. It shifted from being a far more localised book, an intimate insight into their world, and more into something that looked in a bigger way at some of the things that shaped our world.”

And if that – and the title – makes you think this book is stodgy and academic, you’d be wrong. It’s an engaging and accessible read which throws up scores of new ways of thinking about what we take for granted.

South African-born Suzman, an anthropologist and great-nephew of the politician Helen Suzman, spent about 20 years working among the Ju/’hoansi Bushmen of north-western Namibia. He is now based in Cambridge in the UK.

//Eng doing battle with cabbages and onions at Skoonheid in 1995. James Suzman

He starts the book with a conversation with //Eng, who was based at the Skoonheid Resettlement Camp. //Eng was a busy woman, always knitting or making ostrich shell jewellery or tending her vegetable garden.

She was orphaned young and brought up on a white farm to be a playmate to the farmer’s children. She was taught to clean the house, dust and polish, sew and iron.

She said her fellow Bushmen at Skoonheid were lazy, and all they did was complain, fight, and wait for the government food trucks to come.

“One day they will all die from hunger. But I will work to live… This is what I learned from the whites.”

Suzman thought //Eng was unfair. It was true that some Skoonheid people drank alcohol and fought among themselves. But today there were precious few opportunities for them.

And he says he saw in //Eng’s “lazy” neighbours “a trace of how their parents and grandparents had lived before the white settlers came…”

In 1966 Richard Borshay Lee, a young American anthropologist who had studied the Ju/’hoansi of the Kalahari, countered the accepted narrative about hunter-gathering societies living lives that were “nasty, brutish and short”. He told a conference in Chicago that they were able to make a good living from their environment by hunting and gathering wild fruits, nuts and vetgetables. They spent about 15 hours a week acquiring food, and possibly another 15 hours on domestic activities that could be classified as work.

And they were able to do this in one of the hostile landscapes in the world.

This was compared with the endless cyclical struggle of farmers in Namibia and elsewhere to tend and irrigate the land, sow and reap, and look after cattle. Hard work could lead to surplus if the farmer was lucky and the weather gods were kind, which could lead to wealth, which certainly led to inequality and resentment.

The success of the traditional Bushman way of life, Suzman says, was not simply based on their having had few needs which were easily satisfied. It was also dependent on the fact that no one was richer or more powerful than anyone else, and that their social relationships owed much to the need to avoid jealousy between individuals and groups.

And it was a way of life that was successful for something like 70 000 years.

But it is no longer viable, because farmers have seized the land that once made it possible, and the Bushmen have come into contact with people who clearly have so much more than they, which upsets the delicate control jealousy wielded.

Today, says Suzman, Bushman in places like Skoonheid have houses of varying quality, but mostly still live their lives in the open, using the house as a storeroom. Compare that with our houses, with bars on the windows and barbed wire on the fences, into which we retreat, protecting so jealously what we’ve spent all those hours working for.

But change is coming. Suzman told the New York Times that he believes that something fundamental in our world is shifting. “We have all these big new questions about sustainability, about whether the world can continue as it is. Looking back at how the most sustainable cultures in human history organise themselves might give us some idea of how to organise ourselves in the future.”

He ends the book with the thought: “It may well be that millennials – a group in the first world who have known nothing but abundance and who seem increasingly inclined to seek out work that they love rather than persuade themselves to learn to love the work they find – will lead the way…”

  • This review also appeared in Weekend Argus on Sunday December 10 2017


One thought on “What we can take from the Bushman way of life

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