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Coronavirus – reflections

Two weeks ago I saw an email from a Ju/’hoansi community member asking for information about this terrible new disease they are hearing rumours about. He asked if it goes through the wind to catch a person. Well, he is right on many counts.

Disease travelling through the wind is something all San and Khoekhoe know much about. If there is one idea that captures ideas of medicine, poison, sickness and power in KhoeSan thought it is wind and its equivalences, breath, smell and shadow. It is well known among KhoeSan, for instance, that the wind of strangers can make a person sick and it is the strong smelling sweat of a healer that carries healing potency.

When we see this indigenous knowledge of wind as a vector of sickness it is very tempting to ‘recognise’ this as an indigenous idea of contagion, or pre-scientific knowledge of contagion. It is a temptation, however, that we must resist. We must listen more carefully. We must be aware that we are not really ‘recognising’ anything but are translating and re-structuring, if not breaking apart, the indigenous ideas and meanings. To leap to familiar notions of primitive science is not only insulting but, far more poignantly, risks losing something of critical value to all of us – a profound understanding of connection in the world. And this is what the coronavirus is telling us.

Coronavirus raises issues that run to the heart of what we pursue at !Khwa ttu. !Khwa ttu seeks to explore better futures by bringing together the best of the scientific and globalised world with the San’s profound knowledge of how to live well with each other and the environment that supports us. It is a knowledge rooted in a hunter-gatherer past that stretches back into the origins of human kind (see our Genetics videos in ‘Featured exhibitions’).

The San way of living has been successful for hundreds of thousands of years. It would be an extraordinary conceit to act as if ‘we’, non San, have nothing to learn from the San and the ways and knowledge of other indigenous peoples.

Now is a time like no other. The bulk of humanity have forgotten the implications, powers and real effects of connection. We have forgotten to respect and work carefully with relationships. We have turned our back on the reality that healthy communities go hand in hand with healthy environments. It is time to think about space, relationship and types of connection. It is time to think about always wanting and doing more – more travel, more stuff, more extreme gratification.

No one knows where this pandemic will take us. But we have choices. I just pray that people really listen and recognise that we cannot return to business as usual. We should not, however, be afraid of this change, because it is a change that can bring us home.

This is our world – a world that we share because we are part of it. We belong, yet we have launched our globalising selves on a path of alienation. It is time to remember that care, respect, humility and modesty go together with care for the earth but also with great achievements, creativity, strong communities and good living. It is time to let go, time to gather and time to set sail with new charts, a clear head and an open heart.

In our own small way we at !Khwa ttu wish to support this process of recalibration by offering the spirit of the San into the wind. San recognise that wind connects life and it is up to us, as people, to learn how to work with the dangers and benefits of those connections.

Kukummi, the title of this blog, is a |xam San word meaning stories and news. This now extinct group of San recognised that stories moved in the wind of connected voices. The stories had power when they settled inside a person and spoke to them. In these times we have new winds. Some are good and some are bad. !Khwa ttu Kukummi will be embracing this new internet wind of connection to send good winds to help us all on our paths.

Take care,

Chris Low,

!Khwa ttu San Museum Director