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Rethink: Ancient wisdom for the “new normal” after Covid-19

“Those years, if I understand clearly from my grandfathers, they will separate the families, meaning that the parents will go on one side and the grandparents will go on one side so that the whole family clan is not wiped out. They will make sure that some people move from this village to the next area where there is no disease… but nowadays there is danger all over because it is overpopulated, people are moving up and down. Where do you go? The villages are closely linked with the towns and the townships.”

– Joram |Useb

Never before have there been so many people in the world as right now. The world has never been as connected, so it is not unreasonable to conclude that there has never been a moment when so many people have focused on the same problem – what is this virus and how can we stop it? There is some suggestion that more than ever before, the herd of humanity is swinging round to issues that eco-philosophers and marginalised scientists have been shouting about for years: the human lifestyle as we know it cannot continue; we cannot keep pushing for more. Something has to change. We will have a new normal, whether we like it or not.

“People far away are not eating the right things because they are not listening to their gods. People are not respecting the environment. They are not behaving properly with their ancestors and with the gods.”

– Nashada Ndango

Overwhelmingly it is thought that Covid-19 crossed from a wild animal to infect market visitors or food consumers at the wet market of Wuhan, where animals are caged and butchered in distressingly disordered, cruel and unhygienic conditions.

Not surprisingly, many commentators propose that such markets should be banned to prevent the spread of this and similar viruses. Most also recognise that the real issue is our rapacious demand that is leading to the destruction of the natural world and pushing human contact into previously remote areas which then connect into our global economy.

Remarkably, even the mainstream press is now writing about a need to stall the relentless consumerism and consumption that precipitated this pandemic, the destruction of the planet and climate change.

It is only now, with something of this magnitude that the mainstream, the politicians, business people and the general public are even starting to listen. But listen they must: dreadful as things are, imagine Ebola on the wind, or an even more potent respiratory infection.

Suddenly people in the West who have so much, and fail to recognise it, have had to think about food supplies, family, friendships, security and water to wash their hands. They have paused their busy lives to spend more time together, they have made their own bread and planted vegetables, they have enjoyed the quiet, they have looked up to star-filled skies and seen distances usually smothered in smog.

In the UK, on 17 April, the Independent newspaper ran an online article: “Britons enjoying cleaner air, better food and stronger social bonds say they don’t want to return to ‘normal’.” Summarising the data behind the article, Prof. Tom MacMillan of the Royal Agricultural University affirmed that the data showed “a real appetite for change”.

Businesses were reconsidering obscene levels of waste and over-bloated product lines. “We currently sell 60 types of sausages – we are moving to a fraction of that,” announced a supermarket in the early days of the pandemic. When did we ever need 60 types of sausage?

Small enterprises and major corporations alike, having trialled work-from-home systems and measured productivity, are wondering how much office space they really need; workers are wondering if they can give up the commute and continue to work remotely.

As lockdowns around the world lift and we emerge, masked and careful not to crowd together, we are still in that moment. We still have a choice. We can stop and listen, or we can stumble back into the habits that got us here in the first place: clothes produced for nothing and worn for what amounts to hours, traffic fumes that clog our lungs, factories churning out products to be shipped around the world only to end up as landfill within a month.

“There is a cycle of life meaning that you get sometimes a drought, you get a very wet season, you get the time when there is a serious disease. All these are part of life, so maybe this is one of the times … I think it all boils down to the punishment from the high spirits. We don’t care about nature, we don’t care about animals, we don’t care about anything but we just take it from nature and destroy everything. So maybe this disease is from nature to protect itself.”  – Joram |Useb 

If we choose to change, we need to get back in touch with nature. And as the San say, we cannot understand nature without understanding the connections that bind everything together. If we are to grab this moment of change we need to listen to those who can help us understand who we are in all our rich biological and social diversity.

It is time to listen to First Peoples like the San who have so much to share about not just living sustainably but living differently. Whilst much of this concerns pragmatic and ecologically sensitive resource use, it is, as importantly, about how to live together successfully with other people and with a living environment that is full of powers, potentially good and bad.

For the San, this means living within an acknowledged relationship with the world and being mindful that everything in the world needs treating with care and respect if the world is not to become an unpredictable, hostile and unlivable place. A relationship is rooted in reciprocity and promises the reward of belonging, of providing a place that is home.

!Khwa ttu serves many roles for the San. It is a place of knowledge exchange. It is somewhere for their youth to train, and a modern heritage centre where their elders can share the great wealth of their ancestral knowledge around sustainable ways to live and help us all come to a better understanding of who we are. As the ancestors of the San have lived in southern Africa since the origins of modern humans, we should listen when the San share.

Buks Kruiper of the Khomani San – image kindly donated by Jaco Wolmarans

This link to an ancient African past from which all our ancestors have journeyed bestows exceptional poignancy to the San voice. There are profound lessons to be learned from the San who, until very recently, have lived in ways as close as you can get to those of our distant human ancestors, who self-evidently did things right for tens of thousands of years.

“I think we all will develop a common defence system in that the response from different countries from different indigenous people will create a common response… If every tribe could go back to their roots and find out from their ancestors or their parents or grandparents or great grandparents how they confronted such a situation, perhaps there is a certain way they dealt with these kinds of issues. Maybe one of the indigenous people sits on resources which we don’t know could be the cure for this disease … the indigenous people have to communicate vigorously and help the scientists to test the medicine they have at their disposal and see how they, with different scientists, can maybe come up with the medicine (needed). Maybe.”

– Joram |Useb

This is not just about survival but about living well too. As anthropologists are keen to point out, when San live in a healthy resource-rich environment, their health and leisure time is far superior to that of farmers, office workers, labourers and others on the great treadmill. San history throws the question at us – what do we really need to live well? How much is enough?

As such, !Khwa ttu provides a space to come at solutions from a different place where “less is more” and resource use is grounded in respect and reciprocity. The contrast with where urbanised humans are right now could not be starker. At the !Khwa ttu heritage centre, the San hold a lens up to this shift from our shared hunter-gatherer past to our dominant, globalised, industrial, scientific, materialistic and consumptive world models, so that we might all reflect on who we are and understand better who we might become.

‘San technology is in the mind’ is one phrase from a well-known anthropologist. Another idea is that ‘simple isn’t simple’ – something Steve Jobs put at the core of the Apple brand. The technology that worked for the San’s ancestors 80 000 years ago still works today if you know what you are doing. And in case we are in danger of forgetting how simplicity can be effective, we can reflect once more on the humble protein package that is currently causing such a devastating impact. The virus is not complex, in the sense that it is not even considered a lifeform, but it works with devastatingly simple precision.

Thinking about the San at !Khwa ttu brings us right back to the idea of global connectivity but it is a connectivity that seeks to build a future by bringing the best of the past together with the best of the present. It is a connectivity that rejects nature as a commodity; which embraces connectivity that is sustainable for the planet, for our bodies and our minds, because we do belong and we can continue to belong, but only if we listen and act.

As a visitor-based enterprise, !Khwa ttu is extremely vulnerable to our current crisis. While the San wait out the virus, the heritage centre will provide a forum to connect our past with our future via !Khwa ttu’s website and virtual networks.

If you would like to contribute and support !Khwa ttu, please do get involved, whether this be ideas for discussion, financial contributions to support our staff or even plans to spend time with us when we can all work together to create our new normal.

“It is like if you are hit on your head. When you are down you must think how can I help myself and help others when I get up”

– Nashada Ndango


Chris Low

!Khwa ttu San Museum Director

Nashada Ndango is a !Khwa ttu tour guide.

Joram |Useb is !Khwa ttu’s Heritage Community Co-ordinator and co-leads the !Khwa ttu San learning team. Prior to that he was Southern Africa Programme Officer, WIMSA (Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa).