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The lions are walking: Kalahari Bushman wisdom in Covid times

In 2016 Danish hygge became something of a Scandic buzzword around the world*. Recently we have been introduced to a different Scandic buzzword, one perhaps a little less buzzy but more poignant, folkvett. This Swedish word is variously translated as ‘respect for others’ or ‘common sense manners’. Just in case you have missed it, its currency lies in the relatively hands-off approach of the Swedish government, and the notable lead of their state epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, to Covid-19. Rather than impose heavy state regulation on public behaviour amid the pandemic, as most countries have done, Sweden has placed more emphasis on individuals behaving properly, resting on the assumption that it is part of being Swedish to know what good behaviour is.

Photo generously donated by Simon Espley www.africageographic.com

The idea of a nation knowing how to behave is an interesting one.  Are these sorts of manners particular to the Swedes or are they something that we all once shared but only societies who celebrate cabins in the woods and naked saunas by the lakes still remember and value? Regardless, such questions seem particularly important right now in the light of not just the virus but a divided US, Brexit and the newly assertive roles many states are taking in the face of coronavirus.

By spotlighting issues of how we live and work together, coronavirus is actually throwing big evolutionary questions of life up into the mainstream – how do we fit into nature? How do we live with viruses and bacteria? What makes our immune systems strong? These are the sorts of questions that have backgrounded academic interest in evolutionary biology for decades. In essence, they are questions about our hunter-gatherer origins in nature.

Wild swimming in Grootwinterhoek, South African National Park

Popular interest in these sorts of questions is not new. Alongside persistent news releases from archaeologists about ever earlier Homo sapiens finds, recent fashions have included the paleo diet, barefoot running, wild swimming, bushcraft and even assertions that one should squat and not sit at the lavatory. But archaeologists also talk about the emergence of sociality, or how our lives became more socially complex.

What, if anything, can we learn from hunter-gatherer social history?

Coronavirus raises questions about deep biology and its links with behaviour, ranging from how we live with wildlife, to how we interact with people, to handwashing. With this in mind, it seems only right to twist our spotlight away from just our biological hunter-gatherer legacy and to ask the question: What, if anything, can we learn from hunter-gatherer social history? How did they live together so closely and independently and right in the bosom of nature, and for so long?

If you are wondering exactly what they might teach us, just remember that they must have got it right or none of us would be here. The ancestors of the Bushmen stretch back to the origins of human kind, maybe 200,000 years ago. Following the advents of farming 12,000 years ago and then the Industrial Revolution, not just the life of humans but the life of the planet has come to a knife-edge in a fraction of that time.

These are eerie times, or, as the Bushmen say, the lions are walking.

Let’s take the time to listen to people like the Bushmen to hear what they got right. Of course the Bushmen today are not the same as their ancestral populations, but they are as close as we can get. And this brings us back to folkvett. What they have to say boils down to good manners.

Bushman lifestyle is all about working ‘nicely’ with the world to get the best out of it. If you don’t work nicely with things, they have a nasty habit of not giving you what you want. Bushmen are extremely tolerant of everyone holding their own ideas as long as people pull their weight. What counts is being able to talk things through and come to an agreement that actually brings home the bacon, or rather the berries or the wildebeest steak – should we track that animal, shoot the male antelope or search for that fruit?

Working nicely together is all about correct behaviour, as behaving in the right way enables the group to get along together. Sharing is especially important. If a hunter kills a big meat animal they must come back to the camp in a humble manner to prevent pride and the discord that follows. They must then share the meat with the whole camp. Not sharing is one of the worst vices possible. If the harmony of the group were to break down over such behaviour, a dance must be held under sparkling Kalahari stars to bring everyone back together.

Abusing the ancestors amounts to abusing nature,  But working nicely is not just about working well with people around you. It is also working well with the ancestors. The ancestors are the dead people who can bring sickness or grant special gifts. When !Xung Bushmen leave the village for a hunt they say:

||e||e yi oa !o yi !nui e ka e sua ||aure hng|ae ke ǂ ona – Ancestors protect us and give us luck on our hunt.

Whilst Bushman beliefs in ancestors are beliefs in real phenomena, the presence of ancestors serves as a mechanism for encouraging people to behave in ways that work. Abusing the ancestors amounts to abusing nature; doing either means you will go hungry.

San staff and interns at !Khwa ttu, near Cape Town

Behaving nicely is also about being present in the moment, something we are all being encouraged to do. A good example is Bushmen making a fire. Maybe there are two or three of you, in the bush miles from the village. The day is ending. You are just in your shorts. All you have is a small wooden bow and arrows, a knife and your fire sticks. The lions are walking. You know that fire lives in the sticks and you must let it out because a night in the bush without a fire could spell death. Calmly, after a full day of running and walking under the Kalahari sun you must get that fire working. You bring all of your presence to the moment because each time you fail it grows harder – mindfulness.

All human societies demand manners. Thinking about Swedish folkvett in relation to Kalahari Bushmen reminds us all what manners are for: getting the best out of each other, making our lives good and getting the best out of nature.

When the lions are walking is when having manners, good and right ways of behaving, really pays off.

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

Chris Low – !Khwa ttu San Museum Director

* A quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or wellbeing.