At the end of a long stretch of gravel road – the C44 -, there is a hamlet called Tjumǃkui. On the map it says “Tsumkwe” and in the minds of many it is the “capital city of the Ju/’hoansi San community”.
I do not think I am offending anyone if I say that Tsumkwe is not much of a capital city. It is small- very small. It is empty- very empty. The only thing that even remotely resembles a traffic jam, are the school children congregating at the school’s gates at the start and end of the school day.
Strange as it may sound, I have not seen a single taxi in Tsumkwe; nor have I heard a single car’s horn being honked. I have seen people conducting all of their normal daily business with a radius of 200 meters and well within the time frame of an hour.
During that time they would have visited their regional councilor, prayed with the local priest, complained to the schoolmaster, bought something from the shop keeper, chatted with the community worker, practiced with the music teacher, greeted the head of police, bartered with the community gardener, ignored the local political party representative, shook hands with the informal market coordinator, hanged with friends, bumped into foes and sworn at a few stray dogs and cattle. At the end of their exhaustive excursion into the city center, they would retire to a shady tree for a cold beer, or sit at the fuel station to watch government cars and tourist camper vans fill up.
People are friendly in Tsumkwe. During the course of a single day, the same stranger accosted me six or seven times, each time shaking my hand whilst asking for spare change and wishing my family well. After a day in town, I realized no one is a stranger any more.
If my observations are correct, three types of people only ever visit Tsumkwe: government employees, development workers and romantic anthropology students from afar. Only a few stay around for longer than what is required by the task at hand.
People go about their business in a quiet undisturbed manner. I watched two old men carrying heavy pumpkins from their field to their homes. It must have been their entire harvest for they were busy the entire morning – chatting, walking, and carrying two pumpkins at a time. I offered to ferry them and all of their precious cargo with my pick-up truck but they declined the offer. It was only much later that I realized that my well intended offer would have disturbed their daily routine. If the only commodity you have is time, why waste it by concluding your tasks as quickly as possible? What would there be left to do all day, if all the pumpkins were secured in ten minutes? No, they were happy taking care of business their way. There was no need to hurry; instead they chose to use their time keenly and wisely – stay active and be in the company of a friend all day long. They have no need for speed, and I was at fault for not realizing that basic chores such as fetching pumpkins from the field are a much-valued social activity.
Even though my visit was short, I learned a lot in Tsumkwe. But I also feel that my perception of time and how it should be used, robbed me from exploring Tsumkwe to its full potential.
What makes a man give up a successful career in the city to pursue his dream of teaching poor, rural children how to play the guitar? In our society where race and class are so tightly intertwined, what motivates a white family to live among the poorest of the poor, seemingly quite happy and content?
For what reason do we regard a man’s clothes – sandals made from giraffe-skin and a buckskin loincloth – rather than his genetic makeup as the true indication of his ‘authenticity’? No matter how hard I tried, I could not find anyone in Tsumkwe who was not an authentic human.
The purpose of my visit to Tsumkwe kept me busy; too busy to stop and unravel the complex social fibers that give this community its soul. I know that my official business, the very reason for my visit to Tsumkwe, will not count for much when I’m asked to consider my personal contributions to the greater good for all humanity.
Other than the time I consumed to do what I was asked to do, I have only a traditional pumpkin to show for my efforts. That is, if I believe everything I was told about this specimen. I was a strong suspicion that it might not be pumpkin, but a melon instead, but until I take the time to cut and inspect it, I can’t be sure. As is the case with the hamlet of Tsumkwe, there might be much more than what initially meets the eye.
One thing I do know, however, is that Tsumkwe is not the gastronomic capital of the country, or the region or even the district. The man or woman traveling to Tsumkwe thinking that they will eat well, will return a rampant, deprived culinary lunatic. One lunch consisting of two Russian sausages (they might even have been made with Angolan or Cuban body parts, who knows) and a small serving of slaptjips, reduced me to a pathetic, whimpering ball of self-pity in less time than it took to cover the thirty or so meters between Tsumkwe’s police station and the regional council’s office.
Shopping for food at the local shops is a great way to save money: what you want, they don’t have; and what they have, you don’t want. With some luck we found a couple of dusty tins of tuna, a whole bag of tomatoes and a familiar brand of mayonnaise. Yeah baby! Tuna salad in Tsumkwe!
Who would have thought … I am eating fish in a part of the country where most people would probably never have seen or smelled the sea; caught or tasted fish other than the tinned variety drenched in tomato sauce or chili. But such is the complexity of the world we live in, and without Tsumkwe this world would have been a much poorer place.
Back home, I fell face first into a bucket of my own homemade blueberry gelato. I ate it all, even wiped the bottom and corners with my finger. And although it is winter, and no longer ice cream season, I cannot imagine finding the same depth of spiritual fulfillment at the bottom of a bowl of biltong.
To those who wear the moral poncho of healthy eating, and thus feel obligated to warn against the impulsive, obsessive consumption of sweet treats, I wish to say: I have eaten something that resembled the minced up body parts of some long dead communist soldier (be it Russian, Angolan or Cuban) and survived. A little sugar and loads of blue berries are not going to kill me.