More weeks passed, but still the hoped, prayed and danced-for rains remained stubbornly absent; the experts said the situation would persist.
Dara’s perch high above the escarpment should have provided a dazzling vista of bloom for which the Painted Desert, as the Namaqualand region was called, was rightly famous. Carnarvon lay at its boundary.
The postcards of what should be out there now were mesmerizing but the ancestors in their unfathomable wisdom seemed happy to ignore all pleading and leave the place dusty with a rugged masculine beauty.
Somewhere out there over the horizon; Dara gazed in the general direction, knowing it was far too distant to spot; lay Verneukpan, famous for it's land speed record attempts. His father was a speed enthusiast and had promised to take him there when an event was next scheduled.
Dara’s parents had been forced by career to live apart for some years but the arrangement was purely practical. Contracts had taken them to different parts of the world so that clinging to the ideal for a relationship was more corrosive than allowing one another to be apart in mutual agreement. When they came back together it was like nothing had changed for those all-too-brief periods.
His father was currently in the United States promoting his fourth book popularizing breakthrough science. He was scheduled to visit South Africa later in the year to tour sites of early mankind; the entire region north and east of Carnarvon also bordered the enigmatically named Cradle of Mankind where a graveyard containing dozens of Homo Naledi bones were found deep inside the impossibly tight and meandering Rising Star cave system. The announcement of the find had rocked the world of science, begging deeply searching questions about the point in the hominid timeline when the evolving human species had developed a sense of self.
As Dara had begun to appreciate, this part of the world was a veritable treasure trove for learning. It was an irony he thought, that the inhabitants so roundly rejected the evidence of these facts etched into nature so close at hand in favor of Calvinist dogma from so far away and long ago.
His father had told him of the significance of the local peoples—the Bushmen as some of them preferred to be called rather than the more popular and politically driven Khoisan; the living fossils of humanity’s deep prehistoric past.
Those calling themselves Bushmen had explained to Dara that Khoisan refers to a specific clan name within the Bushman community. It was Dara realized, not unlike McGregor would not do as a collective label for all Scotsmen.
Dara had proudly explained as much to his father.
It had all come to life for Dara—the very earth of the place now held a magnetism, as if the DNA in his fibres recognized its ancestral home. Each day, England drifted ever further away from his yearning.
The drama that had played out over these far and barren lands was reverberating deep inside of him. In the theatre of his mind he visualized the scenes back a hundred thousand years. The roving bands of hunters stalking small game, sheltering in the caves that were now his playground—families and generations under the rash of stars and the Milky Way that had brought his mother; a new kind of explorer.
The rocks reflecting the lanky figures and their speared quarry captured in paint on the living rocks, their footprints found impressed into ancient petrified mud and the middens and bones they left as fossils—these were the things that would soon unite his parents and make them briefly a quasi-family unit, all in that other great quest for knowledge that seemed to surge through the family genes; with doctors and engineers on both sides of his linage.
Cutting down through the deposited rock strata, as Dara had now taken to spending his days, the time-machine ran backward with each layer; from the time that our recent Paleolithic ancestors were making stone tools—past the Jurassic of the great lumbering dino-beasts—to the reptiles that pre-dated them in the tropical swamps that once abounded in this now dry space.
It was the little yellow-tinged people, Dawie’s folk, who fascinated Dara.
Many of the house staff and those in the town bore the classic features that came to them down sixty thousand years of genetic linage and a culture distinct from all other peoples of the earth—the small ears, tufting hair and sometimes oversized rumps. Steatopygia, his father had called it.
Dara had looked it up: “an accumulation of large deposits of fat on the buttocks, especially as a normal condition in the Khoikhoi and other peoples of arid parts of southern Africa,” the encyclopedia confirmed. It was an evolutionary bulwark against the deprivations of endless drought in these barren lands.
The plight of any population crushed by history is always a point of contention and in contemporary politics a potential powder keg for its remnant descendants.
The modern predicament of the Bushmen had its first foundations in equatorial Africa nearly a thousand years earlier and four thousand miles north, as population explosions in the black groups there sent an undulating wave of migration south, the black Nguni tribes—the farmers and herders—marched steadily forward generation after generation, valley and plain after valley and plain.
Ahead of them they enslaved and pushed the escaping hunter-gatherer bands ever further, ever southward toward the coast.
The process was a slow seep of humanity, the subtle differences in appearance but vast differences in cultural organization creating a patchwork of group-to-area designations.
Squinting to pick it out from his vantage point, Dara thought he could just make out the thread of asphalt that offered an eight-hour drive southward to Cape Town; The Mother City.
Five hundred years on from the first dramatic migrations that he was imagining in this dry interior, the Heeren XVII or Lords Seventeen of The Dutch East India Company had promulgated their orders for the first of the European explorers to join the coming mélange of cultures assembling for collision.
Ship after ship, they arrived slowly but steadily, planting their flag at the foot of a comely mountain that embraced a welcoming bay.
Within a century, their numbers bolstered, religious instability in Europe and enmity between its nations sent shockwaves that set them on their way, fanning out to the north—columns of mostly Dutch descendants bringing their guns, language, culture and Bibles.
They in turn had pushed the Bushmen north again. The Bushmen’s path blocked by the Nguni in the North and East, were diverted and crushed into this arid West where Carnarvon lay—into the desert badlands of scrub and hardship.
The Europeans brought disease too—smallpox and other plagues—against which the incumbents had no or little resistance. Alcohol, unknown to roving bands, decimated those who survived the other apocalypses. Few bloodlines of Bushmen avoided mixing. Fewer yet maintained the wandering subsistence culture.
Subsistence back then meant following the seasons and masses of game; now, with the great herds decimated by guns, and barbed fences penning the last traces of quarry in and the subsistence hunters out, it meant handouts and stipends from tourists along the national road or near game park entrances, traded for trinkets and small change.
As Dara sat imagining it all, possibly no single human left still held to the old ways.
“When the last is gone Dara,” his father had said, “we lose the biggest part of ourselves.”
“The biggest part?”—It sounded rather an exaggeration and Dara challenged his father.
“I mean it literally Dara,” his dad had assured. “They are our anchor—our lifeline to finding out who we are today in our psychology, in our sociology and anthropology. These are important questions. We live in vastly complex societies full of different cultures and competing political ideologies each with their own basket of economic systems. But we’re still only collections of individuals, and for half a million generations… millions of years of hunting and gathering, our individual psychology evolved to cope with a few other individuals—mostly extended family members forced to live highly cooperatively with no concept of possession over things or others. At most we’ve been in larger communities and dealing with strangers for five hundred generations, and that is not enough time to overcome bred-in psychology that held sway for a thousand times longer. For one, two, three or more million years not much changed from generation to generation until the concept of farming and with it ownership arose—and then everything changed. And we’re watching the last of our species give up that ancient simple lifestyle.”
Dara learned how even the benign but necessary act of paying cash for an item at a store involved a prescribed exchange that was unnatural to our deepest selves; how it ran contrary to our wiring for close cooperation with kin; how that exchange introduced a barrier between the parties that reinforced the emotional distance between them—and ultimately drove competition and enmity.
These thoughts mulled in his mind as he looked out over the lands his and every other human’s own ancestors had certainly once wandered.
Until recently these concepts had been academic to him—theoretical. But barefooted and dusty with this earth; he was growing small roots into the Africa under his feet; and with his intimate acquaintance with Dawie and other indigenous workers around the compound, the theoretical was fast catalyzing into the emotional. Only a generation or two from humanity’s ‘wild’ condition, Dara could detect the difficulty these Bushmen still grappled with as they tried to slot into the modern world.
Dawie was a spectacular find for Dara—almost royalty in this regard, his grandfather a clan leader of the Bushmen. His grandfather’s grandfather in turn recognized as the last of “the wandering Bushmen”—living wild off game, indigenous plants and especially wits.
But Dawie had posed a conundrum Dara could not yet get his mind around:
“A Zulu man can wear a suit and take his seat in the National Assembly of our country’s parliament, and a Xhosa woman can be an I.T. expert or sit on the Board of a multi-national,” Zulu and Xhosa are splinters of the Nguni nation, “and nobody questions if either are a real Zulu or a real Xhosa. But I’m a bushman boy who loses his cultural identity if I put on shoes or use a mobile phone.”
It was true—Dara had already detected that prejudice within himself.
Dawie’s family had been driven off the land and forbidden their traditional rights—now, outside of academia, they were not even considered ‘Bushmen’ or Khoi—but the collective noun ‘coloured’; a catchall designation for anyone not white, black or Asian. The coloureds numbered in the majority for the region—nearly ninety percent of the population so designated; but they held little economic or political sway.
It was deep into afternoon; Dara donned socks and shoes and began to make his way home.
The wind had risen and tall thunderheads like the phalanx of foreign invaders in centuries past marched abreast steadily forward. And then salvos of thunder began to reverberate off the surrounding mountains. As Dara passed, a lazy windmill on borrowed time groaned at the labour the rising wind was forcing on its dusty gears.
Just then the first lonely drop of rain splattered out of a darkening sky, a dollop of hot water doled from the heavens.
Dara looked skyward just as two… three-four more globules slapped his visor. He opened the throttle a little to beat the deluge and smiled in praise of Dawie’s people and their unflinching conviction that the ancestors will always protect the land from the ravages of man.