Written by Graham Williams, management consultant and storyteller with Halo and Noose

I’ve returned from spending a week in the arid Kgalagadi, listening to the desert silence, taking in the 360° horizon, and encountering a small group of Bushmen.

About the Bushmen and how we/others see them

Guide and crafter at !Xaus Lodge

The original inhabitants of the sub-continent, Southern Africa’s ‘first nation’ or aboriginals, existed as relatively small, self-sufficient, nomadic groups scattered over a wide geographic area and speaking many dialects. Traditionally they have lived by hunting game, gathering wild vegetables, berries, herbs, and insects, moving with the seasons and the game.

The bushmen adapted over the years to incorporate agriculture, herding, trading into their hunter-gatherer way of life. They are said by some to be still the least changed of all races and a living representation of stone-age man. There is also an accompanying fear that they are facing social and cultural extinction as they become assimilated into a modern state, inter-marry with others, are ravaged by AIDS, alcohol abuse and commercialisation, and lose their traditional life-style. (1)

But the lenses through which we see the Bushmen may distort reality. They may be magnified or reduced by ignorance, generalisations, projections, patronising. The picture we build of the ‘other’ may in part be an effort to define our own existential ‘self’.(2)  Thus our understanding and perception of the Bushmen could traverse a number of spectra, for example:

  • Attractive, desired, to be conquered, settled, ‘saved’, integrated OR dangerous, unknown, perhaps violent and a threat to be avoided, kept separate
  • Noble, romantic, mystical, pure and Ignorant, unsullied, spiritual  OR devoid of logic, higher thought degraded
  • Unable to adapt, facing extinction OR able to adapt, transform, survive

Notes to help understanding of the story that follows

What is clear is that, notwithstanding external encroachments of various sorts, the Bushmen have stayed close to nature, possess strong powers of observation, allow their minds to be fed by nature, and they tend to live in the present moment. “The past is in front of me because I can see it. The future is behind me because I cannot see it. And I am walking backwards through my life”. (3)

They are by nature gentle, submissive, unassertive, and cooperative. Being nomadic they have been able to withdraw and avoid conflict. They solve problems by talking them through. They have community values, and their emphasis is on sharing scarce resources rather than accumulating wealth. Perhaps this has added to their vulnerability?

Their folk-lore heroes and heroines are valued for their wisdom and humility rather than their strength. Their successful hunters were encouraged to take pride in their craftiness rather than their strength, and to be modest, self-effacing: “We speak of his meat as worthless. In this way we cool his heart and make him gentle”. (4)

They are steeped in story. “A story is like the wind, it comes from a far-off quarter, and we feel it”. (4)

The Bushmen speak about all undefined dangers as, use the metaphor of, “lions”.
Ostriches are the world’s largest flightless birds, and are difficult to stalk, but their large eggs (one is equivalent to 24 hen’s eggs) are a source of food and serve as a means to carry and store water. In one of their stories the Ostrich was able to make fire, cook, get warm and when tricked and robbed of this by a young bushman, never flew again, and lost most of her life-force.
The eland, hunted by Bushmen and lions alike, is highly prized for its fat, for having sexual potency, and for being the rain animal (fertility).


The Story


Lion and the Ostrich

In the light of the above information, read this adaption of a Laurens van der Post story retold by Irene Murphy Lewis. Notice the response to arrogance, the approach to danger and threat, the life-force/ power of wisdom and humility. And think in evolutionary psychology terms of the archetypal menagerie within your own psyche as you read. (5)

The story goes like this: (6)

Lion, somewhat like the world boxing champion Mohammed Ali, arrogantly considered himself to be the greatest of all. In a conversation with Ostrich, he compared his own strong teeth and mighty roar to Ostriches’ absence of teeth and weak call. Ostrich, tall and wise, would not be drawn into conflict or battle, and instead suggested a co-operative Eland hunt. Lion attacked, mauled, chewed an Eland. Ostrich attacked the Eland’s calf, and drank its blood. Lion roared and mocked Ostrich, threatening to eat it as well. So Ostrich ran and hid behind an anthill. Lion followed, and Ostrich leapt out, surprised and blinded Lion by throwing clods of sand with its two-toed feet, and continued until the light had left Lion. Ostrich may have had no teeth, but did have cunning, a plan and a strategy. And was the greatest.



1. Critical Arts – a journal of cultural studies. Recuperating the San  Volume 9, Number 2, 1995

2. Clelland-Stokes, Sacha  Representing Aboriginality   Intervention Press  Denmark  2007

3. Williams, Graham and Haarhoff, Dorian  The Halo and the Noose  Graysonian Press  2009

4. Smith, Andy; Malherbe, Candy;Guenther, Mat and Berens, Penny The Bushmen of Southern Africa  David Philip Publishers  Cape Town 2000

5. McCallum, Ian Ecological Intelligence: rediscovering ourselves in nature Africa Geographic 2005

6. Murphy Lewis, Irene  Why Ostriches Don’t Fly and Other Tales from the African Bush  Libraries Unlimited 1997