Chief Tsamkxao of the Ju/’hoansi San

Chief Bobo, as Tsamkxao is affectionately known, is a popular man in the Nyae Nyae Conservancy. He doesn’t run the conservancy – that is the job of an elected management committee – but he is the chief of the Nyae Nyae area around Tsumkwe, stretching to the Botswana border.

Ju/’hoansi means ‘real people’, and Bobo’s people have lived in the area for as long back as they can think. Traditionally, the San did not have chiefs, but in every area there was a leader who, as Bobo explains, would know the area well.

This was important, as resources in the bush are scarce. “You have to maintain an area, a !nore,” says the chief, using the Ju/’hoan name. “If you want to hunt in an area you have to ask the leader of that !nore first,” and Chief Bobo remembers his first hunt, as a boy.

“It was a duiker, and the cow had given birth. I followed the spoor and then caught the calf. Because of the noise it made, the mother had to come back for it, and I shot it with a bow.” How old was Bobo? “About so high.” He raises his hand. “Maybe ten.”

Later, he remembers the South Africans coming. “Before then there were no vehicle tracks here.” Later still, the South African army moved in, and Tsumkwe became a recruiting base for the war against SWAPO. It was a bad time, remembers the chief. Money did not bring development. People drank and didn’t plan.

Then everything changed. With assistance from Lawrence Marshal and his son John, from the USA, the Ju/’hoansi formed the Nyae Nyae Farmers’ Cooperative. The Marshal family was touched – outraged – by the plight of the San, and wanted them to become farmers like the Hereros around them.

In 1997 Bobo was elected Chief. He remembers that lions destroyed their cattle, and he also remembers that before independence the government drilled boreholes for wildlife, for the benefit of hunters, but not for the people. He began to think that a fairer future for the Ju/’hoansi, should belong with wildlife, as it had in the past.

It was after independence that the idea of communal conservancies was born: areas where rural Namibians could earn an income from wildlife, through trophy hunting and tourism.

In 1998, the ideas bore fruit, and Nyae Nye became the first registered communal conservancy in Namibia. For Chief Bobo, the idea resonates with his understanding of a !nore: “You must not finish what you have now. Everything in nature should be used sustainably. Future generations must not just hear the names of elephants and the plants, but they must see them, and benefit from them.”

Steve Felton

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