!Khwa ttu: the way of the San

Richard Holmes

“Eleven years ago, this was a run-down cattle farm,” Michael Daiber tells me as we wander across the quiet courtyard at !Khwa ttu, the bright summer sunshine bouncing off freshly whitewashed walls. From the hilltop, the blue waters of the West Coast sparkle a few kilometres away, while the flat top of Table Mountain is just visible through the distant heat haze.

The scars of farming are still visible in the fields below, but today there’s a different crop being sown in this 850ha Western Cape nature reserve, with ecotourism providing new opportunities for one of South Africa’s most marginalised communities.

!Khwa ttu aims to open visitors’ eyes to the world of the San Bushmen, one of Africa’s oldest peoples. But this is no theme park. The emphasis is on a “tangible journey into history facilitated by the people themselves”, celebrating San culture and creating opportunities for the community.

!Khwa ttu has its beginnings in 1998, when the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa partnered with the South African San Institute to create a tourism and training project for San people from across Southern Africa. Then in 1999 Swiss anthropologist Irene Staehelin joined the initiative, setting up the Ubuntu Foundation and buying the farm that became !Khwa ttu. Today, the project is an award-winning partnership jointly owned by the San people and Ubuntu.

“Ecotourism and training go hand in hand here,” says Daiber, the CEO of !Khwa ttu. “San people come from across Southern Africa to study and work here for a nine-month period. But it’s not about the certificates and gold lettering. Here it’s all about the real-life work experience that will allow them to find good jobs in the tourism industry.”

Men like Carlos Korokagho Munawgo.

Munawgo seems like the grandfather of !Khwa ttu. When he speaks people stop and listen. Originally from Angola, where he saw villages and tribes destroyed by civil war, Munawgo’s knowledge of plants and San customs was passed down from older generations, not studied. It’s knowledge that’s happily being tapped by the centre’s young guides.

A case in point is Ivan Vaalbooi, an enthusiastic young guide from the dry Northern Cape. With his training behind him he is now an accredited tour guide who learned many of his skills here at !Khwa ttu: “I’ve learned from Carlos. Now I have a chance to pass on some of these skills to the other San people who come to train here.”

The visitor complex boasts a country-style restaurant and a small gift shop, but the reason tourists drive up the R27 to !Khwa ttu – just under an hour from the centre of Cape Town – are the centre’s two interpretive trails.

The Hunting Trail – on foot and tractor-trailer – has long been the main attraction, introducing visitors to the way the San lived, hunted and celebrated.

Then, because they were a people who always lived in balance with nature, the recently opened Gathering Trail highlights the San’s incredible plant knowledge.

Over 150 plant species, most only found growing naturally in the dry semi-desert further north, line the easy walking trail, which is loosely divided into five broad areas.

“This wild mint is my favourite,” says Vaalbooi, leading us into the first section, which contains plants that can be used as herbal teas to cure a variety of ills. The sandy path wanders down towards plants for “women’s health”, which was of particular importance to the San during childbirth.

“You can use the stems and the leaves of the Agapanthus plant to ease the pains of childbirth,” says Vaalbooi. “But it’s very bitter, and only a very small amount is used.”

Each section has a number of helpful signboards, with photographs of the plant and explanation of their uses. Two areas cover plants used for “general Health”, with the likes of the common thorn apple and sour figs easing arthritis and sore throats respectively.

“Only one particular household in the community would know how to use all of these plants,” says Vaalbooi. “If you were sick, or you had troubles, you would come to this family to ask for help. This knowledge would then be passed down through the family.”

A plump little tsama melon gives the game away for the final stop on the short trail. “They say that this is the grandmother of the watermelon,” Vaalbooi says. “You can prepare it lots of different ways. You can roast the seeds, or eat it just plain like it is. You can also make a very nice porridge out of it … it has a very nice sour taste!”

We leave the tsama melon to ripen in the hot West Coast sun and wander back up towards the restaurant. Before settling into the hearty lunchtime menu, most visitors wander through the photo gallery, which offers a shocking look at how the San have been exploited, examined and dehumanised over the past 400 years.

Failing to recognise the subtlety of their ancient ways, Victorian explorers poked, prodded and procured the “savage” San for display around the world. The 20th century did little better, dragging them into regional conflicts – most notably in Namibia and Angola – and destroying what remained of their traditional way of life.

Today, stripped of their ancestral lands, alcoholism and unemployment threaten to wipe out the first people of Africa altogether. Which makes projects like !Khwa ttu all the more valuable. Combining ecotourism and training opportunities offers a new path for men like Munawgo and Vaalbooi.

From the restaurant I hear the clatter of cutlery as a restaurant full of happy diners makes the most of !Khwa ttu’s Sunday lunch buffet. Wines from local estates flow freely and organic vegetables from the garden make their way into the kitchen as a small army of waitresses bustle between tables. In the shop, new arrivals browse through the selection of gifts, such as ostrich-egg bracelets, handcrafted by San communities.

Those eggs would once have been used to store water for the dry months, ensuring the community’s future survival. Today, it’s inquisitive tourists – and projects like !Khwa ttu – that are providing a nest egg for San communities across Southern Africa.

Tourist advisory

!Khwa ttu is situated on the R27, some 45 minutes north of Cape Town. Visit www.khwattu.org to find out more, or call +27 22 492 2998.

San-guided tours take place from Tuesdays to Sundays at 10am and 2pm. !Khwa ttu charges R220 (US$30) for adults and R110 ($15) for children, students and pensioners (complimentary drink included in the price). There is also a family special of R450 ($60) for two adults accompanying three children under 12 years.

Khwa ttu also offers a conference facilities and a variety of self-catering accommodation: a family-friendly guest house near the restaurant (sleeps six), a secluded bush house (sleeps four) and a rustic bush camp (sleeps 20 in five canvas tents).

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