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Monday, 8 October 2012

The Taboos of Tsodilo

     It is supposed to be bad luck for the groom to see the wedding dress before the wedding, but who takes notice of such superstitions? I must admit, it never entered my mind when I was helping my bride-to-be choose her dress. True, just after the invitations were sent out, the church did burn down. And a week before the ceremony, the reception restaurant closed down. And on the first day of the honeymoon, the car broke down. But that is all pure coincidence. And no doubt it was pure coincidence what happened to Laurens van der Post when he visited the Tsodilo Hills in what is now Botswana.
     These days the area is a World Heritage Site, and a tourist attraction, but it was practically unknown in 1955, when van der Post led out a film team in order to contact the Bushmen. (No, you should not call them "San".) In the midst of the expedition, as he explained in The Lost World of the Kalahari (1958), a native called Samutchoso told him of a place where they might be found:
The Bushmen called them the Tsodilo Hills, "the Slippery Hills", and they were the home of very old and very great spirits. He had heard that European huts were divided into many rooms, and so, he would have me know, was the interior of the Slippery Hills. In each compartment dwelt the master spirit of each animal, bird, insect and plant that had ever been created. At night the spirits left their rooms in the hills to do their business among the creatures made after their fashion, and the spoor, hoof-marks left by their nocturnal traffic, could be seen distinct and deep in the rocks of the Slippery Hills. In a place in the central hill lived the master spirit of all the spirits. There below it was a deep pool that never dried up. Beside the pool grew a tree with the fruit of knowledge on it, and hard by the tree was the rock on which the greatest spirit of all had knelt to pray the day he made the world. The dent in the rock, where his vessel with sacred water had stood so that he could rinse his mouth and hands before prayer, and the marks made by his knees as he knelt to pray over his creation, could be seen to this day. All around on the smooth rock surfaces there were paintings of the animals the great spirit had made, and in all the deepest crevices lived swarms of bees that drank at the pool of everlasting water and tumbled the desert flowers to make the sweetest of honey for the spirits. There, he said, among the hills, once a year, for a short season, the Bushmen gathered.
     Samutchoso had been there, for he himself was a healer and prophet. He would lead them there, but on two conditions: they must come without resentment in their hearts or blood on their hands. There must be no dissension or quarrelling on the journey, and absolutely no killing - not even for food, or to swat a biting or annoying insect - until the spirits gave permission. Otherwise, the master spirit of the animal involved would come out to destroy them.
     Naturally, van der Post agreed. The trouble was, he forgot to tell his men, and only remembered it when one of them killed a warthog. By then it was too late. They reached the Hills late in the afternoon the same day. Everything had gone well with the advance party; they had arrived a few hours before him, and found the waterhole, but was it swarming with bees. They were hard pressed to get a drink without being stung.
    Day 2. Just before sunrise, the camp was hit by a swarm of bees.
I have never witnessed anything like it. They came not in angry, militant swarms to sting, but in great, shapeless, dark-brown hordes humming an esoteric tune of exhortation, crawling all over us and our belongings as if to sweep us, by sheer weight of numbers and volume of sound, out of their way. The smell and taste of our water could not have attracted them because they ignored it, as also the sugar set out for our breakfast coffee. They seemed interested only in beating their wings against our faces, crawling up our sleeves and trousers and from time to time driving the mysterious point of their visitation home with a perfectly timed sting in the most tender spots.
     Van der Post frantically called out to his men not to kill any of them. With him being the sole exception, everybody was stung. Then, as soon as the first light of dawn struck the camp, of one accord, the bees swept away.
     They had been too late to meet any Bushmen, but the rock shelters were full of paintings. At once, the cameraman, Duncan Alexander set up his equipment. But after running ran for a few seconds, the magazine abruptly jammed, although it was brand new. So did the second magazine. Then the third. Duncan returned to camp, while van der Post and Samutchoso climbed up to the "everlasting water". There lay the grooves where the creator spirit had allegedly knelt to pray at the dawn of time, and where Samutchoso had also knelt to pray on his former visit. But this time, he felt a strong force pulling him backwards, leaving him with both knees bleeding.
     Duncan now rejoined them with his newly overhauled camera and new magazines, but again they jammed. So, that night, they stayed up late, cleaning, oiling, and greasing the magazines, the camera, and all its parts.
     Day 3. Just before dawn, the bees struck again. Again, the camera jammed. Duncan again stayed up at night overhauling it. Meanwhile, they decided to record the night sounds. But the recording instrument, which had previously worked  perfectly, suddenly broke down. They tried every test in the manual, and could find no fault; it just refused to work.
    Day 4. Again the bees. Again the jamming. Then a steel swivel on the camera broke. It was a part so secure, that no spare was ever kept. So that was the end of that.
   "But surely, Master," said Samutchoso, "you never expected those machines to work?" He then threaded a needle, twisted the thread around his fingers, and placed the needle along the life line of his hand. He stood staring at it for about 10 minutes, then went into a trance. They heard him speaking to presences only he could see, as if they were jostling around him, and he was asking for a particular one in the crowd. After about a quarter of an hour, he came out of the trance, and told them that the spirits were angry because they had arrived with blood on their hands, and because he had not acted like a leader, but allowed his subordinates to precede him. He should have come first, and paid his respects to the spirits. Also, he told him they would have killed him, Samutchoso, if he had made a second attempt to pray.
     At sunset that day, van der Post wrote a letter of apology to the spirits, read it out to the company, put it in a bottle, and at first light the next day (there was no mention of bees) buried it in front of one of the more magnificent Bushman paintings. Samutchoso then took out needle and thread for a second séance, after which he passed on the message from the spirits that all would now be well with them. However, they added that there would be one more sadness waiting at the next place they came to, but they should not be discouraged, because it belonged, not to the future, but the past.
     "The spirits of the hills are not what they were, Master," he said sadly. "They are losing their power. Ten years ago they would have killed you for coming to them in that manner."
     I don't suppose the modern tourists have noticed anything more of their power. Then again, as it is now a national park, they probably are no longer killing anything - although some may still have resentment in their hearts. Of course, it is easy to provide a psychological explanation for Samutchoso's prayer block and séances. As for the bees and breakdown - purely coincidental, of course! Nothing to do with the taboos!
    They left the Slippery Hills, and at the next place they came to, there was a sadness waiting. One of their party heard by mail that his father had died.
    Purely coincidental, of course.

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