Discovering root treasures and talent in the Kalahari sands
In September 2018 Botswana’s Ministry of Basic Education, the Department of Non Formal Education invited me to New Xade in the Central Kalahari to run a workshop for San carvers. I met with the participants – 17 men and women – at the local school.
The San, or Basarwa people, were resettled by the Botswana Government from Old Xade in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in 1997 to New Xade, 90 km north. Traditionally hunters and gatherers, the San in modern permanent settlements need to discover new ways of making a living, ideally without abandoning their close connection to the natural environment. Through the Kuru Art Project, for example, many San people have developed their artistic talent with paintings that tell the stories of traditional life in the bush, as well as accounts of the transition to formal settlement living.
Traditionally the San of this area carve spoons, cups and small animals from fresh wood. When I talked with the workshop participants about working with old, dry wood, the reply was, “This is inferior wood and we never work with it. This was a real challenge, as I only work with old fallen limbs of wood, or old root pieces. We looked around the outskirts of New Xade village to find some pieces lying on the ground, but could not find much at all.
I began to fret: what wood would the 17 participants in this workshop use for their carvings?
In deep thought about what to do, I noticed short stumps sticking out of the sand. We dislodged one of the stumps by moving it back and forth, and pulled it out of the sand. Amazing! what we found was a heavy and interestingly shaped piece of wood. I asked, “What wood is it?” The reply was Mogotlho.
This was Acacia or Vachellia erioloba, or Camel Thorn, a very hardy pinkish to red wood that is resistant to termite and borers.
Camel Thorn trees are among the toughest trees in the Kalahari environment. They thrive in deep sand, their roots seeking scarce water channels. Seed pods of the tree are a tasty snack for antelope and livestock. When the tree eventually dies, or is cut down, the roots remain untouched by most insects.
We kept digging up more incredibly shaped pieces of the same wood, all Camel Thorn.
The carvers were excited about our findings and we returned, laden with root pieces, to the village to start the carving process. They had never tried to work with these wonderful pieces of Camel Thorn before.
The next two weeks passed quickly as the talent of the artists emerged, connecting their imagination and feelings to these old and mysterious shapes.
I felt a strong affinity with the San sculptors. Their natural ability to connect to the messages in the wood is also what drives me forward from one
piece to the next.
Nature provided us with these Camel Thorn root pieces, and, through this medium, the carvers discovered their artistic talent.