‘San spirit shared’ – From !Khwa ttu to !Xaus

Story and photos by Melissa Siebert

Two of the many highlights from a recent visit to !Xaus Lodge, deep in the red dunes of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park: tracking with !Kung Bushman guide Castro Maliti, and hanging out at the lodge’s craft village with Daunuvan Van Rooi and other Khomani San, listening to traditional stories around the fire.

Both Castro and Daunuvan–personable, knowledge able young men conspicuously proud of their culture–were trained at !Khwa ttu, a San Bushman destination, education and training centre on the West Coast about an hour from Cape Town on the R27.

‘San Spirit Shared’–the words call out repeatedly on numerous signs as you approach !Khwa ttu from the north or south. Perched high on an ancient, barren hill overlooking the sea, once a wheat and sheep farm, !Khwa ttu is a cultural journey. Several hours there are not enough, but all I had on a recent visit. If you’re planning a trip to the Kalahari, or specifically to !Xaus–co-owned by the Khomani San and Mier peoples–or just to deepen your knowledge, !Khwa ttu is a wonderful introduction.

Founded 20 years ago, it has gone a long way towards promoting and preserving Bushman heritage by training the younger generation in skills and knowledge that otherwise may be lost. Its graduates, like Castro and Daunuvan, generally find work in sustainable, community tourism; often they become entrepreneurs, and !Khwa ttu’s training incorporates an entrepreneurial component.

‘We focus on practical experience,’ says anthropologist Michael Daiber, !Khwa ttu’s CEO, over cappuccino on the stoep at !Khwa ttu’s restaurant, a renovated farmhouse. ‘For us it’s been less important for the intakes–now eight people twice a year, San youth aged 20-30 from South Africa, Namibia and Botswana–to get certification and more important, when they leave, to get employment and to change their lives.

Participants or ‘interns’ rotate every six weeks through different types of training: among them, guiding (nature and cultural); housekeeping; reception; gardening; farming. 

‘They work as guides at the Heritage Centre here,’ Michael says. ‘So the Heritage Centre becomes a textbook for them. Just as the gathering trail [where they gather plants for tradtional medicine] becomes a textbook.’  

At the start of the six-month training period, Michael says, some of the young Bushmen hesitate to embrace their cultural identity. 

‘Some of them, when they come here, don’t want to be identified as San. They might be discriminated against where they come from. But it’s different when they leave.’   

Ri Vermooten, !Khwa ttu’s training and development manager, leads me over to ||Kabbo Academy, where training happens. Entry level training focuses on enhancing participants’ cultural, heritage, environmental and nature training, as well as on building life skills and giving work exposure. Aside from the subjects that Michael has already mentioned, subjects include culinary skills; rock art; HIV/Aids; first aid; vehicle maintenance; language; botany; conservation; San issues; current affairs; computer skills; and intellectual property rights.  

Ri points to a particular passage in one of their customised training manuals, focusing on sustainable livelihoods, a key focus at !Khwa ttu. It’s something we’d all do well to learn, and to practise:  

If your livelihood is socially, ecologically and economically sound, it is sustainable. To help remember this important aspect, always think of the three legs an African pot needs to balance.  

The highlight of a visit to !Khwa ttu for most people will probably be the Heritage Centre, spread out in three buildings. I’m met by Joram /Useb, a Haillom San from Namibia, near Etosha, who’s coordinator of the Heritage Centre and a cultural and nature trainer at !Khwa ttu. Pressed for time, we start with the newest exhibition space, which opened last September: a light, open, magical space with a curved ‘green’ roof, full of Bushman artifacts, art and indigenous knowledge. Outside the glass walls of the centre, on hills sloping to the west and towards the sea, zebra and eland graze.  

We start in a darkened room with short films from Tsumkwe, a San community in northeast Namibia: a trance dance; a melon dance; scenes amongst huts and around fires and from the veld. ‘Tsumke is the only place where the San are still living traditionally,’ Joram says. And for a few minutes, watching the giant screens, you’re drawn into that vanishing lifestyle. 

There’s a wealth to see and experience: cases of artifacts related to hunting and gathering, shamans, crafts. Headphones where you can listen to various San languages, clicking away. Colourful art depicting fanciful creatures. Stories, sayings and beliefs chronicled along with the San experience of colonialism and militarisation, as well as prospects for the future.  

The temptation is to write down or, better yet, photograph all the wisdom in this place, to somehow capture the magic of this culture. This visitor, as usual, is particularly drawn to the shamans, beginning with:   

San shamans see and travel on colourful ropes or strings. They run from earth to the sky, between people, and people and animals. They connect the world.  

And then, the voices of two shamans:  

I work with the wind of the animals – even if I go by the lions I can sleep without trouble until morning. Even if I meet an elephant I can just sleep or if the elephant is close I can just stand and look and he cannot see me or feel my presence. He will just pass by because I am just like him. I have got his smell. I have got his medicine, that tsoo — !Khoi ||oi, Naro, D’kar, 2007.  

When I was still young I used to change into an animal. Now I am old and the wind is very strong in the sky and I will fall off. When I was young I was very dangerous in that work I did not play…I would stand up straight and go like a plane. If I go to Ghanzi [in the Kalahari] I must go straight. I usually took off as a lion — ||Uce |Ui, Ju|’hoan, N!haun!hau, 2007. 

Like !Xaus’s Castro and Daunuvan, you’ll be much richer for time spent at !Khwa ttu – even for a few hours. Though stay overnight there if you wish, and further explore the San’s wondrous, humbling world.  


!Xaus means ‘heart’ in the Nama language and was proposed as a name for the lodge by a group of visiting Bushmen and confirmed by the representative bodies of both the ‡Khomani San and Mier communities. Significantly, the lodge’s name, ‘!Xaus’, symbolises the healing of relationships, the restoration of dignity and the aspirations of these communities, who after many years of deprivation are now owners of the lodge and the land on which it is situated.