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The Gwikwe Bushmen

Population:      10,000
Religion:        Traditional Nature Animism
Registry of Peoples code: Gwikwe:  103614
Registry of Languages code (Ethnologue): Gwi:  gwj



Location: The Bushmen, or San, live in the Kalahari Desert of Namibia and Botswana, and the adjoining area of Angola.  The Kalahari Desert supports nomadic San (Bushmen) and wildlife, spreads over the Southwest of Botswana.

The Gwikwe are part of the Central Kalahari Bushmen who live in central Botswana.  Their home is actually part of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.

History:Originally from the Great Rift of Africa, these hunter-gatherers moved south after coming under pressure from the migrating Cushites, Nilotes, and Bantu peoples.  Today they occupy the desert areas of southern Africa.  The San, called the Bushmen by the Dutch in South Africa, were the first people we know of in the area for thousands of years.

Identity: Even though there are about 55,000 San in southern Africa, only one third of them continue their traditional nomadic lifestyles.  Many of them were kidnapped and made to work in people's homes and on farms.  These few people are divided into scattered groups of a few hundred to a few thousand, who cannotunderstand each other's language.

The Gwikwe people are also called Gwi, G//ani-Khwe, Tannekwe and Xani-Khwe.  The word Bushman came from the Dutch settlers who called the San by this term.  The proper ethnic term for these people groups is normally considered to be San, although some sources now say that this is a derogatory term of the Nama people for them.

The Gwikwe are the largest group of the San peoples.  Yet it is ironic to learn that the Gwikwe were not known by ethnographers until the 1950s.

The San are renowned as trackers, and may be hired for this work by government or private parties.

Language: The name of the Gwikwe language is called Gwi-Khwe.  This was until recently considered a dialect of the language called G//ani-Khwe.  Gwikwe is closely related to G//ani-Khwe, N/hai-Ntse'e and Nharo.  The Gwi also use ||Gana or Naro languages.

This is a "click" language, as a member of the Khoisan language family in which click sounds serve as consonants.  The //, for instance, is made like the English sound to tell a horse to go.  Many Gwikwe people also speak the Tswana language and some speak English.  The latter two would be used in work on farms and in cities.

Gwi-Khwe is a member of Central Khoisan languages, also called the Khoe group.  Khwe is the same word form as Khoe and Khoi.  This means the Gwikwe San people speak a Khoikhoi language.  This central group of languages are spoken by both San and Khoi people.  Gwikwe is closely related to the Nama language, spoken by a Khoi people.  Some even report that Gwi-Khwe, G//ana and Nama are mutually intelligible.

The San languages are related to the languages spoken by the Khoikhoin, also called Khoi, or Hottentot.  Together these languages are called by the technical name Khoisan.  Some of the unusual click sounds of these languages have been borrowed by a group of Bantu language speakers about 300 to 500 years ago.

The Khoisan languages are written in a standardized alphabet based on Latin characters with special symbols for the click sounds unique to the Khoisan languages.  Some of these symbols are //, !, /.  Technical materials are available to explain the sounds these symbols represent.

Education available to the Gwikwe would be in either English or Tswana.

Political Situation: The San groups are very small, nomadic groups traditionally living distantly from other peoples, even other groups of San.  They have been oppressed and dispossessed by both Bantu and European immigrant groups.  History even documents hunting of San people for sport.

The Gwikwe and other San exist outside the political arena.  They have work relations with Bantu and European farmers.  Some in the past generation have gone to school and entered the "mainstream" of life somewhat.

Traditionally they were led by hereditary kin group leaders, but they had limited authority.  Group social order was enforced by ridicule, exile from the group or divination to determine the guilt and proper punishment.  Execution was sometimes used.District councils now appoint village headmen or government courts are used.

Customs: Food is not easy to obtain in the desert so many of the San are forced to live among the Bantu population and the Europeans of southern Africa.  In the desert their basic diet is melons, seeds, nuts and antelope meat.

Water is hard to find, as there are no permanent water holes.  Usually during the dry season in Botswana, southwestern Africa, these nomads glean their moisture by scraping and squeezing roots.

They dig holes in the sand, an arm's length or more, to find water when they are out hunting or traveling.  They may carry water in a gourd as a canteen.  Often their only shelter from the heat (or the cold) are shallow holes they dig in the sandy ground.

Expert archers, Gwikwe men hunt various kinds of African antelope with bonetipped poisoned arrows.  They can run for hours at a time, following a herd of eland or other antelope.  They share their game equally among their band, which may have up to 60 members, all relatives.  Repeated droughts over the last few years, plus depletion due to commercial hunting, has made game more scarce.

The Gwikwe and their Bushmen relatives wear little clothing and have few possessions.  The San people build temporary homes of grass, shaped like a beehive.  Families live in homesteads of these temporary shelters with members of their extended family.  Adolescent children often build their own huts next to their parents.  Larger bands disperse to hunt food in small family groups in the dry season.

The Gwikwe marry very young, 7-9 years for girls, 14 for boys.  Most marriages are monogamous though polygamy is allowed, and practiced according to wealth.  Marriage with cousins is preferred.  Children are given particular instruction on proper social behavior.

Discipline involves ridicule and corporal punishment.  Inheritance is patrilineal, and includes "land tenure" rights.  There is a minor initiation ceremony for girls only, and circumcision is not practiced for either sex.

Hunting is men's work, food gathering women's.  The children learn their roles from the adults of their sex.  The economy is changing rapidly, however, inmodern times.

Religion: The San are traditional tribal religionists, very closed to Christianity.  They see certain animals (especially the praying mantis) and celestial bodies (sun, moon, morning star, and the southern cross) as symbols of divinity.  The Gwikwe believe in a Creator God they call N!adima, who is generally remote, but can affect the rains.  They apparently have no practices of prayer, sacrifice or appeasement.  The name N!adima is the same as the word for sky, the home of the Creator and his wife N!adisa.

There is an evil being called G//amama, who shoots arrows of evil at the women, who then infect others in the band with their evil.  They practice a medicine dance around a sacred fire for healing.  The medicine dance also removes the evil absorbed from the evil arrows of G//amama.

Traditional religious practitioners were healers and diviners who read signs to determine guilt or punishment or to gain guidance.  They believe the dead go to a place under the earth, rather than the sky.  They do not believe in communication with the dead.

Christianity: Extremely isolated, the spirit-fearing Bushmen have largely been without any Christian witness until recent attempts by Reformed, Evangelical Lutheran, and Assemblies of God missionaries.  Some Bushmen tribes who began to settle down have responded well to the gospel, but many bands remain nomadic and difficult to contact.

The Gwikwe have been more responsive than some, probably due to the larger number associated with Tswana Christians.  Still their habitat in the Central Kalahari does not make it easy to establish and maintain contact for a gospel witness at their ethnographic center.

It is thought about 10% of the Gwikwe are Christian, while 90% continue to observe their Traditional Religion

Related Profiles
The !Kung Group
The Mbarakwengo
The Sandawe

For more on the SanInternet
Kxoe, Khwe, Xun
The Okavango Delta Peoples Of Botwana
Gwikwe - World Mission Centre

The Ethnologue
Barnard, Alan.  Hunters and Herders of South Africa.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Orville Boyd Jenkins
First written January 1997
Revised and first posted on OJTR 13 April 2006
Last Edited 23 April 2014

Copyright 1997, 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.
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