The pretty, honey-skinned girl from Calvinia tried to fit in. Coming from a family of teachers and preachers, she attempted to do what was expected – began studying social work, joined the United Building Society and became a hostess on a Translux bus.
There was, however, a strange restlessness in Belinda Kruiper’s blood, a searching for something she couldn’t name. She married a Mauritian, incurring family disapproval, and travelled up through Africa to Europe with him. But she found he was no less violent than her preacher father and the relationship fell apart. Conventional society just wasn’t working for her: she needed to get away.
It was impossible, when I met her, to guess her age. She’s small, with the quick movements of a teenager, an impression reinforced by a colourful shirt, tight jeans and a jaunty cap. Her face is elf-like with an easy grin, but her eyes have a depth and wisdom that could have come only from pain and long experience.
‘After the breakup, I wanted to get to some remote place,’ she said, ‘as far away as I could. I needed a place to lick my wounds.’ She applied for and got a job at the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, cut her long hair to a spiky topknot, bought tough Cat boots and headed for the wilds.
The Kalahari proved to be balm for her soul. In the park’s reception office, however, her confidence and complete disregard for entrenched racial prejudices immediately raised eyebrows. But it wasn’t long before Belinda’s competence and sunny nature won over most of the white staff.
‘I loved being at the park,’ she remembered. ‘I loved the desert surroundings, the bigness of the sky, the startling red dunes, the distinctive camel thorn trees. And they gave me a nice house with a cactus tree in the garden.’
One cold day, Belinda looked out and saw a little old man with dreadlocks wearing nothing but a goatskin loincloth and a threadbare jersey. He was shivering. ‘I went outside and introduced myself. He said he was Dawid Kruiper. I invited him into reception to have some coffee and warm up.’
After he’d gone, a staff member said to her: ‘You’re going to get into trouble. You can’t invite Bushmen in here. It’s the land claim thing.’ Dawid was a member of the #Khomani Bushmen who’d been forced out when the park was proclaimed and were claiming it back.
Unlike most of the staff, who felt this was a threat to their jobs, Belinda became intrigued. Who were these people who drifted in over the dunes in rags? She began inviting them to her house and visiting their village, Welkom, outside the park. There she met the Riverbed Kids, as she called them. They weren’t kids but young men who sat along the road to the park making beads and trinkets for sale to tourists.
They were often painfully thin, often unwell and drank too much, but they were free people, rebels who answered to nobody and still lived in the old ways, coming and going as they pleased without regard for fences and often causing havoc.
Belinda looked beyond this and saw people of the spirit, strong in sacred knowledge, gifted in healing, able to call rain and access the potency of trance. She was enthralled. ‘They opened up to me as if I was one of them,’ she said, ‘accepting me without reservation, giving me their unconditional love.’ Also in the village was the wise old shaman, Dawid Kruiper.
Belinda enjoyed her work with the park, but her relationship with the Bushmen was causing tensions. A senior ranger warned her that her visits to the Bushmen were ‘like dancing round the fires of Satan’. She was thought to be siding with them in their land claim – and their presence around Twee Rivieren reception ‘bothering’ tourists didn’t help.
What shocked her was the often vicious discrimination against them. ‘The #Khomani had this incredible wealth of knowledge which could have been so valuable to tourism and park management, but the official attitude was that they were not worthy enough and just dronklappe (drunkards). Vetpiet, who was probably Africa’s best tracker, was never given promotion because he couldn’t write. He once said to me: “I can read the book of the world but here I get treated as nothing.”‘
In March 1999, the contradictions became untenable and Belinda resigned from the park. ‘It was becoming increasingly clear to me that I couldn’t continue to live such a divided life, torn between the Bushmen and my job,’ she said. ‘Management couldn’t believe that my involvement with the Bushmen was based on friendship and love and this put me under a permanent cloud of suspicion.’
She moved to the village and joined the South African San Institute (SASI) as a field worker. Under the wise, although incidental, tutoring of Dawid Kruiper, her life seemed to somersault. Strange things began chipping away at her Western logic.
One morning she stopped her vehicle to watch a herd of wildebeests, sitting with her chin resting on her arms. The antelope stopped milling around and formed a V behind a large black bull, which stepped forward straight to the open window and pushed his nose against hers. Then it wheeled and walked away.
On another occasion, when she was walking over the dunes, a pale chanting goshawk flew from behind, touching her shoulder with its wing, and snatched a snake from under her feet, moments before she would have stood on it. For her, at first, these were coincidences. For the Bushmen, they were signs, omens and indicators.
One night she dreamed of a herder named Vetkat. ‘I was standing on the banks of a dark river in which a figure was lying. A second figure stepped over him, the water rippled and there was blood. I said: “People are trying to kill Vetkat. Why him, who comes and goes like the wind?” I awoke with a pain in my heart. I hardly knew him at the time.’
When she told someone about the dream, they said Vetkat had also dreamed about her and saw her crying. They said in this way the two had been united in marriage by the ancestors. She dismissed it as rubbish, but their hearts defied her logic and they were drawn together into a beautiful harmony. Shortly afterwards, they married.
Vetkat’s daily life may have been herding, but he was both a shaman and an artist. Although untutored, he produced strange, beautiful paintings, reclaiming the lost traditions of Bushman rock art. ‘The drawings that poured out of him was the ancient art of his forefathers,’ said Belinda, ‘the sacred gift of spirit.’
The marriage, however, caused unexpected problems. There was jealousy among the #Khomeni about an ‘outsider’ marrying into the Kruiper clan and her job with the San Institute was mysteriously terminated. She and Vetkat went to live in a grass hut on a farm named Blinkwater.
‘It was a time of wonder and learning,’ Belinda recalled, ‘but also of great hardship. There was a drought and we had no money and no means of earning. I was sitting with Vetkat’s sister and we were down to a bit of sugar and coffee. I was freaked out and began bitching about the Bushmen and their fatalism. She just told me to tighten the belt around my stomach and wait, because something would turn up just as long as we kept the fire going. And it did. A friend drove up with a carload of food.’
Belinda began to understand that the Kalahari had to remake her and, in the process, deprive her of resources, status and ego. ‘I had to take on the pain of the Kalahari people,’ she said. ‘Now I understand what it’s like to live with nothing, to become a person with no capacity and no resources, broken down to the shell of myself and feel hunger clawing at my insides. I’ve looked over the edge of the abyss and learned that my will to survive is the strongest force there is.’
Vetkat kept painting and people began to notice. One interviewer described him as ‘one of those who walks between the worlds – his art is sacred because it’s the spirit of the ancient ones and of the desert itself.’ Belinda and Vetkat were given flights to travel to the United States and share experiences with indigenous people there. Tourists visited them and film crews followed.
Belinda, meanwhile, was struggling with the deteriorating situation among the #Khomani in the village. They won their land claim in March 1999, but it was tied up in bureaucracy and managed by outsiders. On the ground nothing was happening. The Riverbed Kids were drinking and fighting. Arguments were breaking out about leadership and property rights.
‘I drink because I feel like a caged animal,’ a Bushman named Sillikat told a researcher at the time. ‘In the old days, when we disagreed, we’d split up. But we can’t move, can’t go anywhere except the road. So we drink and when we drink, the anger comes and we fight.’ And without the possibility of hunting, they were starving.
‘It was heartbreaking,’ said Belinda. ‘There were all these meetings and paperwork, but the Bushmen’s souls were withering. Their dignity was being missed.’ One of the Riverbed men told her: ‘We are lost, beyond help. Please look after our children.’
‘The Bushmen just needed space, to be left alone,’ she said. ‘But they’ve never been allowed to be just people like everyone else. They’re always a symbol, an exhibit, a display item on somebody’s agenda. That’s where their spirit stays trapped, between the truth and the lie, the myth and the reality. Frozen in the amber of the past.’
Belinda dreamed of a school to reintroduce the children to their ancestral art and teach them bushlore and tracking. She travelled to Botswana and spent time with a shaman named Besa who, in a trance dance, took her to spiritual heights she’d never imagined possible. She learned to stop demanding logical explanations and trust the Bushman way.
‘The desert teaches you to think differently,’ she said, ‘to be more open to what is less tangible, to the world of spirit. Things happen here that have no logical explanation. A different energy holds.’
Then, unexpectedly, Vetkat died of lung complications. While he was being buried, a huge male lion appeared on a dune and watched – accepting his spirit, Belinda believes. ‘One day,’ she said, ‘I’ll walk up to a lion. It has become my totem.’
She refused to give up, working tirelessly to set up centres for art in the Kalahari and Botswana. ‘I’m going to be here until the Bushmen are wandering in the park again like they used to,’ she said. ‘Who knows how long it’s going to take? But when it happens, I’ll be there.
‘Sometimes I look back along the road I have travelled and I wonder: why that way? And why me? What was the role I was chosen for? The end of the story hasn’t been written yet. What was foretold has not yet come to pass.’
Postscript: The #Khomani leader Dawid Kruiper died last year and Belinda moved to Botswana where she works for the rights of ‘wild’ Bushmen in Southern Africa. With writer Elana Bregin she co-authored a book about her life: Kalahari Rain Song (University of KwaZulu-Natal Press). She was a finalist in two awards for South African Woman of the Year. The Bushmen are still not roaming free in Kgalagadi.
See an interview with Belinda below:
Bushmen of the Kalahari
*All images © Don Pinnock.