Book review: The dustiest family secret

2013-06-02 14:01

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What Dawid Knew is the culmination of an extraordinary journey Patricia Glyn took with the Kruiper family and their elected leader, 76-year-old Dawid Kruiper (who preferred to be called a Bushman and not a San, for reasons well-explained in the book).

Dawid was the closest thing the Khomani people had to a king and, in the last months of his life, he asked Glyn to assist him in a journey into the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park to visit almost-forgotten locations of great significance to the Bushmen people: where they had been born, lived and died, mystical spots and hallowed hunting grounds, and even places where important colonial battles in Namibian history were fought.

Of course, from the outset, you’re wondering what the big family secret Dawid knows might be – and you’re hoping it will be worth the intrigue Glyn develops around it as the narrative unfolds.

But her observations about the Khomani people, both past and present, from Dawid’s legendary grandfather Makai through to his own grandchildren, are fascinating enough on their own, simply as a window into this group of people.

And how full of curious contradictions they are: on the one hand, they seem utterly ravaged by alcoholism after losing their traditional hunter-gatherer way of life after eviction from the Kalahari.

On the other, they’re still keenly in touch with their traditions, bushcraft and beliefs – a convincingly spiritual people who seem not entirely of this earthly realm, and touched by magic.

The story of the Khomani land claim also casts a light on a lesser known aspect of South Africa’s transition from apartheid.

After their eviction from the Kalahari, the Bushmen were forced to survive, in part, by working as “tourist attractions”, trackers or “selling” themselves to an endless stream of film makers, academics and researchers always eager to learn about them and from them.

After South Africa’s new Constitution was drafted, the long process of proving their claim in the desert began and the government finally granted them 25?000 hectares inside the national park, in which they could presumably live according to their traditional way of life.

They were also granted farms outside the park, but mostly ended up living in a ghetto-like settlement about 100km away.

At the start of the book, most of Dawid’s family had never been into the park, and the trip with Glyn was partly Dawid’s way of reintroducing his family to their heritage and trying to preserve his legacy.

Along the way, the endlessly determined and resourceful Glyn (she mortgaged her house to finance the project) finally realises just how much she has to do to earn the Kruipers’ trust and respect.

And by the time she and Dawid do reach the spot deep into the Kalahari that is the site of Dawid’s secret, Glyn ensures her readers will have learnt what they need to know of Bushman history and its tragic impact on these people.

It makes it easier to understand why what Dawid finally tells her is so significant and such a brave secret to at last share with an outsider.

What Dawid Knew by Patricia Glyn

Picador Africa

236 pages; R220

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