Looking for Life

At the beginning of March, I returned to New Xade for an extended visit.

Someone in the community had recently passed away, and the funeral was scheduled for the same weekend I arrived. The day before the ceremony, I went to the cemetery to help dig the grave. A dozen of us took a couple of shovels and picks and, after marking the appropriate spot, started digging, rotating out when our arms or backs wearied. We started at two in the afternoon and finished just before sundown.

Digging the grave in New Xade.

The grave was two and a half meters deep, well above my head. Unfortunately, at some point in the process, I threw out my back. I still managed to attend the funeral, but filming using the shoulder mount was out of the question, at least for a couple of days.

Initially, I was bummed, but people had appreciated my participation. During the digging, a couple of guys laughed. “Lekgoa – the white man – works hard,” they said. Others mentioned that I was the first white to help them dig a grave. My honest desire to be a part of their lives built trust, which paved the way for productive fieldwork despite the injury.

Throwing out my back allowed me to refocus my efforts. Rather than shooting observational material, I had to rely on the tripod, which meant conducting interviews.

I traveled around the community and set up meetings with members of the older generation, people who had been born and raised in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve – those who remember the hunting and gathering lifestyle and miss it dearly. At first, a lot of them had rejected the idea of being interviewed, but now they were more open.

They told me beautiful stories about how their mothers traversed the bush in search of wild potatoes and how their fathers tracked and roasted steenboks, small antelope.

Freeze frame from an interview

They told me about the happiness that dancing brought them and the deep spiritual meaning that it possessed.

Freeze frame from an interview

They told me about walking on their soil and the pride they felt when they visited the pans – shallow seasonal waterholes – their ancestors had named.

Freeze frame from an interview

But as they said all this, I sensed bitterness in their voices. I was not surprised when many also told me:

“Now, we are looking for life.”

Their stories put into context the enormous change that their people have undergone in a short amount of time. More importantly, though, their stories reveal a feeling that is common to almost all who live in New Xade: a restless search for identity.

Very few members of the younger generation yearn to return to the life before, but they, too, feel uneasy, as if something might be missing. Unlike the older generation who channel uneasiness into declarations of returning home, young San channel it into ideas about how to redefine themselves and embrace the future.

Young men like Ketelelo, Kitsiso, and Opaletswe share this incredible burden of shaping their new culture. They are all looking for life, searching for how to reinvent themselves and their people in the wake of relocation.

This concept will form the core of my film, now with the working title, Looking for Life.



Meet the Author
Daniel Koehler, of New York City, is one of five grantees selected from among 864 applicants for a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, which is the first of its kind. He will film a documentary on the San living near the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana, focusing on the loss and change of their culture.