A Natural Wonder
The Zambezi River
The Victoria Falls
Ecology of the Victoria Falls
Formation of the Victoria Falls
People of the Victoria Falls
Enter the Ndebele
Discovery of the Victoria Falls
In Livingstone's Footsteps
Development of the Rhodesias
Development of the Railway
Development of Tourism
Development of Victoria Falls Town
Recent History
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To The Victoria Falls

People of the Victoria Falls

The San

The influence of the San bushmen can still be seen in many of the peoples and cultures of South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, and historically these people occupied much of the greater southern African region, including Zimbabwe, and whose ancestors produced the fine rock-paintings which can be found in caves and rock shelters over much of the sub-continent.

Living traditional and sustainable hunter-gather life-styles, and being almost completely nomadic, moving from area to area with the seasons, temporary huts and shelters were only built as protection at times of inclement weather, such as from nightly rain storms during the warm spring - a period when they moved constantly in search of budding plants - or to formalized ring groupings when they congregated in the dry season around the only permanent waterholes or when a period of locally plentiful food and water could support a family group for a period of time.

Fruits and edible roots were collected and animals hunted, but they had no domesticated animals nor did they cultivate crops. Meat was most important in the dry months and villages became concentrated around waterholes, when wildlife could never range far from receding waters. The tsama melon (Citrillus lunatus) is food and water for man and animal, and the roots of many species can be pounded to obtain liquid, some bitter and unpleasant to taste but an invaluable source of water in a thirsty climate. Wild beans, seeds, small and large bird eggs and especially the mungongo nut (Ricinodendron rautanenii) all supplement a limited diet. The nut is a staple of the northern Kalahari San diet, with the kernel, rich in oil, being pounded and made into a porridge. Early spring was the hardest season, after autumn nuts had been exhausted, although the very hard shell allowed storage for all-year round availability.

Also available at different times of year on the sand ridges along the Zambezi are the red outer skin of the muzaule (Guibourtia coleosperma) and the fruits of the mabuyu (Parinari curatellifolia), of the baobab (Adansonia caffra) and mulombelombe or African orange (Strychnos struhlmannii). Amongst the riverine fringes the fan palm nut (Hyphaenae ventricosa). The fruit of the mutoya, or Batrose plum (Syzygium guineese), the mangostein (Garcinia livingstoneik), muchenje (Diospyros mespiliformis) and also wild figs and dates. Water lily bulbs and young stems of papyrus are also important food sources and orange spiny bush cucumbers are numerous along the riverside in the latter part of the dry season.

The seasonally flooded dambos also support good stands of wild grasses such as Echinochloa colona and Brachiaria brizantha which with others are still regularly collected by the Tonga people of the middle Zambezi Valley.

Because of their nomadic way of life, cultural objects were few, consisting of simple clothing made from animal skins, often from antelope species, sometimes decorated with beads cut from ostrich shell - which were also used to make necklaces and belts - together with the shell of a large snail (Achatina spp), which were strung and sewn onto the leather. Blankets and bags were also made from softened skins, sewn with sinew and often decorated with shell beads. Water containers were also made from ostrich egg shells and small tortoise shells were used for carrying cosmetic powders and snuff. Specularite, a glittering mineral and flakes of mica, was sprinkled on the hair of the women.

For hunting, the bow was of paramount importance, but trapping by snares was also used. Bows were made from wood and strung with sinew, and the arrows were made from reeds with bone link sticks and tips (in more recent times small pieces of metal were used as tips). Because the arrows were often poisoned, the point was either reversed in the reed shaft or carried in a band around the head. A scratch from a poisoned arrow would almost certainly have resulted in the death of the hunter. The poisons have many different ingredients, but all appear to have as the main constituent the juice obtained from the larva of a species of scarab beetle. San from the northern Kalahari to this day also use Swartzia seeds for this purpose. Quivers were made from the bark of trees, or sometimes dried skin bound with sinew and the bottom sealed with leather.

Bark from trees was also processed to make bark cloth, which was used up to advent of calico material in 1800s. Made from Brachystegia boehmii [mubombo (Lozi/Tonga)], and collected after rains - the bark is too dry before - the tree was either felled or the bark removed with the tree still standing. It was then stretched and beaten on a flat log with heavy duty grooved wooden mallets to soften the rough surface, and finally soaked in a dye and decorated. The bark was also made into containers, canoes, shafts etc. Modern uses include extraction of fibres to make ropes.

Musical bows were made producing soft notes amplified by a dried tsama melon (Citrillus lunatus) skin as a sounding box. Today metal wire usually replaces the ligament sinew bow string.

Despite pressures from living is such a harsh climate, and of modern African and European influences, many San continued living traditional lifestyles well into the 20th Century, especially in Botswana and Namibia, although often persecuted for their culture and displaced from their traditional hunting lands. Today a small minority of the San still live in marginal parts of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa (and also Angola, Zimbabwe and Zambia) where they continue their traditional lifestyles.

There are a few Masarwa and Hukwe bush people still living traditional lives in parts of Zimbabwe and across southern Africa increased recognition and attention is beginning to be given to their cultural traditions and rights.

Next page: Tonga Traditions

Life and Death at the Old Drift, Victoria Falls 1898-1905

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'To The Victoria Falls' aims to bring you the wonder of the Victoria Falls through a look at its natural and human history.

This website has been developed using information researched from a wide variety of sources, including books, magazines and websites etc too numerous to mention or credit individually, although many key references are identified on our References page. Many of the images contained in this website have been sourced from old photographic postcards and publications and no infringement of copyright is intended. We warmly welcome any donations of photographs or information to this website.

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