My storyteller falls silent, staring at the distant smudge-blue mountains. Sitting on the still-warm rocks, he is a ‘there-not there’ presence beside me.
The sun sets quickly here. Now the great African moon, reclining serenely on her back, casts a soft glow over the darkening veld.
All is still.
Soon the broad African sky is star-pricked velvet. Orion, the hunter, with his belt of three she-tortoises hanging on a stick, stalks across the western sky. The frothy plume of the Milky Way is a handful of ashes, cast into the sky by a Bushman girl to light the way for her people to return home.
Long, long ago was that past-time when the great herds roamed the plains: springbok in their multitudes, steenbok, kudu, eland and wildebeest. Then there were lions and elephants in the veld; and jackals, wild dogs and hyenas; great giraffes and rhino, small hares and porcupines. Now only their ghosts remain, painted on the cave walls behind me.
A huge 4×4, lights ablaze, erupts across the highway below, shattering the silence. My storyteller shakes himself and stands. He turns to me, nods and walks away.
“Come sit and write down the story of the old San man,” he says. “Before it’s too late, before the story gets lost.” He wags his finger at me. “Stories are like the wind, they float away to another place unless you write them down.”
“Tell me the story of the old San man then.”
He nods and settles himself more comfortably on the sun-warmed rock and begins.
“When the moon is full and the land is parched and dry, the San man comes. He comes when the spirits call him. Old as the hills, yet he walks tall and straight; his eyes are clear and bright. Dressed in a long blanket and pushing his hand cart. All he has is in that hand cart.”
“He travels from place to place as his people have always done; although few are left. They say: ‘When you lose your land, you lose everything. When the animals are gone, the people are gone.’ And so it is.”
“He visits the places where the rocks still speak and the air is alive with the spirits.”
My storyteller strokes the smooth rock on which we are sitting. I’ve seen the rock art in the cave behind us: faded pictures in ochre and red, showing animals and people.
“He comes to perform his rituals; to perform the trance dance, the dance in which men become animals and their souls travel far, far away, and it is said if they stay away too long, they never return.”
My storyteller stares off into the distance.
“Once, long ago, when I was a still a boy, I followed him.” He turns and points. “I hid behind that big rock and watched, thinking I was unseen.” He pauses, nodding slowly, his body swaying gently, as if he’s listening to a song.
I grow impatient. “Go on, what did you see?”
“As the sun slipped behind the mountain, he lit the fire he had built, just down there, on that patch of bare earth. Then, as the fire took hold, he began to shuffle around the fire; his feet scuffing the dirt, raising little eddies of dust. The dance began, he raised his arms and threw back his head and started to chant. Then the chanting stopped; he spun around and looked at me, beckoning me to come.”
He looks over to the mountain, where the sun is almost gone. His voice is a whisper.
“I was afraid, but I went. He took my hand and I followed him in the dance. And then I was flying like an eagle, looking down from the sky at me and the San man dancing far below me. I saw the San man turn to me and put his hand over my heart and I felt his spirit too, running with the springbok, the kudu and the eland; the great herds of the plains.”
The storyteller fell silent.
“What happened next?”
“It started to rain. Out of a clear sky, it started to rain.”
Capturing the Rain Animal is an important mythological and symbolic aspect of the rock art of the San People. Read more…