The Mbarakwengo Bushmen of the Kalahari
Population: 4000 in Namibia; about 10,000 in all countries (Ethnologue, 2005)
Religion: Traditional Nature Religion
Registry of Peoples code: Barakwena: 101038
Registry of Languages code (Ethnologue): Khoe (Xun): xuu
The Bushmen, or San, peoples live in the Kalahari Desert of East Namibia and West Botswana. The Mbarakwengo previously occupied the region around Babatwa, which is on the Namibian and Angolan border.
They moved south in 1975 to escape the civil war in the southeast region of Angola. The majority of the Mbarakwengo live in Botswana, fewer in Namibia and Angola. A very few live in Zambia.
The Mbarakwengo are relatives of the Hukwe Bushmen of Angola and part of the widely dispersed San people of southern Africa. Their territory includes the Western Caprivi Game Park and scattered settlements along the main tar road to Katima Mulilo.
Most of this territory extends 300 kilometres east and west, and 50 kilometres north and south. The Game park region is bordered on the north by Angola, and on the south by Botswana. The Mbarakwengo live in neighbouring areas of surrounding countries.
The San are traditionally a very mobile society. This is true today, even though national borders have stopped much of the greater migrations. Most Mbarakwengo Bushmen have a permanent dwelling place, but often move back and forth in their homeland in search of food and good fortune of relatives and friends. Many often stay only a few years in their permanent dwelling place, and then establish a new home where food of the forest is more abundant.
The San, called the Bushmen by the Dutch in South Africa, were the first people we know of in the Great Rift Valley of Africa. They came under pressure from Cushites, then Nilotes, then Bantu peoples.
The non-aggressive hunter-gathers often moved away or were absorbed by intermarriage, or more often by being killed off. The main body were gradually pushed south. Some San peoples seem to be in existence now speaking the Bantu language of their dominant neighbours.
In 1975, the war along the Angolan border between the South African Defense Force (SADF) and the Southwest Africa Peoples Organization (SWAPO) escalated greatly. During this time, the Mbarakwengo Bushmen were rounded up in the Western Caprivi Game Park and moved a "safe" distance from the border.
Many were inducted into the SADF and were stationed at Omega. Those not inducted into the SADF were told to live at Chetto. Later some were allowed to move further east, outside Katima Mulilo, in Bushman Camp and Waya-Waya at the Kasheshe area.
Following the independence and the withdrawal of the SADF, many Mbarakwengo returned back to their old homes in the Babatwa area, while others established a new village of Omega 3.
The Mbarakwengo Bushmen of Namibia are part of the larger people group of Hukwe Bushmen. Most of the Hukwe Bushmen are located on the far northern end of the Kalahari Desert.
At this point, the sands of the desert mingle with the three major rivers of the area and in the past provided good grass and woodlands for wildlife. This gained them the name of River Bushmen in older writings of the past. The Black Bushmen of Zambia are part of the same people. Relations with neighbouring groups are friendly, but the Mbarakwengo are lowest on the social ladder. They are governed by the tribal chief of the Mafwe.
Alternate names for the Mbarakwengo are Barakwengo, Kwengo, Gani, Khoedam and Barakwena. The Ethnologue name for their language is Khoe. Joshua Project lists them under the combined name Kxoe, Khwe, Xun. Some sources include this group with a larger grouping, while some further sub-divide their listing or this language-culture group of the San.
Even though there are about 55,000 Bushmen (San) in Southern Africa only one third of them continue their traditional nomadic lifestyles. Many of them were kidnapped and made to work in people's homes and on farms. These few people are divided into scattered groups of a few hundred to a few thousand, who cannot understand each others' languages.
Recent field investigations indicate that the population is near 4,000 in Namibia. Figures are difficult to obtain, but there are perhaps 11,000 in all countries. The Mbarakwengo of Namibia population figures have rapidly grown since 1975. All reports show only about 10% of the people being church members.
Experience shows that most of the Mbarakwengo of Namibia will claim church adherence and belief in Jesus, but that 10% or less understand what it means to become a Christian and live a Christian lifestyle. Less information is available from the other countries due to the changes in lifestyle related to modern society.
The language of the Mbarakwengo is called Xun in some lingusitic sources. The Ethnologue calls it Khoe, but gives Xun as an alternate name. It is a Khoisan language in the Tshu-Khwe branch. It is related to Gwi-Khwe and other Hukwe languages. Mbarakwengo (Xun) is not written in any form, and probably never will be. Literacy is very poor among the Mbarakwengo adults.
Many of the children and youth now attend schools and are learning to read primarily in Lozi and/or English. This is promising for the future. Church work among the Mbarakwengo Bushmen has been very slow due to the difficulty of the Bushman language. All church work has had to be done through interpretation and translation from a secondary language (Lozi, Afrikaans, English, Mbukushu).
Many of the men were inducted into the South African Defense Force (SADF), to fight the Namibian war against SWAPO (Southwest Africa People Organization). Others were forced to live in large villages of Omega and Chetto by the SADF. The Mbarakwengo and San as a whole are not politically active.
The Mbarakwengo live in traditional style mud and grass dwellings. They have been forced into large communities by lack of water and the government, which is an unfamiliar social setting. This has caused many new problems for the people, with alcoholism and AIDS being the greatest. Farming and ranching are new trades, as the Mbarakwengo have traditionally been hunters and gatherers.
Few of the Mbarakwengo have received enough education to read and write in secondary languages. Many of these have been enlisted to teach first and second grades at schools started by the Lutheran Church in the Game Park area.
These schools are supposed to be taken over by the government during 1996. Low literacy has lead to slow work among the Mbarakwengo by any church. The Bible and preaching must currently be translated from a secondary language into Xun.
Many droughts over recent years, along with government policies, have quickly moved the Mbarakwengo from a hunting and gathering culture into a welfare culture. While suffering from a harsh past, the Mbarakwengos' future is also bleak.
When a man is ready to marry, he usually goes to the woman's father with friends to ask abut marrying the woman. In the past, there was no malobalo (bride price), because there was no money or jobs. Often meat was shared with the family, and then the husband would remain with the wife's family for a few months to a year's time before returning to his family with his wife, or starting his own place. Today malobalo is practiced and a fair price is 3-5 goats, 3-4 cows or 200-500 Rands.
Only women attend a birth and help the mother giving birth. As soon as the baby is born, the men may come and visit. Babies are usually named after about one month, but there is nothing wrong to name them earlier. Babies are usually named for friends or family. Usually there is no ceremony or ritual practiced in naming a child.
When one dies, he is buried in a hole. People will bury some of the dead person's blankets and clothes with them. They will cover the hole with dirt, then place branches of the Mukumu tree on the grave. Some of the leaves and possibly the root will be taken home and put in water for the people who buried the person and the survivors to wash with.
The spirit of the dead goes to the heavens to await Judgment Day. There was no fear of spirits lingering around the home or on earth. Nothing is done differently for one who dies naturally, accidentally or by animal mauling or other means.
The Mbarakwengo will eat most animals, but there is a restriction on animals that are carnivorous. Animals like the lion and hyena are strictly not eaten. All fish may be eaten, but not crocodiles or the large water snake.
All birds may be eaten except those that eat dead flesh like buzzards, kites, eagles, etc. Snakes are also forbidden. It was agreed by all that if one ate these things he would certainly die. While one is not to eat these things, it is okay to eat any meat salvaged from one of their kills.
Food is not easy to obtain in the desert so many of the Bushmen are forced to live among the Negro population and the Europeans of southern Africa. In the desert their basic diet is melons, seeds, nuts, and antelope.
The Bushmen are traditional tribal religionists and they are very closed to Christianity. They see certain animals (especially the praying mantis) and celestial bodies (sun, moon, morning star, and the southern cross) as divinity.
The Mbarakwengo religious beliefs are primarily a dualistic belief system. They believe there are two "great chiefs" or gods. One is good, one is evil. There was no knowledge of them having wives.
Yasema is the powerful god of good who lives in the east. He makes the sun rise, he created all things, and he is the stronger god. Yasema is the one to call upon for healing. Spirits of the dead go to him and are judged by him. Spirits of the dead become his servants and provide the good things upon the earth. He sends the good and quiet rains that help all things to grow. Yasema is the father of all people on the earth.
Chevangani is the lesser god who is evil and lives in the west. He makes the sun set, and causes evil, sickness, and death. Chevangani has no helpers, but causes men, animals, and phenomena to have evil air (spirits). Those people who steal and kill have an evil spirit. Lions, hyenas, snakes, chameleons, and other animals have evil spirits in them.
Kakundakundas (dust devils, twisters) are from Chevangani and will cause one to die if it goes over them. Hard rain storms are caused by an evil spirit, but the author was told that a "bad black man" makes the bad rains. The Mbarakwengo of Chetto did not use the name Chevangani, but instead the Lozi name Shwa (in Lozi, this name means Destroyer, much like Apollyon of John's Revelation).
The traditional beliefs of the Mbarakwengo Bushmen are quickly being lost and evolving into a syncretised Christian belief system. The following scenario shows how Christian claims may be expressed in Mbarakwengo terms. The Mbarakwengo have no problem in claiming the Yasema is God and Chevangani is Satan. In fact to them it makes perfectly good sense in meshing the traditional beliefs with their new found Christian ones.
Chanima is the name given to Jesus. He is the son of God, Yasema lives in heaven with his servants and son, Jesus. He does not create like man does, but is powerful and command things to be done. The stars are very far away, while the moon and sun are near. The luminaries are this way because Yasema told them to be so.
Yasema made all things good, but Satan made them bad. One interesting statement made by the Mbarakwengo is that they had always known about Yasema because they had always known everything was made by him (Romans 1:20).
When one dies, the body stays in the earth and the spirits goes to a waiting place for judgment day. On Judgment Day all will be judged by God, the good will go to heaven and the bad will be burned with the earth. The good will stay in heaven until the earth is burned, they will return to live on a new earth. Rewards will be given, but they were unsure what this would be and who would receive them.
Sin is to make bad things, or do bad things. One will die forever if he sins if he sins. All people sin, but God knows those who are righteous. If one does sin, it is because he belongs to Satan. Baptism is done when one turns away from bad to live the good way. Trusting and having faith is knowing God will help one. God will help one. God will then take the bad things away and bring the good things.
Christianity is new to the Mbarakwengo. Sources report that about 8-10% of the Barakwengo are Christian. In the 1980's the Dutch Reformed Church (NGK) began to work among the Mbarakwengo in conjunction with the SADF about the time the SADF moved the Mbarakwengo to Omega and Chetto.
Few real converts were reported, but this work introduced the Mbarakwengo to Christianity and has made them favourable to church work, particularly social and welfare work. The Mbarakwengo say that there were once two NGK congregations located at Omega 3 and Omega, but it appears these ceased when the last NGK missionary was asked by the Namibian Home Affairs Office in 1993 to return to South Africa.
The Lutherans began work around 1992 in Chetto and Omega 3. Work began in these two locations with the provision of funds for education projects. School buildings and clinics were built at both sites, and teachers were provided from among the literate Mbarakwengo to teach first and second grade to both children and adults. These programs were turned over to the state in 1996. Church work did not begin with the Mbarakwengo until 1994, and is overseen by a pastor at Bagani.
The Baptists began work with the Mbarakwengo in 1986 at Waya-Waya. Church sites expanded from 1 to 6 by 1991 (two of which would later be lost to mobility of the Mbarakwengo), but all east of the Game Park.
From 1993 to 1995, work expanded again with the establishment of 6 new church sites in the Western Caprivi Game Park and an additional site east of the Game Park. In the mid 1990s, a non-literate technique of teaching called "Storying" was introduced. Baptists report no church work among the Mbarakwengo in the surrounding countries.
The current status of Evangelization of the Mbarakwengo is uncertain, as well as the current strength of the indigenous church among the Mbarakwengo. The CPPI (PeoplesGroups.org) keeps only one entry covering all San groups, thus information is not available on the specific peoples. This database also assigns only one of the many San languages to the whole group under that one entry. Thus specific information is not available by language, either.
The !Kung Group
For more on the Mbarakwengo
Kxoe, Khwe, Xun
The Okavango Delta Peoples Of Botwana
Stanley Dickard and Orville Boyd Jenkins
First written September 1996
Revised and first posted on OJTR 19 April 2006
Last updated 9 January 2014
Copyright © 1996, 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Please give credit and link back. Other rights reserved.