Beyond walking: an indigenous protest and pilgrimage
In the predawn darkness of the Eastern Cape village of Tamboekiesvlei a dozen people gather in a circle to send up an ancient chant “Gangan Tsi, !kho /kha bi, ti Elotse ti Elotse”. A smoldering bush of imphepho passes over each participant as they pray for safety. Within the hour they will be on the road to begin a 1000km journey, a walk for memory, identity and healing.
In 2013 a group of six activists, wearing traditional skins, walked from Mossel Bay to Cape Town in what would become the annual Indigenous Liberation Walk. They believe the Khoisan should be acknowledged in the Constitution as the First Nation of South Africa and that the state should make good on its signature to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
Over the years the spiritual pilgrimage has expanded. Each year the trail taken is different and this route took the group through the green hills of Fort Beaufort through the Great Karoo and the Limietberg mountains to the castle in the Mother City. It was created to spread awareness about the rights of the Indigenous Peoples of South Africa and this year two filmmakers, Sarah Summers and Kelly-Eve Koopman joined them to document the journey.
By noon on the first day of the walk, February 18, the summer heat brought temperatures as high as 36 degrees and the team had completed their first 25km stretch. No one is immune to the trials of the road, especially once blisters and sprained knees spread and there is two weeks of walking left to do. “The heat is actually worse than the distance,” said Summers.
Throughout the walk, the group split up into small teams to cover more ground. Each team of between two and four people walked at different intervals, being dropped off with a safety vehicle at different points along the route so that the group could collectively cover an average distance of between 50km and 150km per day.
Their comforts are simple after a long day of walking – shade, water, a peanut-butter sandwich. They are visibly hungry and fatigued, but filled with a sense of freedom. “The Spirit of the Walk is always testing us,” said /Ae /Uib, one of the activists.
“When you drive you don’t see all the beauty,” said veteran walker Neil Dikwex.
Yet for others the appeal of the landscape is bitter-sweet. “I wish I could be that bird” said !Xam David Isaacs. “Because he doesn’t know boundaries, he is just using the land to its fullest”.
The road provides a good opportunity for contemplation, but the emotions that surface are often raw. “Its very hard to think about all that has happened,” said Mounalis Olieslaager, reflecting on the centuries of oppression, exploitation and erasure that came with colonialism. “They speak about us but never to us. They want us to be healed but never say ‘What can we do?’”
The group asserts their cultural identity through the walk but many can remember when it was taboo. “When I was a boy and kids called me Bushman, I would beat them up, but I didn’t know why. My dad never talked about it, only when he fought with my mom would he say ‘I’m a bushman’” said !Xam. “One day I asked him hard questions and because of that I know who my tribe is, I know who I am. And I’m so lucky because most people didn’t ask their parents”.
Today he’s glad that people called him ‘Bushman’, ‘Hottentot’, ‘Gam’.
“Because at least it kept part of our identity going,” he said. “We have to dig very deep for the truth, as if we are digging for diamonds,” said Olieslaager.
It is their search for history and identity that fuels each step, and throughout their journey they interact with those passing by on the road. On one occasion they turned away a woman looking to purchase ‘muti’. She said she was searching for a cure for adultery. “We don’t do that kind of magic,” said !Xam.
“Speaking to people makes a difference because it changes their mindset so they start thinking about the world differently,” said Marius Abrahams. For Neal Hartman even the image of Khoi people walking on the national roads is not to be underestimated, “You are creating an image that is alive and a diverse representation of what a Khoi is today, so it’s no longer a dead culture”.
/Ae /Uib believes that by walking along the ancestral paths the group pulls lines of energy that connect the people and places they pass in a spiritual network. “The walk is the ritual,” he said.
“As brown South Africans we have a lot of healing to do. At a deeply spiritual level there is a lot that has to be done to push us towards a real freedom,” said Hartman.
The group would often camp or sleep on the floor whenever willing hosts would offer a roof for the night. Some hosts provided food along the way. A safety vehicle followed them the entire journey.
At the end of 12 days the journey came to a close with a ceremony at The Castle of Good Hope, the oldest colonial building in the city. Olieslaager calls it “The Castle of Pain”. The group usually walks seven times counterclockwise around the edifice, in an attempt to counteract the negative spiritual influence they believe it has on the country.
In the glaringly bright noon of March 1, the songs and prayers that filled the evenings throughout the walk are lifted for the last time outside a Khoisan kraal which was included in the castle last year to draw attention to its history. There are only a few onlookers to welcome them. The journey ends as nondescriptly as it began; except that the people in the circle are clearly changed. “You know we had such a beautiful culture. I’ll never understand what was done to us. We could have maybe saved the world by teaching them how to care for the earth and the animals”, said !Xam.
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