‘Nicely’: Insights into successful living from the hunting grounds of the |xam

Chris Low

‘Nicely’: Insights into successful living from the hunting grounds of the |xam

People from many small and deeply rural communities have to be self-sufficient, but few more so than tiny indigenous communities who live entirely off the land in challenging environments, just as the |xam and their ancestors did in South Africa for so many thousands of years. When thinking about people like the |xam, it is common to talk about their skills of hunting or fire making or their extremely impressive knowledge of animal and plant resources. What is perhaps less talked about is what else it takes for them to live successfully, relying only on the attributes of twenty or so people in their group and the natural resources around them.

There is an English word that features repeatedly in the Lloyd and Bleek archive which leads us to a more rounded and subtle way of thinking about what it takes to live as the |xam did, and indeed about what is involved in making our own lives more or less successful. That word is ‘nicely’, a word principally significant to many English speakers simply for its lack of significance. Many English speakers will have been taught from an early age that they can use a better, more meaningful and less lazy word than ‘nice’ and, by implication, the adverbal form ‘nicely’. Given this abhorrence of the word, it is intriguing that it persistently crops up in San material translated into English from such diverse San languages as Afrikaans, Ju|’hoan to G|ui.

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Online from: 29 Nov 2021

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In the Lloyd and Bleek archive we find the word cropping up in such contexts as: speaking nicely; clever children understanding nicely; placing porcupine quills nicely on the ground so the wind does not blow them away; dance rattles working nicely; or a young woman working the rain nicely. These usages of the word are essentially the same as those that crop up in other San translations. Seeing nicely, hearing nicely, talking nicely and doing something nicely are the key ideas.

The temptation may be to recognise ‘nicely’ as such a simple and familiar idea that it barely warrants any notice. However, the way and frequency with which |xam and other San say something that repeatedly becomes translated as ‘nicely’ alerts us to the fact that there is more going on. So too does the word’s occasional appearance in the Lloyd and Bleek archive in inverted commas, as if the translators would rather use something more profound but are reluctantly sticking to the literal sense for the sake of accuracy.

Being self-reliant and having to rely on your relationship with your community for everything requires a certain sort of behaviour, which is what the word nicely represents. If a San group is to survive, the group must function as a mutually supportive unit, requiring the maintenance of social harmony. If tempers rise or ill will festers, people not only fail to function well, but violence can easily follow.  Doing things nicely in this context is about behaving properly and having good manners. The word sits in a web of ideas and practices that San use to constantly bring each other into a safe and functional social mood. A further part of this web includes talking through metaphors that avoid saying something too sharply or aggressively. Holding a ‘healing dance’ is the ultimate mechanism for trying to diffuse social tensions when emotions become really serious and people get hurt. A healing dance works nicely with a troubled group by resolving social tensions. This sense of nicely brings sharing and healing to wider contexts of listening and talking to others and treating one another with respect. Acting nicely requires being sensitive and ‘in tune’.

A second key way in which the word nicely is used moves the importance of care and mood more towards the performance of tasks. Making poisoned arrows nicely means making sure you have no cuts on your hands for the poison to enter, concentrating whilst making the arrows and not chatting wildly, not leaving poisoned arrows lying around to be stepped or fallen on, and handling the arrows correctly on their way into and out of the quiver.

Just as San men must know how to look after and use their arrows safely, so too do San women have ways of making sure their days go well. When San women are looking for fruits or nuts in the bush, they will probably be working in a small group of a few older women, younger women and babies. If they are walking and one of them spots a beautiful bush covered in desirable nuts, it would be wrong for that individual to run to that bush and try to take all the nuts for themselves. The first thing they must do is stop and tell the others. Then the group members assess whether it is safe to head to that bush – who else is there? Snakes, lions, elephants?  Then, if they agree it is safe, they move together to share the bounty.

Making a fire nicely is a very good example of what the word means, because fire making requires not only the right knowledge, but also the right use of the body and the right attitude. Suitable tools and fuel must be prepared for the task, and producing flames requires real sensitivity, will, dedication and focus. Moreover, San fire-making is normally a task for two and hence requires co-operation. Making a fire nicely means bringing all these things together to produce the desired result. To do something nicely is therefore to behave in ways that encourage the best outcome – not just for the individual, but for the group.

San ancestry stretches back thousands of years, and it is not unreasonable to see real continuities between their ancestry and some of the earliest peoples to have emerged in Africa well over 150,000 years ago. Doing things nicely has clearly worked. Doing things nicely  is perhaps something all of us should remember a little more as the old ways disappear.

‘…and it feels like there’s more than one python down there.’ The python had given birth in the bottom of the spring. ‘Now go to the camp’,said the giraffe, ‘and find something to spread out on the ground. Then bring them back here and fix the nicely‘.

 From p. 127 of Megan Biesele’s Women like meat.

I greet him quietly as I approach his fire, ‘Tsamkwa /tge?… Are your eyes nicely open?’ I ask Kiri kwa /tga,’ he replies, my eyes are nicely open.

From p. 138 of Paul Myburgh’s The Bushman winter has come.

Chris Low has spent over two decades working in various university-based research capacities among San and Khoekhoe across southern Africa. He is the author of numerous articles and books and has taught African history and anthropology at a number of UK universities. In 2004 he completed his University of Oxford DPhil on Khoisan healing. Following this, his research interests evolved into broader questions about spirituality, well-being and human ecology. In 2014 Chris was asked to lead the setting up of a San heritage centre at !Khwa ttu, near Cape Town. He has been the Museum Director of !Khwa ttu San Heritage Centre since 2018. Prior to his work among San and Khoekhoe, Chris studied archaeology and the history of medicine. Before this, he qualified and practised as an osteopath and acupuncturist. 

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Online from: 29 Nov 2021

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