The first time I saw Cobra Keipeile’s face, it was in a photograph, stuck onto an office wall in Cape Town, two thousand kilometres from the Kalahari.
I stared at his face, etched with lines like mopane bark, and suddenly I was no longer in a city.
Instead it seemed like I’d been teleported into the middle of the Kalahari desert. Instead of an office ceiling with fluorescent lights, there was blazing sunshine framed by thunderclouds. There was no incessant hum of traffic, just the roaring silence of an ancient land.
The photo of Cobra entranced me, a sort of hypnosis that plucked me from my urban life and threw me into the rawness of an African wilderness.
And so when I do meet Cobra in person, it’s as if my daydream has come true. We’re on the edge of Makgadikgadi Pans, and there’s a thunderstorm brewing on the horizon. And all around is the immense space of the Kalahari.
Cobra has graciously agreed to let me photograph and interview him.
I’m not the first photographer wanting to meet Cobra. He’s already quite famous, appearing in travel and lifestyle magazines around the world, including GQ in the USA.
The irony strikes me. I wonder how the average GQ male model with six-pack and coiffured hair would do out here in the Kalahari.
Like all traditional Bushmen, Cobra knows almost every inch of his land. The Kalahari is one of the harshest landscapes on Earth, yet he is at ease here. He knows the movements and habits of wild animals like a New Yorker knows the subway. He can hunt his own food, find his own water, make a fire, protect his family from predators…
Cobra is the living embodiment of a people – and a continent – from which everyone on Earth arose. His ancestors have lived in this region of Africa for 200 000 years, the longest continuous human culture.
In a way, the Bushmen are a bridge back to the source of all humanity. I’ve always intellectually understood this fact, and appreciated it, but as I’m chatting to Cobra in person, there’s a strangely powerful emotional impact.
Cobra’s home language is Shuakhwe, a distinct Bushman dialect from this part of Botswana. For our interview, he’s speaking Setswana, and guide Dennis Letshwiti is translating for me.
“My name is Xhao,” Cobra says, “This means snake in my language.”
“I like playing with snakes,” Cobra tells me, as we sit on a blown-over palm tree on the edge of Ntwetwe Pan. “I used to catch snakes all the time as a child. My favourite snake is a cobra.”
Cobra is unsure of his age, but he reckons he’s about 70, born in 1950 “somewhere around here.” He gestures out across the pans, somewhere to the south of the Makgadikgadi Pans.
He remembers growing up with about 30 family members, all part of the Shuakhwe clan of Bushmen that used to live in this part of the Kalahari.
His father was Choboe and his mother Keipeile. His wife’s name is Manchane, and she lives in Gweta, an hour’s drive north of Jack’s Camp where Cobra has lived and worked for the past 50 years.
“I married her long ago, I can’t remember when.”
His two older brothers and three older sisters have passed away.
“I’m one of the last Shuakhwe,” Cobra says.
As a child he and his siblings used to catch little animals, and soon started hunting larger ones, like kudu, impala and springbok, using bow and arrow, with poison derived from the larvae of Diamphidia simplex beetles.
“We could hunt four or five animals every day if we wanted to,” Cobra remembers. “Eland was my favourite animal to eat. Lots of fat. I don’t know when I will die, but on my last day, I want to eat mpofu, the eland.”
In the 1960s, Cobra happened to meet Jack Bousfield, who ran a zoo and animal orphanage in Francistown. Cobra’s experience with animals landed him a job, catching small animals and birds.
“Bushbabies were the most difficult, because they live in trees and we’d have to climb up into the branches. And they used to bite us when we caught them!”
In the 1960s when Jack started his safari camp in the north of Ntwetwe Pan, Cobra went along to help build it. Since then, Jack’s Camp has been his home.
Jack’s is also the temporary home of a family of Ju/’hoansi Bushmen from the western border of Botswana, near Namibia. With their agreement and co-operation, they come to live at Jack’s Camp for three months at a time – and get paid to do so.
Together with the Ju/’hoansi, Cobra leads guests on walks into the Kalahari.
“We show them different plants, different animals,” explains Cobra. “How to find water, how to start a fire. How we live.”
Cobra speaks a different dialect to the Ju/’hoansi. But they are all Bushmen, a term they prefer to San, which is considered a pejorative among Africa’s first people.
As a Bushmen, he is one of probably only 100 000 left in Southern Africa. Once they lived all across the region, and numbered several times that figure.
With the influx of Bantu people from central Africa, and colonial forces from Europe, they were either systematically shot and killed, or pushed off their land by pastoralists.
Those that weren’t killed were enslaved and forced to work on farms. Within five hundred years, the most ancient people on Earth had been reduced to a few small clans, many of whom had no choice but to abandon their traditional ways of living.
At Jack’s Camp, the Bushmen traditions are proudly continued, and Cobra’s knowledge and skills are revered. He continues to teach other guides – and guests.
Ralph Bousfield has known Cobra since the 1960s, when they both lived at Jack’s Camp. As a young boy, Ralph grew up alongside Cobra and the Bushmen that lived in the Makgadikgadi region.
Cobra was Ralph’s mentor, teaching him how to track and how to hunt.
Later, the older man took Ralph into remote areas of central and western Kalahari to live with different clans of Bushmen, where the young man was initiated into Bushman culture, part of which involved going into trance.
“Cobra’s been an incredibly important person in my life,” says Ralph. “He’s always been there.”
Because of Cobra, Ralph learnt the importance of knowing oneself.
“Cobra has always been his own man,” says Ralph. “I’ve never met anyone who is so completely at peace with who they are. He is the ultimate guru.”
“He has not changed since I knew him as a young boy. During the bad old days when most people looked down on the bushmen, Cobra was always proud of who he was.”
I take a few more photographs of Cobra. He’s a natural in front of the lens.
Perhaps he’s used to tourists with cameras. Or perhaps it’s because he feels at home here, in the Kalahari.
When he walks, he seems to glide, even if he’s an older man now. And those piercing eyes – those same ones that seemed to teleport me from a city office to the Kalahari – don’t miss a thing.
Like a wild animal, his situational awareness is exceptional. He points out the faintest track of a mouse, the slightest smell of an herb, the smallest detail of animal activity.
I’m from Africa. I was born and raised on the continent, and have travelled to several countries.
But Cobra is of Africa. And I realise there’s a big difference.
I understand why Cobra’s presence is so powerful. When I look at him through my camera lens, I see not only Cobra, but all of the Kalahari. I see the land, the skies, the wild animals and thousands of generations of human beings. When I look at Cobra, I see an African wilderness in the eyes of a man who is indistinguishable from it.
Yet Africa and its Kalahari is changing fast, and Cobra – always observant, of course – is all too aware of it.
“Human culture has changed,” he tells me. “We are taking too much from the environment. We are not respecting the land. We eat meat, and if we are not hungry, we throw it away. Back then, we used the whole animal. Nothing was wasted.”
The climate of the Kalahari has changed too, according to Cobra.
“There used to be water everywhere. Now it’s much drier. There were lots of springs across the land. Now the water from underground is not there anymore.”
“My most amazing memory was when the rains arrived,” says Cobra.
“There was so much food everywhere. It was beautiful. Today animals and people struggle to find food and water.”
But life has got a bit easier in other ways, Cobra says.
“Tourists come now, and see the animals,” he says. “We like tourists, because they have money. They are the source of income for us, they appreciate us.”
We finish our chat, and I’m sure Cobra is relieved once I take my last photo. We walk slowly back to Jack’s Camp.
“I want to spend rest of my life at Jacks. I just like being out here, in the open.”
Photos by Scott Ramsay
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