By:- Swati Thiyagarajan
“I am not a tame person”, said one of the Khomani San (they are bushmen and Khomani is their language) to me years ago when I asked him why he tends to lose everything he is given from false teeth to glasses to money. A few years prior to that, a large brand had come to South Africa and approached the Khomani San to perform in an advertisement. They agreed. After the shoot, the company paid the main elder a large amount of money, handed over in a wad of cash. They did this because most of the Khomani San in South Africa have no papers, no birth certificates, nothing at all that allows them to open up bank accounts. Generations of genocide and barbarity has reduced their numbers to a few hundred and those that are left have been removed from their ancestral lands and live in ghettos of squalor. Anyhow, the money, which was close to 50,000 rands, caused great strife. How would it get distributed? Would it only go to the people who were in the advertisement?
Arguments broke out and turned violent. The elder who was handed the money decided it was bringing nothing but evil and chucked the money in the fire. Everyone was happy that the problem was now solved and went home.
You and I will never understand this: to “not be tame”.
A few days ago, a young American man was killed by a Sentinelese tribe on an island in the Andamans. He was an adventurer and a missionary who was convinced the tribals need to embrace Jesus. The same tribe had killed two fishermen in 2006 when they ventured too close to the island. These are the last of the uncontacted tribes on the planet and this particular group has made it violently clear that they want to be left alone.
While I am deeply sorry for John Allen Chau and his family, his journal entries make it quite clear that he was aware of the dangers. “You guys might think I am crazy in all this but I think it’s worthwhile to declare Jesus to these people”, he wrote. Apparently on an earlier trip, he hollered, “I love you, Jesus loves you.” The response was an arrow shot into his waterproof Bible. He speculated that this might be one of the last places where Satan lived. He was well aware that he was trespassing, writing, “God kept us hidden from the coast guards”. It must be said here that if this young man had made proper contact and spent time with the tribe, he could have sentenced them all to death with germs he carried to which they have no immunity, even the common cold.
“These people” are a group who have lived wild as hunter-gatherers, pretty much untouched for upwards of 20,000 years. One of the big wave of human migrations out of Africa to the Middle East, Asia and India occurred about 60,000 years ago. If they have any similarities to the San, the oldest hunter-gatherer tribes of the world, then they are probably nature-worshippers with a strong spiritual tradition that reveres their ancestors and uses trance as a way of accessing the spirit world, guided by a Shaman.
The Sentinelese are thought to be one of the last pre-Neolithic tribe in the world. Their island is just 60 sq kms big and is about 1,200 kms from mainland India. Very rough estimates have put the numbers of this tribe at between 50-150 people. It is believed that they survive on sea food, wild pigs and probably edible plants. To have survived for this long, they must be adept in their knowledge of what they can eat, how to harvest or hunt it, and the medicinal value of many of the plants. learnt to survive all of it.
This shows remarkable intelligence and self-preservation skills.
The Jarawa people, another indigenous group who had no contact with people for the longest time, are now under great threat due to a road that runs through their territory on another Andaman island. This has caused tremendous problems with the tribe being treated like sight-seeing attractions. Measles and influenza affected the tribes badly and the women have been sexually exploited by poachers, loggers, bus drivers and settlers. The Supreme Court in 2002 declared that the road must be closed and not used and yet it is in use and tourists go there on “highway safaris” to see the tribals. In 2013, the Supreme Court intervened once more and asked administration to stop tourism on the road.
Recently, the Indian government in a bid to expand tourism in the Andaman and Nicobar islands has excluded 29 islands including this North Sentinel island from those defined as restricted areas until 2022. It was done on the undertaking that the Andamans administration will ensure that no damage is caused to the natural environment. A different permit is still needed for areas like the one where the preacher was killed but this requirement is easily circumvented with the help of willing fishermen and others.
It is essential to recognise not just the right but the need to leave indigenous people alone, to not literally invade their space. Let us stick to boundaries and respect them.
(Swati Thiyagarajan is an Environment Editor with NDTV and author of ‘Born Wild’, a book about her experiences with conservation and wildlife both in India and Africa)