chapter  1
16 Pages

Tracking and Identity

One of the most frequently repeated and enduring ethnic stereotypes related to Africans is that which ascribes superior tracking and hunting skills to marginalized minorities such as the Bushmen of the Kalahari region, the Ndorobo of Kenya, the Shangaan of the Zimbabwe /Mozambique /South Africa border and the Twa of Central Africa. Such beliefs emerged simultaneous to the rise of European sport hunting in Africa during the late nineteenth century. While it has been pointed out that tracking was one of the few areas in which colonial Europeans acknowledged superior African skill,2 those African groups perceived as extraordinary trackers were also the most disdained in almost every other respect. In the colonial mind, skill in tracking came to be very strongly associated with African minority groups who tended to live by hunting and gathering in remote wilderness areas. e many African groups that historically lived in large settled communities, formed organized states, practised mining and metallurgy, cultivated crops and raised livestock were seen as alienated from the natural environment. Hunter-gatherer minorities were perceived to have a much closer relationship with the environment or indeed as part of nature itself. By

the time of colonization, relations between some the larger agricultural groups and neighbouring small hunter-gatherer communities had o en become unequal and exploitative. e perceived primitiveness of these hunting communities and sometimes the small physical stature of their members meant that from a colonial Social Darwinist perspective they were looked down upon as occupying the lowest position in the hierarchy of human races or perhaps not completely human. Since they were perceived as similar to animals, these marginalized minorities were believed to possess superior beast-like senses and abilities associated with hunting that could be tamed and utilized by more civilized people. It was believed that the more primitive a community was then the better its members would be at tracking. Of course, not all African groups associated with tracking excellence lived as pure hunter-gatherers though they were always marginalized in some way particularly in terms living far from major centres or their association with other supposedly primitive ways of life such as pure pastoralism. e advent of colonialism furthered the alienation of hunter-gatherer minorities. As the majority African communities became incorporated into the colonial capitalist economy as cheap labour or peasant farmers, and missionary western education spread, this perceived gulf between the supposedly primitive trackers and all others widened. Colonial observers were o en so impressed by the talent of some of these marginalized peoples to follow game tracks that many such groups were declared the best trackers in the world. Colonizers also saw these minorities as potential allies in the struggle to dominate the larger groups and this special relationship, at least within the colonial imagination, developed during the growth of European sport hunting in Africa and was popularized by hunting literature. According to anthropologist David McDermott Hughes , ‘Hunting narratives almost invariably associate loyal African trackers – from minority non-agricultural tribes – with equally devoted Great White Hunters’.3 As we will see, this imagined relationship would continue into the decolonization wars of the late twentieth century. John Taylor , a controversial Irishman who hunted in East Africa in the early to middle twentieth century and who dedicated one of his books to his Malawian tracker and gun bearer Aly Ndemanga , placed African tracking prowess within the context of hunter-gatherer communities elsewhere in the world:

e Australian Blackfellow has the name of being the best tracker in the world, and police out there would be pretty well lost without him. e Sind trackers retained by the police in Peshawar [Pakistan] also have a very ne reputation. But I honestly don’t think that either are better than really good Africans. Possibly the Australians, taken as a whole, are better than the general run of Africans; but then the Australian is still back in the stone age and relies solely upon his hunting, whereas the majority of Africans are agricultural or pastoral, not, generally speaking, hunters. e only tribes known to me who live on the proceeds of their hunting are the Kalahari Bushmen , the Pygmies of the Ituri Forest, and the Wanderobo in Kenya and Tanganyika . Accordingly, it’s unfair to take the African generally and compare him with the Australian aborigines.4