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Basarwa (or San or Bushmen) are the oldest ethnic group of Southern Africa and its original inhabitants. Archaeological evidence indicates that people bearing San features have existed in Africa as early as 30000 years ago, well into the Later Stone Age. Previously the San inhabited parts of the entire southern African region, in what are now the countries of Namibia, Botswana, Republic of South Africa, Lesotho, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Angola. Today the majority of Basarwa live in Botswana and Namibia with a few scattered in Angola and Zambia. Their present populations estimated to be about 55000 to 60000. Traditionally Basarwa are a hunting-gathering people who organise themselves in small bands which are normally related by blood or through marriage. Their traditional way of life is essentially nomadic in that they periodically move camps according to food and water supplies and also because of personal inclination.

Basarwa today are in a tremendous state of change in which they can be observed to be at various stages of acculturation to the dominant Batswana culture. Sustained contact with Bantu groups (namely Batswana), intermarriage, steady expansion of the cattle industry across the Kalahari desert and the settlement of some Basarwa at boreholes are some of the most important factors of this change. The government has a number of settlement schemes for Basarwa where they are provided with livestock, to make livelihood as well as health and educational facilities.

But Botswana's cattle industry can now benefit from an age-old know-how of the Basarwa linking them with cultures which existed thousands of years ago in other parts of the world.

The Assyrians used leather for footwear, and also for wineskins which, when inflated, served as floats for rafts. But it was the ancient Indian civilisation that first began to process leather in the manner now known as 'Morocco'. The Egyptians also achieved considerable skills in working leather, using it for clothing (even for gloves), tools, weapons and simple ornaments. The Phoenecians came up with an interesting use for leather: according to the historian Strabo they fashioned it into water pipes. In Roman times leather was widely used in all corners of the Empire, where the best tanning methods were introduced if these had not already been developed locally. The Romans used leather for footwear and clothing, and for making shields and harnesses. A tannery of the period was discovered amongst the ruins of Pompei and was found to contain all the equipment that was to remain in use over subsequent centuries.

Leather tanning is undoubtedly one of the oldest crafts known to man. The skins obtained from hunting and breeding were initially used to make clothing or tents, but they became stiff at low temperatures and rotted in the heat. They were probably later rubbed with animal fats to make them more flexible and durable. This represented the first rudimentary tanning process and is documented in Homer's Illiad and various Assyrian writings. Another process used in ancient times was smoking - almost certainly discovered by chance. This then lead to tanning with aldehyde, an element present in the smoke emitted by burning leaves and green twigs. It was soon found that the putrefecation process could also be slowed down by drying, carried out by exposure to the sun or by rubbing in salt. Vegetable tanning, in its turn, was also known in far off times, although it is not clear how the properties of the tannin found in the bark of some trees (especially oak) was discovered.

Leather, like wood, is one of the few raw materials that nature will never exhaust: its value as a production and covering materials is therefore double: aesthetic and ecological. Leather is seldom used in its natural state as it is affected by variations in temperature (hard and stiff at low temperatures, soft and limp at high temperatures) and liable to rot. The purpose of tanning is to eliminate these problems with special vegetable, animal and synthetic substances.

We are going to tell the story of the revival of age-old know-how amongst the San-people in Botswana, and for those who may want to know more about the leather-industry in Southern Africa and beyond, these are the 2 entry-points to click:



"How to tan leather to a perfect shine"
14'33" /

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