The indigenous San people lived as hunter-gatherers in Southern Africa for thousands of years before Bantu people migrated from Central Africa about 1,500 years ago. Laurens van der Post brought them to the public eye as the “Bushmen of The Lost World of the Kalahari” shown on BBC TV in 1956. Between 400 and 4,000 years ago, they painted scenes from their life and religion on the walls of caves and on sheltered rock faces. The San used plant pigments and powdered ochre, which were absorbed into the rock, making them resilient to degradation.
Nsangwini is the only site in Swaziland where the public can view the paintings, which were discovered in 1958. To reach the village, we turned off the tarmac road to Pigg’s Peak onto a red-dirt track for 14 kilometres. Drs Khin and Srinu were my companions. I parked the car in the shade of some marula trees and we walked up the hillside to a tiny shack where we met our local guide. He led us over the hill into the valley of the Komati River. We scrambled down a stony path to a large boulder jutting out of the hillside.
It didn’t look like much at first. The paintings looked faint against the grain of the rock face. They were sheltered against the weather by an overhang in the cliff. But this did not protect them against a colonial farmer’s wife, who used to slosh water on the designs to make them stand out, so visitors could see them more easily. We are fortunate that this didn’t wash away the images.
After a while, my eyes became accustomed to what I was looking at and the scenes looked clearer. There were multiple scenes, each with a slightly different subject matter. They had been painted in what seemed to be a haphazard manner, on the wall and on the underside of the overhang. This is not surprising as the scenes were probably painted many years apart.
There is a fissure in the rock face which has been incorporated into the design – it is the entrance to another world, a parallel universe of mystical power. Some of the figures are painted like matchstick men, with elongated heads and wings.