For his series “Comeback to Kalahari,” photographer Nicola Lo Calzo spent two months in South Africa with the San of the southern Kalahari—one of the most ancient indigenous groups in the world. According to researchers, the San are descended from humanity’s earliest ancestors and are among the most genetically diverse people on Earth.
Originally hunters and gatherers, many of the San in South Africa were forced to give up their lifestyle and become farmers in the 1930s when the government created the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park on their territory. Since then, the San have fought to reclaim their ancestral land in South Africa and other parts of the continent. Today, according to the South African San Institute, at least 600 people are registered as part of the southern Kalahari San community.
Lo Calzo chose to photograph them as well as their community provide a holistic sense of place. “In all my work, including ‘Inside Niger’ and ‘Morgante,’ I have been interested in marginalized social groups,” Lo Calzo said via email. “I wish to understand and to explore their survival strategy in a world increasingly normalized and normalizing. In the case of the San people, their relationship to the past, to their own tradition, their complex coexistence with the global world, their history of persecution and their contemporary strategy of resistance are aspects I have tried to investigate through this [project].”
With SASI’s support and guidance, Lo Calzo spent time in Andriesvale, Upington, and Platfontein, South Africa. Still, his main challenge was finding acceptance in the community. “Especially in a country that has not yet resolved its racist and segregationist past … the mission was difficult but very stimulating,” he said.
Although the San have settled many of their land battles, Lo Calzo said that they are still struggling to find their place in South African society. “In the absence of basic social services, poverty, alcoholism, unemployment, illiteracy, cannabis and AIDS affect the population. For example, in the township of Andriesvale, the nearest school, with a rudimentary hospital, is 15 kilometers from the township. People live by their wits. Some of them dress in hunters’ clothes in order to satisfy the exotic taste of some naïve tourists during their desert safaris,” he said.
Besides the daily challenges of survival, the San face another struggle: the preservation of their culture. “Like all South Africans of their age, San youths hear R&B music, chat on their cellphones, watch American television shows of the moment and wear trendy clothes,” Lo Calzo said. “The main challenge for the older generation is to transmit the ancestral knowledge of the tradition: the collection of plants, the traditional language of Clics, the songs and dances, the spirituality, the tanning of the skins of antelopes, which are now destined for the tourism market.”