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January 6, 1961

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Van der Post describes a story about the difference between Europeans and Africans when it comes to gratitude.





The Heart of the Hunter

Laurens Van Der Post


Important Text:

‘Gone by the morning?’ Duncan exclaimed, as if he had other hopes for them and himself.’ Gone without even saying thank you for what we have done for them?’ 

His dismay was so genuine that we all laughed. Besides, his last remark touched on an old controversy. Some of my companions were continually worried by the apparent inability of Africans in general and Bushmen in particular to say ‘thank you’ for any help or gifts made to them. 

Ben answered him, not without a certain amused irony. 

‘But surely you would not expect thanks from anyone for the little we have done? Surely you do not want to be thanked merely for having behaved well? Do you expect a woman to say “thank you” every time you raise your hat to her? Well, however much we appear to have done for the Bushmen here, to them it is just good manners and no more than was to be expected of properly brought up people. If our positions were reversed, they would without hesitation do the same for us or anyone else, but they would not expect to be thanked for it. No! They would not risk insulting you by suggesting with a “thank you” that it was unusual for you to behave well!’ 

Ben appealed to me for support amid the laughter his explanation provoked. I have suffered all over Africa from the delusion of Europeans that, because the indigenous peoples of the dark continent have not the fulsome expressions for gratitude we have, they feel no gratitude. It was as unreal to me as another prejudice noticed long ago in Britain – that since the French had no single word for home, they did not really value their home-life. I had no hesitation in backing up Ben with an example of the Bushmen’s regard for manners. I told my companions a story I once heard from Faanie Ritchie. She had known Lucy Lloyd and the Bleeks, who were the first people ever to make a serious study of the Bushman tongue. In order to do so they had gained permission from the government at the Cape to house at the bottom of their garden in a suburb of Table Bay a number of Bushman convicts from the national gaol. The Bushmen soon became very attached to the Bleek family, with the exception of one little man. He behaved so badly that the Bleeks one day asked the Bushmen why he was difficult when they were all good and helpful. 

‘Oh, but don’t you know?’ they exclaimed amazed. ‘He was brought up by Europeans!’

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Hunter-gatherer societies refer to a way of life that prevailed for most of human history, where people relied on hunting wild animals, fishing, and gathering edible plants, fruits, and nuts for their subsistence. This lifestyle was common before the development of agriculture around 10,000 years ago.
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