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  • Foto van schrijverPieter Derycke

Life lessons from a spontaneous Bushman running race.


Don't you get ahead of me. And I won't leave you behind


Many years ago, I came across this really cool video of a running race between a Namibian Bushman and a man of European descent (Finland?)*. There are a few things that caught my attention, and the most interesting part is not what you're probably thinking…

Please watch it, maybe even a few times, it's only 30 seconds long:


Yes, it is interesting to note that the Bushman seems to run with so much ease and grace, nice and elastic steps, high cadence and good posture. This in contrast to his competitor, who almost runs with the exact opposite running style: heavy and big steps, putting in a lot of effort and tension. The indigenous man runs very efficient, the other one, not so much…


Mind you, the white person is not an untrained runner: in the description he declares that he ran a sub 3-hour marathon, which is, although not comparable to this short race, a really good performance.


But, for me, there seems to be something strange in the Bushman's running style. It seems different than all the other running styles I've seen and studied. It seems exaggerated, almost silly.


Of course, for the Bushman it is not a race, it is a GAME! It is for fun! And you can see and hear they are having fun. And if you observe closely, especially when returning from the little tree, you can see the Bushman peeking to the right, two or three times.


I have no way of knowing for sure, but I think that he peeks not to see if he's leading, but to see if he's on the same level as the white man. His goal is to arrive at the same time as his 'competitor'.


Again, this is not a race, this seems to be a cooperative game!


I enjoy reading anthropology and ethnography, and I've encountered similar 'contests' before:


Although unfortunately I can't find the reference**, I remember reading of a tug-of-war game performed by the Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri forest in Central Africa. It was a game of women versus men, and after each game, the winning team had to 'give' one team member to the other side to play the next game. The goal was to achieve a game that was perfectly balanced. Because the women and men that changed teams, hilariously acted out their temporary gender roles, the games typically ended without reaching that balance; they were all uncapable of pulling the vine since they were rolling on the forest floor with uncontrollable laughter.

Another example of these cooperative games is recounted by Wade Davis in his book 'Light at the Edges of the World'. He tells the story of David Maybury-Lewis partaking in a race among indigenous people in central Brazil. The race was done by two groups, each of them carrying a large and heavy log for long distances across the savannah, "a marathon of dust, sweat and endurance that left every participant spent and exhausted." The arrangement of the two groups ensured that each side would have a similar mix of infants, boys, men and elders.


"Maybury-Lewis loved the excitement and avidly took part, though once again he found the ritual confusing. For one thing, no one was particularly concerned that the log carried by each side be of similar weight. For another, it was not uncommon for the leading side to pause in the midst of the race, allowing the other to catch up. The first time Maybury-Lewis ran, his team did well, crossing the finishing line hours ahead of the opposition. He revelled in the victory, until he noticed that all of his teammates were downcast.


The next time they raced, several weeks later, the others side won decisively, and everyone seemed crestfallen. Totally bewildered, Maybury-Lewis took part in yet a third race. This time, to the disapointment of the competitor in him, the sides approached and crossed the line at the same instant. To his utter surprise, both teams and the entire community erupted in a whirlwind of celebration.

The goal wasn't to win, it was to arrive together.


This traditional culture has a very complex organisation, with their inherent conflicts, but this ritual of racing creates balance and harmony."


In cultures where cooperation is literally vital, games tend to be cooperative in nature.


Could we turn that around and state: cooperative games stimulate cooperative cultures? Or even stronger: cooperative games are required for collaborative social structures? Cooperative games are essential for a harmonious way of life?


Importantly, I don't think competitive games are necessarily bad. Although some games tend to become too competitive, I think the mindset and attitude of the players is at least partly responsible for the outcome.


Therefore, when whe play, I try to follow a few guidelines:

  • Fun is more important than winning!

  • The goal of play is not winning, but more games!

  • If you and I play together, we should both enjoy the game, and both get better!

  • The goal of you playing with others, is other people wanting to play with you, again and again!

  • Winning by a huge margin is not fun, for both parties, so we change the game, the rules, or the teams.

Cooperative games foster collaborative communities. Competitive games can make players and their communities better, if done properly. If, after the game, you can't shake hands, hug of fistbump sincerely, something went wrong.


These little glances to the right are what caught my attention when first seeing this video. They convey that he won't run ahead, and he won't leave you behind.


Thanks for reading and kind regards,





*A little elaboration on the circumstances of the run from a comment by the person who posted the video on youtube: "It was filmed at a game farm in Namibia (Bagatelle) offering safaris and accommodation. It was an impromptu race during an organized "bushman walk" where three bushmen presented some convincing bushcraft. Although a tourist thing, you could sense from everything, especially the running, that these guys have not grown up with Playstation."

** I thought it was in the classic Colin Turnbull book: 'The Forest People', but after quite some searching, I can't confirm it.


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