The hunger for meaning: the Great Hunger

Jeremy Dent
3 min readSep 20, 2019
A group of San tribesmen (bushmen) confer.

The African San people are the oldest inhabitants of Southern Africa, where they have lived for at least 20,000 years. The term San is commonly used to refer to a diverse group of hunter-gatherers who share historical and linguistic connections.

When European settlers arrived in the mid 17th century, the whole country was inhabited by three different groups — the hunter-gatherers (San), the pastoralists (Khoikhoi/Hottentots) and the farmers (BaNtu). At first, the San co-existed peacefully with the Nguni speakers (a sub-language group of the BaNtu — Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi and Ndebele) who intermarried with the San and incorporated some of the distinctive and characteristic ‘clicks’ of the San language into their own languages.

Often referred to as bushmen or Basarwa, the San talk about the two hungers. There is the Great Hunger and there is the Little Hunger. The Little Hunger wants food for the belly; the Great Hunger, the greatest hunger of all, is the hunger for meaning.

The San have no formal authority figure or chief but govern themselves by group consent. Disputes are resolved through lengthy discussions where all involved have a chance to make their thoughts heard until agreement is reached. Many cohousing communities share this form of governance, formalised into a system of dynamic governance.

Certain San individuals may assume leadership in specific spheres in which they excel, such as hunting or healing rituals, but they cannot achieve positions of overall influence or power. European colonists in South Africa found this very confusing when they tried to establish treaties with the San.

Made up of small, mobile, intergenerational groups, San communities comprise up to about 25 men, women and children. At certain times of the year groups join for exchange of news and gifts, for marriage arrangements and for social occasions. This is a similar size to successful cohousing communities.

There is ultimately only one thing that makes the San, and all human beings, deeply and profoundly bitter and that is to have forced upon them a life without meaning.

Jeremy Dent

I am a writer, digital marketeer, grandfather. On Medium since 2017. Write on health, self realisation and new economics.