N!xau; Delighted Audiences in ‘The Gods Must Be Crazy’

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

N!xau, the diminutive bushman catapulted from the remote sand-swept reaches of the Kalahari Desert to international stardom in the film “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” has died. He was estimated to have been about 59, although not even N!xau knew his exact age.

Police in the remote area of Tsumkwe, in the Namibian part of the Kalahari where N!xau lived, confirmed his recent death on Saturday, but did not have any details of how or when he died. He had suffered from tuberculosis in the past.

A spokesman for Mimosa Films, which produced “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” said N!xau apparently died of natural causes. He said the bushman went into the veld to gather wood on Tuesday. When he failed to return, his family went to look for him and found him dead in a field.


His typically single name is a transliteration of the bushman’s tribal language, Ungwatsi, which uses clicking noises that are not represented by any letter in English.

“The Gods Must Be Crazy” became an international hit and a top grossing foreign film, making more than $90 million worldwide, after its release in 1980. It was seen in U.S. theaters in 1984.

Audiences were enthralled by N!xau’s portrayal of the earnest bushman Xixo, or “Xi” for short, who discovers a Coca-Cola bottle thrown from a plane. The bottle is seen initially as a miracle tool, a gift of the gods, but soon causes trouble when everybody in the tribe accustomed to sharing everything fights to possess it. In a comedy of errors, the bushmen decide the gods had to be crazy to bestow the bottle on them and order Xi to throw it off the edge of the earth.

The film aroused criticism as patronizing to bushmen ignorant of the modern world and for failing to address the 1980s racism rampant in South Africa, then still under apartheid.

N!xau also starred in a sequel, “The Gods Must Be Crazy II,” which was seen in the U.S. -- and widely panned -- in 1990.

When he was discovered by the South African director of the films, Jamie Uys, he had had only minimal exposure to modern life. According to some accounts, he had seen only three white people in his life and had never seen a settlement larger than the village huts of his San people.


Not knowing the value of paper money, N!xau let his first wages, $300, blow away. Afterward, Uys, who considered the bushman “magic

By the time of “The Gods Must Be Crazy II,” N!xau had learned the value of money, demanding several hundred thousand dollars before agreeing to be recast in the film.

He said the money was needed to build a cinder block home with electricity and a water pump for his family.

Director Uys dismissed criticism that it was cruel to take N!xau out of his home environment.

“All bushmen are natural actors. I suppose it’s because they don’t have television, and they spend their evenings telling stories and acting them out. And they don’t have any hang-ups or inhibitions at all,” Uys said in a 1990 interview with Associated Press.

After the sequel, N!xau appeared in several Hong Kong action films, including “Crazy Safari,” “Crazy Hong Kong” and “The Gods Must Be Funny in China.”


After his film career petered out, N!xau returned home to a newly built brick house. He tended his cattle and raised corn, pumpkins and beans. In his travels, he had learned to smoke and drink alcohol, which Uys conceded may have been negative side effects of N!xau’s acting career. For a while, the bushman had a car, but had to employ a driver because he never learned to drive.

The San are the indigenous hunter-gatherer people of southern Africa, who shoot game with bows and arrows and gather roots and berries.

They were the original inhabitants of southern Africa, appearing more than 20,000 years ago. Today, they number about 100,000, and most live in the Kalahari.

N!xau is survived by his wife, Kora; four daughters; and two sons.