For Some Bushmen, a Homeland Worth the Fight
Posted on Nov 08, 2010
“The government says we are bad for the animals, but I was born here and the animals were born here, and we have lived together very well,”
By BARRY BEARAK, November 4, 2010. The New York Times. Central Kalahari Game Rserve, Botswana.
They were on the move beneath an unyielding sun, and for a while their approaching shapes seemed just another part of the desert, their tattered clothes bleached like the thorny scrub around them. These weary Bushmen — four men, three women and an infant — were nearing the end of a two-day journey, walking their way toward water.
The leader was Gana Taoxaga. He was a tenacious old man, one of the few who had withstood the government’s efforts to move his people from this Botswanan game reserve, their ancestral land. He carried a spear, and slung across his shoulder was a hunting satchel with a digging stick, an ax, a bow and several arrows tipped with a poison made from beetle larvae.
Mr. Taoxaga was thirsty, and it angered and baffled him that he had to walk so far. Closer by was a borehole, the wellspring to underground water. But the government had sealed it up, and he supposed this was just another way to drive the Bushmen from the sandy home they had occupied for millenniums.
“The government says we are bad for the animals, but I was born here and the animals were born here, and we have lived together very well,” he said.
However humble their lives, the Bushmen of Botswana’s central Kalahari are well known to the world, the subject of books, films and anthropological studies. They are frequently portrayed — or, as many say, romanticized — as classic hunter-gatherers, a living link to humankind’s collective beginnings.
But for decades, they have been entrenched in a tug of war over their fate that has often gone unnoticed, a saga now replete with edicts and court cases, with alcohol abuse and sundered families, with an aboriginal people despairing about the uncertainty of their future.
Since the 1980s, Botswana, a landlocked nation of two million people, has both coaxed and hounded the Bushmen to leave the game reserve, intending to restrict the area to what its name implies, a wildlife refuge empty of human residents. Withholding water is one tactic, and in July a High Court ruled that the government had every right to deny use of that modern oasis, the borehole. An appeal was filed in September.
These days, only a few hundred Bushmen live within the reserve, and a few, like Mr. Taoxaga, still survive largely through their inherited knowledge, the hunters pursuing antelope and spring hares, the gatherers collecting tubers and wild melons, tapping into the water concealed in buried plants.
But most of the Bushmen have moved to dreary resettlement areas on the outskirts, where they wait in line for water, wait on benches at the clinic, wait around for something to do, wait for the taverns to open so they can douse their troubles with sorghum beer. Once among the most self-sufficient people on earth, many of them now live on the dole, waiting for handouts.
“If there was only some magic to free me into the past, that’s where I would go,” said Pihelo Phetlhadipuo, an elderly Bushman living in a resettlement area called Kaudwane. “I once was a free man, and now I am not.”
Touched by Civilization
In Southern Africa, there are perhaps 100,000 indigenous people commonly referred to as Bushmen or San — terms typically used by outsiders and, though sometimes considered demeaning, often by the people themselves. About half are in Botswana, and the 3,000 or so who have historically lived in this grassy, undulating part of the desert are mostly of the Gwi and Gana subgroups, each speaking a language employing click sounds as extra consonants. With one another, they ordinarily identify themselves by subgroup; among outsiders, they also reluctantly use the Tswana word Basarwa.
They are hardly untouched by civilization. The “myth of the last Bushmen” has been untrue for a century or more, said Dr. Jeffress Ramsay, a historian and a government spokesman. “Outside myths don’t help those of us inside to solve problems,” and the Bushmen’s biggest difficulty, he said, is poverty.
The Central Kalahari Game Reserve, bigger than Vermont and New Hampshire combined, was established by the British colonial administration in 1961. The intention was not only to protect wildlife, but the viability of the people living there. At the time, some wondered if this was in the Bushmen’s best interests: were they being preserved as primitives in something like a petting zoo for anthropologists?
George Silberbauer, the colonial officer then in charge, argued that many Bushmen already had extensive contact with people outside the reserve. Rather than being “museum curiosities,” he wrote, they would be able to come and go as they pleased, holding on to however much of the past they wanted.
Botswana became independent in 1966, and the government’s eventual view was that the Bushmen were an impoverished minority living in rugged terrain that made them hard to help. Already, many were moving to Xade, a settlement within the reserve where a borehole had been drilled years before.
The Bushmen were pragmatists. Liberated from the strenuous pursuit of water, people began keeping goats and chickens while also scratching away at the sandy soil to grow gardens. The government provided a mobile health clinic, occasional food rations, a school.
Later on, these activities were commonly mentioned as reasons for removing the Bushmen. They “were abandoning their traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle,” and even hunting with guns and horses, the government argued in a written explanation of its rationale.
A Modernizing Nation
Besides, government officials said, Botswana wanted to be a modern nation. The discovery of gem-quality diamonds had made it one of the wealthiest countries in Africa. It was unfair to leave the Bushmen suffering in underdeveloped conditions, the officials said, to use preservation of their ancient culture as a pretext for ignoring their need.
People living in the reserve soon were referred to as Remote Area Dwellers, and by 2002, all but a few dozen Bushmen had left the ancestral land, many of them lured by a small compensation of cash and cattle, others insisting they were threatened into submission. People worried about being arrested; they complained of assaults by wildlife officers; they speculated that the government had loosed a pride of lions on their few donkeys and horses.
In deciding whether to go, fissures opened, family against family. Some were deemed betrayers. Kuela Kiema, one young leader, decided it was best to resettle, a decision he later regretted. “The spirits of our ancestors hover over our tribal territories, looking for their children,” he wrote in a lyrical memoir, adding, “Many followed me, and we lost our land.”
A group of Bushmen sued the government in 2002, asking that they be allowed to return to the game reserve. The case stumbled through the legal system for four years before yielding a result that fully satisfied no one: a High Court ruled that the Bushmen could go back to their homes while also concluding that Botswana was under no obligation to provide them services. Afterward, the government interpreted the decision to mean that only the 189 surviving plaintiffs in the lawsuit were entitled to live in the reserve without permission. It remained unclear what those Bushmen would be allowed to do. Could they hunt? Reopen the boreholes?
Many more Bushmen have said they want to move back. Dr. Ramsay, the government spokesman, said negotiations were going on that might allow them to do that but Botswana had strict conditions: it does not want the Bushmen hunting wildlife and raising animals. “It’s a game reserve, and that’s been the issue from the start,” he said.
By now, many of the Bushmen have been away from the reserve for a decade or more; they are a disparate group, unequally educated, unequally employed, with internal frictions.
For its part, the government is stinging from the reproach of interloping foreigners, especially Survival International, an advocacy group based in Britain, which claims the Bushmen were rousted to make way for diamond prospecting and tourism.
Diamond exploration has begun in the reserve, though no mine is presently functioning. There is one small, high-end tourist camp with a swimming pool and 10 en-suite canvas units. Its Web site mentions the frill of “an interpretive ‘Bushman walk’ ” where “guests gain life-changing insights into the unique culture of this fascinating people.”
Destitution and Dependency
In the resettlement areas, the “unique culture” of the Bushmen mingles with the familiar culture of the displaced. The destitute rarely hunt or gather, instead awaiting a monthly parcel of cornmeal, beans, sorghum, sugar, tea and cooking oil. People are angry that they are dependent; people are angry they cannot depend on getting more. “We have been dumped here, and when we try to go back, they stop us at the gate,” complained Moscow Galatshipe, a 43-year-old man in Kaudwane. “There are no jobs. We will all end up in prison for stealing goats.”
A place called New Xade is the biggest of the resettlement areas, with many of its dirt streets plotted on a grid and an occasional stop sign for the occasional car. Most of the houses are small one-room boxes of brick, but the Bushmen also have erected round huts with thatched roofs.
By midafternoon, the shebeens — tiny bars — open for business, and the surrounding ground is quickly littered with empty cartons of chibuku, a beer cheaper than brands sold in bottles. In conversations, few people blame diamonds or tourism for their troubles. Rather, they say their countrymen, the dominating Tswana, have always treated them as inferiors. “You can say it is something like racism,” said Galomphete Gakelekgolele, a college-educated 26-year-old and an example of a younger generation trying to find equilibrium between their heritage and ambitions.
He said he wanted a good job in a town. He also said he wanted to live inside the reserve, where “my forefathers are buried,” and where “if maybe I am sick, I can say a little prayer in their graveyard and then collect certain herbs, boil them and drink them, and my problems will be gone.”
Families have come apart, most often with grandparents or a father staying in the reserve and a mother and children living in a resettlement area, near a school and a reliable supply of water. Gana Taoxaga, the old man who was among the last holdouts, the one completing his two-day walk, has six children and seven grandchildren in Kaudwane. “I miss them and they miss me,” he said.
Mr. Taoxaga did not know his own age. His brown coat was missing half its fabric. His leather shoes had no laces. Beside him on the journey, a younger man, Matsipane Mosethlanyane, led some donkeys with empty water jugs strapped across their backs. He said he was proud to be a Bushman and, boasting of his resourcefulness, he described how he had sometimes squeezed the moisture from animal dung to slake his thirst. Animals eat the flowers off the small trees, he said. The moisture from the dung was nutritious.
“But I don’t want to drink the dirty water any more,” he said. “That’s why we are walking today. I am used now to the new water, the modern water.”