Botswana's Bushmen return home

2012-03-13 12:45

Botswana - After winning a long court battle with Botswana's government, the Bushmen of the Kalahari can drill new water wells and return to their ancestral lands.

But with many trying to adapt to more modern ways, their legendary desert civilisation may be a thing of the past.

Controlling water was one of the government's strongest tactics in its 15-year drive to move the Bushmen from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, sometimes with a carrot, sometimes with a stick.

Botswana has tried to entice the Bushmen from the reserve, promising schools, clinics and, most importantly, water to those who moved to new settlements on the park's edges.

In one of Africa's most prosperous countries, the government said it couldn't provide services to some of its poorest people, Bushmen living in remote parts of the world's second-largest natural park - roughly the size of Denmark.

Some Bushmen said they were forced out, after rangers stopped them from hunting and authorities capped their wells. Botswana argued that dependence on the wells was proof the Bushmen had lost their ancient hunter-gatherer ways.

More sinister theories, backed by British group Survival International, claim the Bushmen were forced out to make way for a new diamond mine and luxury safari tourism, both economic mainstays.

"They said we should stay away from the animals, because this is a tourism area," said Matsipane Mosetlhanyane, chief of Kikao village inside the park.

"First they tried to force me to move, I refused. They ended up getting inside my hut and put my things inside their trucks. Then they moved me from CKGR. They said they were going to develop us."

Plight of the Bushmen

Last year the Supreme Court sided with the Bushmen - sort of. In January 2011, the court allowed them to re-open their wells, but also said government had no obligation to provide services to people living in the park.

In November, American charity Vox United began drilling and uncapping wells, a campaign financed by Gem Diamonds, which is digging a mine within the park's borders.

At a drill site AFP recently visited in Molapo, a settlement that once housed 1 000 people, three pickup trucks loaded with jerry cans were parked under an acacia tree waiting for water. African music blasted from a solar-powered radio.

The drill must burrow 100m below the sand to pump water to the surface for the handful of families now living here, in huts made from branches resembling organic igloos.

"My life is going to change because I'm going to bathe my baby, our clothes, and then our animals will also drink water," said Nono as she watched and waited.

The plight of the Bushmen has attracted global attention because their culture has been well popularised in books and films like the 1980 comedy "The Gods Must Be Crazy".

But unlike in the movie, few Bushmen would mistake a Coke bottle as a gift from heaven. Most live somewhere between the modern world and the ways of their ancestors, who roamed the arid regions of central Africa for 20 000 years.

They were the region's first inhabitants, and once numbered in the millions. Now about 100,000 remain, mainly in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. They belong to a range of groups united by the clicking sounds of their languages.

British settlers dubbed them Bushmen, others call them San. Both terms are sometimes found offensive, and sometimes used by the groups themselves.

New settlement

The colonial regime created the park in 1961, partly to protect the culture of the San whose way of life seemed straight from the Stone Age, rich in spirituality and adapted the harshness of the Kalahari.

The approach attracted criticism even at the time, with some arguing the Bushmen were being trapped in a giant zoo for anthropologists to study.

After independence five years later, Botswana's quest for modernity fell at odds with the Bushmen's ways, and a series of programmes began to entice - or hound - them out.

Their new settlements resemble any other in Botswana, with donkeys and chickens roaming between schools and administrative buildings, but without electricity and with fewer jobs.

Social ills like alcoholism and teenage pregnancy have taken hold, scourges compounded by Botswana's Aids epidemic.

Those who are living in the park admit to mixed feelings.

"It's the land of our ancestors," said teenaged and heavily pregnant Joginah. But she misses the settlement of Ghanzi were she used to live, which had "toys, dolls, playing with my friends, the schooling. Here we are in the bush and have to work."

She's also nervous, "because there are witches and spirits".

What's not missed is the alcohol from the small bars in the new settlements, said Rebecca, who leads the village while her husband Roy Sesane is away.

In Ghanzi, "they are fighting and drinking. Here there is no noise", she said.

"Here when you go outside, you can take everything" to eat from the bush, she said.

Gathering is the only option left. Hunting is forbidden, and only the oldest Bushmen remember how to quarter an animal with stone tools anyway.

Money is still needed. Expectant mothers like Joginah can't imagine relying on traditional herbal medicine for childbirth.

They want a doctor and a clinic. They brush their teeth with Colgate.

Inside their huts, Molapo's residents make hunting arrows, skins embroidered with beads, ankle bracelets with bells and pods filled with seeds. They're for sale in tourist shops.

At the borehole, the drill pushes deeper and deeper, but no water comes. These Bushmen will have to keep scavenging for water.

Wikkie du Plessis, running the drill for Vox United, is confounded.

"It's full of sand. I don't know how it got in here. But there is not enough water in that part, to keep the pumping," he said.

"It would actually damage the pump. It's a pity, it's a big pity."