Botswana's bushmen stay close to their roots

Molapo - Bushmen in Botswana's Kalahari desert are torn between their ancestral traditions and the demands of the modern world. It leaves them struggling to maintain the remnants of their hunter-gatherer way of life.

The blazing sun of the Kalahari desert beats down on a village inhabited by Bushmen in Botswana's Central Kalahari Game Reserve.

Women with babies sit on blankets in the shade of the doorways of their grass huts.

A man pounds maize under one of the few trees growing in the white sand. Small children chase goats, while older ones try to ride reluctant donkeys.

"This is our ancestral land," said villager Kesebonye Roy, aged 29.

"If someone gets sick, we go to the grave site of that person's ancestor to ask for help. We also pray to our ancestors for rain."

The residents of Molapo re-established their village after the Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that the Botswana government had no right to force Kalahari Bushmen to live in resettlement camps, where they were due to be integrated into modern society.

The camps were on the outskirts of the game reserve and have schools and health centres. The Bushmen were also given land to cultivate.

But many of them preferred to return to Molapo and other villages in remote areas of the 53 000km2 game reserve, where they are struggling without any modern amenities to preserve remnants of their ancient way of life.

"The Bushmen's connection to their land is very spiritual. Losing it would destroy their identity," said Fiona Watson from the tribal people's lobby group, Survival International.

Bushmen of Botswana
Bushmen of the Kalahari. (

About 100 000 Bushmen - also known as the San or Basarwa - remain in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Angola.

They are known as the "first people" and are the oldest inhabitants of southern Africa.

Investigators and visitors have looked to the Bushmen for clues into how humans may have lived in the Stone Age.

But after two millennia of interaction with Bantu populations, and now under heavy pressure from the modern world, the Bushmen no longer provide an adequate model for the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that early modern humans practised for hundreds of thousands of years.

Residents of Molapo - a village of about 50 people - still gather wild berries, herbs and roots for nourishment and medicinal uses.

The government's refusal to supply them with water - allegedly to force them back to resettlement camps to make room for tourism and diamond mines - has left them reliant on the traditional method of obtaining it from the rain, as well as from melons they cultivate or collect in the wild.

But the Bushmen no longer hunt - with the exception of boys shooting birds and rabbits with their bows and arrows - because it is forbidden inside the game reserve.

President Ian Khama also imposed a nationwide hunting ban in January on all species including the eland, the hunting of which was central to the Kalahari Bushmen's culture.

The meat of the eland was shared between community members. Shamanic healers absorbed the invisible energy of the slain animal in trance during communal dances, touching the sick to try to heal them.

Today, there are no healers left in Molapo.

"We are Christians," Roy said.

The villagers also have chiefs, contradicting their traditional lack of social hierarchies - even if the Molapo chief is not recognized by everyone. All of the male elders have a say when disputes arise.

Spectacle for tourists

In the face of such modernisation, Bushman culture is increasingly becoming a spectacle for tourists. The Bushmen now dress in animal skins, dance and make modern versions of their traditional ostrich eggshell jewellery - a trend Bushman organizations are trying to reverse.

"We love who we are," activist Jumanda Gakelebone said.

"The government is trying to turn us into pastoralists, which we are not. We are ecological hunter-gatherers who have a lot to teach the world about how to coexist peacefully with Mother Earth."

But, while Gakelebone campaigns for the Bushmen's right to hunt, Molapo residents are already leading a pastoralist lifestyle, living off their cattle and goats - kept illegally inside the game reserve - and cultivating crops.

Many Bushmen outside the game reserve make a living as farm labourers or as tourist guides.

The few who have gone to university "are ashamed of being Bushmen", Gakelebone said.

"They even change their names to appear more civilised."

Some of the Molapo residents also feel ambivalent about preserving their traditional way of life.

"We want the same opportunities as everyone else," said Xamme Gaothobogwe, aged 58, deploring the fact that children must move to a resettlement camp in order to go to school.

At night, when countless stars fill the sky, some of the villagers come to sit around a fire. The flames reveal the shapes of donkeys standing in the darkness. The chirping of crickets fills the cooler air.

Such moments are good for telling stories - perhaps about animals - a tradition that has not yet died out among the Kalahari Bushmen.

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