View Full Version : Homeland Worth the Fight

19th February 2011, 18:36
For Some Bushmen, a Homeland Worth the Fight

A resident of New Xade, an area outside the Central Kalahari Game Reserve where many Bushmen have been resettled.

CENTRAL KALAHARI GAME RESERVE, 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.