Botswana | Mangled between development, the desert and international 'protectors'

When Basarwa actors, hired to act as Basarwa characters in the Botswana-set movie The Number One Ladies Detective Agency, arrived on set, they found that being Basarwa was not enough to qualify them for their roles. They had to shed their trousers, shirts and shoes, put on loincloths and don hunting spears. The images were set to create the warm fuzzy feeling that an international viewer should feel when watching not just Africans but the most native of Africans going about their business of interacting with the environment, incidentally also teeming with conservationists saving flora and fauna.

Meanwhile, in real life, many Basarwa work, study, farm or have started businesses in Botswana –or battle to do so in the face of marginalisation, discrimination and countless other obstacles. Sadly, their endeavour is not much helped, either by the Botswana government or by the international organization that claims to be their foremost protector. The powerful UK-based campaigning group, Survival International, focuses exclusively on the ‘right’ of the tribe to stay in the Kalahari and live a traditional life of hunting and gathering. The struggling Basarwa are thus left with a bizarre Catch-22 choice: continue to battle on the margins of Botswana society or return to the desert with the help of foreign protectors.

The driest part of the driest season

At New Xade, close to the Kalahari reserve where some Basarwa still live in settlements, old men with weather-beaten faces are attempting to water their cattle. It is crowded and somewhat chaotic here and the exercise a tedious engagement. But if you want your cattle watered you stick around. This is the only borehole in sight for miles and miles.
Voices echo and occasionally, laughter pierces the sky. Boys with sticks and old men with wide brimmed hats and caps squint and give out occasional commands. The near mid-day sun is usually harsh anywhere in the central parts of this semi-arid country but here at the edges of the Kalahari desert the sun-baked sands cook your feet and every water droplet disappears as soon as it reaches the ground. This is dry land, and it is the driest part of the dry season.

A man in the middle of the ruckus axes away at a dead cow under him, trying to break a ribcage, while two other men hold hooves, pulling the skin from the flesh. A liver disease is afflicting the herds, they explain. In this unforgiving land a sickly cow, if it cannot be rescued, has to be eaten. A few metres away lies the carcass of another long dead cow.

70-something year old Galeforolwe Gaotlhobogwe and his friends are guinea pigs in a grand experiment. The Botswana government has given them five cows each upon their relocation out of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) to New Xade. After a long legal battle that pitted Basarwa within the CKGR against government, which had forcefully and, -as it turned out, not that legally*-, removed them from the reserve, some Basarwa accepted a program whereby they would be given livestock and start a new life as farmers outside the reserve.

Galeforolwe Gaotlhobogwe left his wife and children in the park to attempt farming in new Xade.

At first things went alright, he says. He saw the cows multiply from five to seventeen, but now things seem to be moving backwards again. “Our cattle are sick. We have asked for help from government agriculture officers (with inoculation, TM) but their interventions are not sustained”, he explains, before one man lands the axe on the cow laying on the ground with a final thud.

There are rumours that, soon, the Water Utilities Corporation will turn the borehole in the southwestern part of New Xade into a water system for the village. From then on, no farmer will be able to have his cattle dip their snouts in here. “In the olden days we could ask to use boreholes from surrounding farms, but that was then”, says another elderly man from the group. “The private ranchers (of nowadays, TM) are not the type of people you can ask for help.” “Boers?” We enquire. “Not just the Boers, even native Batswana, there is no difference between them, Black people have turned white,” is the answer.

He is left with around ten cows and the way things are going, he might have to kill one soon. If they die he might have to return to the CKGR and become another confirming statistic to the allegation that Basarwa are good for nothing and abuse government goodwill. He doesn’t seem to relish the prospect.

Electricity or skins, school or spears

Other urbanizing Basarwa people also report hitches in the promised government assistance. Efa Motokwane, Qanlae Tinny XQoshe and Qamxho Mabina, for example, have been trying to set up a hair salon in Grooglagte, 80km west of Gantsi. The local village social worker organised a 14 000 Pula (US$ 1400) grant for them to start the business, but they still don’t have access to electricity or water. For now they offer their services home to home. “Business is good, our problem is that we cannot offer the full services because there is no electricity,” says Mabina. Neither she, nor her colleagues seem to see a return to the desert as an enviable option, but goat farming here in Grooglagte does seem to offer perspectives. “I have had success with the fourteen goats from the developmental programme. They are reproducing fine.”

Schooling is another major issue. Basarwa children, for whom Botswana’s main language Setswana is an alien tongue, drop out of school at an alarming rate. New Xade resident Kealotswe Motsoketso (31) finished form 1 about 10 years ago and never continued. “My parents were kicked out of CKGR, while I was schooling in D’Kar. I couldn’t concentrate in my studies under those conditions”, he says.

For now, he alternates between his family back in CKGR and his uncles in New Xade, but the dream of schooling remains. As he walks away towards where the clutch of men are attending to a fallen cow, he looks back, half in a plea, half in a meek threat. “But I will go back to school”, he says.

On the other end of the developmental divide, traditional Basarwa activist Roy Sesana has received much support from Survival International. Sesana’s pictures, dressed in headband and animal skin, are splashed all over the Survival International website, next to the many other pictures of Bushmen jumping over fire, fetching water, wielding spears. It is these pictures that continue to give international viewers such warm fuzzy feelings, and that turned UK celebrity and Absolutely Fabulous star Joanna Lumley into a passionate ambassador for the organisation. Together with quotes from indigenous tribes such as ‘The outsiders are bad men. They abuse us. I prefer to stay in the jungle’, SI’s website creates the impression that no Basarwa individual would ever aim for something like a school career, a hair salon in town, or a proper cattle ranch.

Sesana does not go into all this when we meet in new Xade. He simply points out that the community didn’t get any support at all from the Botswana government before Survival International stepped in. “We were not respected. It was only when Survival put pressure on government that they began to take our concerns seriously.”

Meanwhile in the Catch-22, more than a few end up like Txara Khanxae Saulo, who lives behind the Choppies supermarket in Gantsi, the only major town in this part of the country. ‘Khanxhae’ left primary school in D’Kar before completing his third year and made his way to Gantsi where he has been since then, helping to unload trucks around the supermarkets. At times he gets a plate of food in return or ‘di-damage’: items discarded for various reasons by the shops. As he tells us his story, cars pass by and, each time, he stares, as if expecting some-ultimate-thing to dismount from up there.

Donkey rides in exchange for language lessons

Kuela Kieme, education officer at the NGO Kuru Family of Organisations, does his bit to help with Basarwa development. For many people who come to him, going back to the desert is not an option. “But they remain marginalized. Since pre-independence times, this region has been parcelled out to established ranchers who have a gorilla grip on the land. As a result, the Basarwa remain a landless people, forced to provide cheap labour to the farmers.” He sees education as the only way out, but another obstacle is present on that route: the fact that many Basarwa don’t speak the main language, Setswana.

His colleague, linguistics expert Isaac Sol, explains that the Basarwa language, with its clicks, is very different from the so-called ‘Roman’ languages. “How do you transition from that language, learn Setswana, get instruction in Setswana, learn English and get instruction in it within the first four years of your primary school life?” he asks.

With exceptional persistence and resilience, is perhaps one answer. Tshisimogo Leepang a Naro overcame a change of home, lifestyle and school during the time of the government-driven relocations from the reserve, as well as many obstacles in his new school. “We used to be punished when we spoke our own language in the school environment. My classmates were ashamed of us, they said we must speak Setswana. This prompted us to make a plan to learn it very fast. We would use our donkeys to offer other children a ride in exchange for some Setswana words and concepts. We did this so as to fit in the school environment. It was a trade.”
Some of the Basarwa students around him gave up on schooling altogether, but Leepang did not. “My breakthrough came when I visited Kuela Kieme. He told me about the programme that assists Basarwa children. I contacted him, and with his advice, I passed English with good grades.”

Leepang graduated last year from the University of Botswana with a BA (Humanities) degree in African Languages and Linguistics. He has published an article on minority issues and language in an academic journal and has participated in international conferences as a panelist. He is well aware that his achievement is exceptional. “Many San youth are still experiencing marginalisation, discrimination, assimilation, a sense of having been transplanted, cultural loss, poverty and frustration.”

‘Sentimental and hopeless’

The label ‘good for nothing’ that is attached to us adds to the pressure”, says young San intellectual and activist Job Morris. “But on our side, we need to learn to manoeuver and utilise government programmes. You have to dig in and try your best in spite of problems. Survival International will have to leave us to fight our fight.”

Leepang a Naro concurs, saying that Survival International too often acts as the sole spokesperson of the community. “You can negotiate on behalf of others but sooner or later you have to be prepared for them to take over their own struggle.” He also worries that SI’s campaign may depend on stereotypes of Basarwa. (Depicting us) “in sentimental and hopeless terms maybe helps to attract funding, but it only further marginalises the marginalized”, he says, adding that “the resolution to our challenges will come when we as Basarwa intellectuals are fully involved with our communities.” Job Morris agrees: “When we have enough people in influential positions, we will finally be able to tell our own story.”

Not responsible

When asked to comment for the purpose of this article, Corry said that “ideas of ‘untainted’ and ‘pure’ hunting and gathering have never been perpetuated by Survival International”, adding that “we are not responsible for how journalists report the issue.” On its website, Survival International says it uses the term ‘Bushmen’ “because members of the tribe generally prefer the term to other widely used terms such as ‘Basarwa’ or ‘San’, and because it is the most readily understood term by readers of English”.

This story is part of a collaboration between Mmegi (Botswana) and Zam Chronicle.
Tshireletso Motlogelwa is editor of the weekly Mmegi in Gaborone, Botswana.
Picture: © Jimmy Nelson, from his book 'Before They Pass Away'. 'Noble savages or critical photography', ZAM's art editor Lara Bourdin asked on Facebook.

* Basarwa who protested their removal say the government wanted to parcel out the CKGR to (diamond) mining interests and, with the help of Survival International, took the government to court. The High Court subsequently declared that the Basarwa had a right to stay in the park, but that –a crucial caveat- the government was under no obligation to provide for them. Government then moved to starve off human settlement, firstly by stopping services into the reserve and secondly by making movement of people between the Park and outside settlements as difficult as possible. It also imposed visa restrictions on UK-based pro-ethnic-Basarwa campaigners such as Survival International staff and certain journalists.
Diamond mining in the Botswana Kalahari desert has recently begun through Gem Diamonds, which is working with pro-Basarwa group Vox United in a borehole-drilling project.