Southern Africa’s hunter-gatherers seek a foothold

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

We set up camp in a clearing in the bush close to the village, and that night I lie awake listening to the hawking of phlegm-filled chests, the hacking of tubercular coughs, and the wavering wails of the babies, which compete with the yelps of patrolling jackals to fill the dome of stars above us. It is winter in the Kalahari and bone-achingly cold when the cocks begin to crow a few minutes before four. As I emerge from my tent, “dawn’s heart,” as Bushmen traditionally call Jupiter, is burning brightly on the horizon. The water in my billycan is frozen solid.

When we enter the village, the families are huddled around their tiny fires; some of the children are shirtless, and the adults have, at most, a single threadbare blanket clasped around each pair of bony shoulders and each toast a rack of prominent ribs. They are breakfasting meagerly on berries and weak tea.

N!amce, a Den/ui leader, sits on a log making arrows. He rolls the yellow reed shaft in the ashes, then squints down its barrel and straightens it. He smears bitumen from an old car battery onto the end of the shaft, heats it again, and binds twine made of kudu sinew around it. He cuts a notch at the back end for the bow string to slot into, and on the other end he inserts a spike of giraffe bone, which connects to another little cylinder of reed into which the arrowhead, a length of gauge wire whose end has been hammered into a triangle, is forced. He gingerly coats the four inches of the wire shaft behind the arrow tip with poison stored in a steenbok horn.

After the intense concentration of handling the poison, N!amce takes a smoke break. He stuffs the end of his metal pipe with a filter of fibrous bark, scoops up a handful of hyrax droppings and loads them into the pipe. He sucks up the acrid smoke, exhales contentedly, and passes the pipe to N­aisa, an elderly woman whose forehead is fringed with beads from which a metal triangle hangs down, swinging below her nose. She also sports a paper-clip earring. When the pipe reaches me, I pass it on.

Armed with quivers of poisoned arrows, a party of men sets off on a hunt. The men walk fast, glancing down from time to time but barely breaking stride to observe the ground for tracks. My Bushman translator, who tells me to call him /Ai!ae/Aice, explains how they read the ground—“the same way you people read a book; the bush is our book.” They can determine the age and sex of animals by reading the signs they leave behind. One young hunter drops to his heels and examines the droppings of a hartebeest; the more roughage, the less efficient its digestion and the older the animal. A male springbok, explains /Ai!ae/Aice, will often bring up the rear of the herd, and a male gemsbok will butt tree trunks with its horns to scent its territory.

Bushmen can measure the age of tracks by the time it takes termites to rebuild a nest that’s been trampled on, or a blade of grass to spring back to its usual position, or a spider to repair its cobweb. When Bushmen hit an animal with an arrow, they don’t immediately sprint after it; they go to where it was standing and memorize its particular spoor. Only then will they begin to patiently track it until it falls.

It is this skill at tracking, more than any other single talent, that over the years has made Bushmen sought after by armies and hunters and farmers to pursue guerrillas, game, and poachers.


Bushmen Driven From Ancestral Lands in Botswana

Leon Marshall in Johannesburg
for National Geographic News
April 16, 2003

Few are left of the many San who once roamed southern Africa, for a period believed to go back at least 20,000 years. Their sad fate has recently been brought starkly to mind by a furore that has erupted over the removal of two small remaining communities from Botswana's sprawling Central Kalahari Game Reserve.

San, or Bushmen, are collectively known as Basarwa in Botswana. The two affected tribes, which at last government count in 2001 came to 1,645 individuals, are called the Gana and the Gwi.

The Botswana government's explanation for moving them is that it wishes to ensure the park's integrity as a nature reserve, and that it wishes to integrate the San into the country's social and economic life.

The removals started in 1997, and most of the community has since been relocated to settlements outside the park. In exchange for their traditional hunting-gathering existence, the Botswana government says they have been granted title deeds to the land apportioned to them, and they have been given goats and cattle.

An extensive explanatory document from the Botswana government says the uprooted San are provided with schools, water supplies, and health services. A fund has been set up to provide them with training and start-up facilities for small-scale enterprises. The intention, the government says, is to bring their standard of living "up to the level obtaining in the rest of the country as well as to avoid land-use conflicts in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, such as allowing permanent settlement, growing of crops and rearing of livestock inside the reserve which is not compatible with preserving wildlife resources."

The government said it wanted to integrate the communities into "the mainstream society without any detriment to their unique culture and tradition".

Strident Opposition

But the Botswana action has drawn strident opposition from Survival International, a UK-based organization supporting tribal communities and their rights to their land and to decide their own future. Survival says all the government's actions have made clear its contempt for the San and its tendency to regard them as inferior. It quotes a San woman as having told the organization: "They treat us like this because of our race. The government knows we are very small people and there is no way we can cry for help."

Survival has organized petitions in several parts of the world against the removal of the San and handed these to Botswana's embassies in the United States, Japan, Europe and Africa.

The San relocation case has featured in newspapers and on BBC television.

In a report released in August last year, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed concern at the dispossession of their land and prejudicial actions against the San.

There have been several court actions. One such case opposing their exclusion from the park has misfired. Now a second, brought in the name of a few San steadfastly refusing to move out of the park, is headed for Botswana's high court.

Another court case, brought by the state against 13 San accused of exceeding hunting quotas, has been withdrawn.

Diamond Prospecting

At the center of the dispute is the question whether the San are being moved from their ancestral land for purposes not of restoring the park's integrity as a nature reserve but rather to clear the way for diamond-prospecting companies.

The accusation has drawn a furious reaction, with a warning of legal action from De Beers, one of the diamond companies which has been involved in prospecting in the area.

The Survival International campaign has involved a publicity stunt in which a De Beers advertisement outside its new flagship store in London featuring super model Imam was pasted over with a picture of a San woman and the slogan: "Bushmen aren't forever."

In answer to the De Beers threat, Stephen Corry, director of Survival International, said: "Survival has been threatened many times by companies and governments which put profits before tribal peoples' rights. However, we have not the slightest intention of betraying the responsibility which, for many years, so many Gana an Gwi Bushmen have asked us to shoulder.

"The Bushmen have asked us to help them get their ancestral land back, and the campaign will now be stepped up until they are back living on it without fear of further harassment." The International Finance Corporation, part of the World Bank based in Washington, D.C., has also been drawn into the issue with accusations from Survival International that it funded diamond exploration in the park without consulting indigenous communities about the project.

Survival International has produced government maps on its Web site which it says are evidence of how the game reserve has been divided into concessions for mining companies.

But the Botswana government has strenuously denied that diamond concessions are the reason for the San's removal. It says exploration for minerals in the park began in the 1960s, but the only kimberlite (volcanic pipes often bearing diamonds) discovered was found to be not commercially viable.

Botswana President Festus Mogae has said: "There is neither any actual mining nor any plan for future mining inside the reserve."

The Botswana government has issued a statement that gives the assurance that "there is no mining or any plans for future mining anywhere inside the CKGR."

Destruction of Water Pump

Survival International accuses the Botswana authorities of harassment of the San, saying they have been "tortured, beaten up or arrested for supposedly over-hunting, or hunting without correct licenses." It charges that the harassment intensified last year, with the destruction of the Bushmen's water pump in the park and the draining of their existing water supplies into the desert, as well as the banning of hunting and gathering.

Corry said: "The Gana and the Gwi are amongst the last Bushmen who depend on hunting. Unless the Botswana government allows them back on their land and lifts the hunting ban, they will be responsible for the destruction of the Gana and the Gwi as peoples."

The Botswana government's statement says: "At no stage during the relocation exercise did government or its public officers involved in the relocation use force, coerce people residing in the game reserve, or threaten any of them in any way. The emphasis has always been persuasion and voluntary relocation."

In answer to the accusation of destroying the San's water pump and draining their water reserves, it says the few people remaining in the park made the provision of services unsustainable and unaffordable and these were therefore terminated.

The government said that many San had been "engaged in income-generating projects which enable them to live sustainable and self-reliant livelihoods, and not perpetually to depend on government handouts."

San child

Coming Out of the Shadows

A boy confronts his shadow in a squatter camp bordering the Kalahari Desert. Romanticized as nomadic hunter-gatherers who were uniquely close to nature, most of southern Africa's indigenous San (Bushmen) now live in settlements on land not their own. A few have won more. South Africa recently gave this boy's clan 140 square miles (225 square kilometers) and a share in managing a game park.

Photograph by Chris Johns, National Geographic magazine, February 2002


Africa's Bushmen May Get Rich From Diet-Drug Secret

Leon Marshall in Johannesburg
for National Geographic News
April 16, 2003

The wheel of fortune could be turning for southern Africa's San, or Bushmen.

Sidelined over decades because of their dwindling numbers and ancient way of life, the San have been reduced to a few struggling communities living on the fringes of society. But now their traditional knowledge may be their salvation; they stand to make a lot of money—and gain much respect—from the international marketing of an appetite-suppressant they have been using for thousands of generations.

The drug named P57 is based on a substance scientists found in the desert plant Hoodia gordinii. The San call the cactus !khoba and have been chewing on it for thousands of years to stave off hunger and thirst during long hunting trips in their parched Kalahari desert home.

A deal has been signed between the South African San Council and the country's Scientific and Industrial Research Council (CSIR), which identified the appetite-suppressing ingredient in Hoodia during research into indigenous plants in 1996. At a small ceremony recently held in the Kalahari desert near the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, which South Africa shares with Botswana, the San and the CSIR made a deal to share royalties earned by commercial sale of the San's ancient knowledge of the plant.

The overly nourished millions of people in the developed world spend billions of dollars a year on preparations and remedies to combat obesity. Effective new products that help shed weight are always in high demand.

Children danced and sang as members of the San community watched their leaders sign the deal. The chairman of the San Council, Petrus Vaalbooi, said, "We are thankful that the traditional knowledge of our forefathers is acknowledged by this important agreement, and that we are making it known to the world. As San leaders we are determined to protect all aspects of our heritage."

The landmark deal signed by the San could blaze the trail for indigenous communities elsewhere in the world. Many traditional cultures have ancient knowledge of the healing powers of plants—intellectual property that is often not recognized, let alone protected for commercial gain.

Defining Moment for the San

For the San the agreement could be a defining moment as it could mark a turn for the better in ways other than a financial windfall.

In terms of the deal, the CSIR will pay the San 8 percent of milestone payments made by its licensee, UK-based Phytopharm, during the drug's clinical development over the next few years. This could come to more than a million dollars.

The biggest revenue stream could come from 6 percent royalties the San would receive if and when the drug is marketed by the international drug giant Pfizer, which has in turn been licensed by Phytopharm. Given the international demand for obesity drugs, the market for P57 could run to billions of dollars.

The South African San Council was stung into action by a reported remark by a Pfizer representative to the effect that the San had used the Hoodia but that they were extinct. This was in answer to questions by journalists whether the San could expect compensation for their contribution to the prospective blockbuster drug.

South African human rights lawyer Roger Chennels, who took up the San's case, said they immediately challenged the CSIR. "The negotiations were tough, but the San had the moral high ground. Once their moral ownership of the intellectual property rights was recognized, and once they wisely agreed to enter into a partnership, the dealings became reasonable," Chennels said.

Though the South African San Council was set up in 2001 to represent the country's Khomani, !Xun, and Khwe tribes, a trust has been set up (please see side bar) that will share the money with other San groups in neighboring Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, and Angola. This is in recognition of the fact that indigenous knowledge, as with the Hoodia plant, is mostly shared by tribes across national boundaries.

The San are southern Africa's oldest human inhabitants, having lived in the sub-continent for at least the past 20,000 years and possibly going back 40,000 years. But from the many, possibly even millions, who once roamed the plains and mountains, only about 100,000 remain.

Brink of Extinction

The South African San Institute (SASI), a non-governmental organization that mobilizes resources for the benefit of the San, explains they have been driven to the brink of extinction first by African agro-pastoralists who started arriving from central Africa from about 1,800 years ago, and then by European settlers who arrived from the mid-17th century.

SASI says few San are able to live by hunting and gathering today. Most work as farm laborers. A few groups run nature conservancies, but others live unemployed in marginal settlements, with no income other than small pensions from the state.

Nigel Crawhall, a San linguist who heads up SASI's culture and heritage management program, believes the Hoodia-drug deal could help rescue what remains of San culture.

The SASI program is essentially about trying to mend San society and reconstruct San culture, and so set its remaining communities on a more sustainable path.

The San have largely lost their sense of community and identity by being dispossessed of their territories and becoming physically dispersed. They have suffered language loss and some of their important social institutions have become dysfunctional.

Reconstructing San society and culture is an intricate process which is aimed at getting dialogue going between the elders who still have knowledge of some of the old ways and the younger generation who have lost it. The purpose is to get them talking about what had gone lost and what not, and about safeguarding that which is important. It is a process of self-discovery, says SASI.

Apart from the prospective financial benefits from the Hoodia deal, Crawhall says, there is much it could do to assist this difficult process, also by way of creating a more helpful relationship between the San and the world they live in.

He explains: "The San thought nobody was interested in them. Now Hoodia has come along. They are excited and have even become a bit secretive about their use of plants, even though most of this has already been written up in books. But their young people do not know about these uses, and that could change now that there is this mass market of the developed world wanting to use their discovery for body cosmetics.

"What struck them was that anybody would want to use such medicines to lose weight. So there is also this interesting interface with the outside world."

Fortuituous Confluence

To Crawhall, the Hoodia deal forms part of a fortuitous confluence of factors which could spell a better future for the San. It fits well with the consciousness of human rights that has come with South Africa's new democratic constitution and which has already resulted in important land-restitution breakthroughs for the San. It also fits well with the growing international awareness of indigenous minorities and their rights.

Chennels, who has also been fighting the San's legal battle for restitution of their traditional land, says he believes the deal represents notable recognition and acknowledgement of the importance of the traditional knowledge and heritage of the San peoples.

"This groundbreaking, benefit-sharing agreement between a local research council and the San represents enormous potential for future bioprospecting successes based on the San's extensive knowledge of the traditional uses of indigenous plants of the area.

"We are optimistic that this case will serve as a sound foundation for future collaboration, not only for the San but also for other holders of traditional knowledge," he said.