Africa’s hunter-gatherers seek a foothold
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
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
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".
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
Another court case,
brought by the state against 13 San accused of exceeding hunting
quotas, has been withdrawn.
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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."
Coming Out of the
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
for National Geographic News
April 16, 2003
The wheel of fortune could be turning for southern Africa's San, or
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 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
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
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,"
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
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
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
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
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
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."
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
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.
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.