NEWS 2007



From The Times

September 19, 2007

50 years after her father famously chronicled the lives of the Kalahari Bushmen, Lucia Van Der Post visits their tribal homeland in Botswana – and finds a demoralised people trapped in a limbo between their ancient heritage and the modern world

Almost all my life the Bushmen of the Kalahari have been part of my psychological landscape. It is 50 years since my father, Sir Laurens van der Post, “gave a face and a story to a discarded people before anyone else thought to do so”, as the writer Christopher Hope put it. So how could I not have thrilled to the news that the Bushmen had won the right to return to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR), the lands that were historically theirs?

Ever since I could remember, the Bushmen, powerless and small in number, had lived on the margins of so-called civilisation, pushed about by encroaching tribes and modernisation until they were forced to retreat into inhospitable arid areas where only they, with their intimate knowledge of the land, its animals and vegetation, could survive. Sir Seretse Khama, first president of independent Botswana, promised that they could live for ever in the CKGR, the only game reserve in the world set aside to preserve a people – the San – and their way of life, rather than animals. But gradually the forces of change and modernisation became too powerful and by the late 1980s, Sir Seretse long dead, the Government began to agitate for the San to leave their historic lands.

They were no longer leading the traditional nomadic life, said the Government, so the land where they kept dogs, horses and goats and cultivated a few crops was becoming degraded. “The reserve,” according to Clifford Maribe, the Government’s legal spokesman, “is a poverty trap that stops them working for a better life and denies them access to health and education.”

The Government first tried tempting the Bushmen with houses in the new camps, financial compensation and some cattle, but when a hard core refused to move, things got tougher: in 2002 they stopped the food rations and closed down the boreholes, schools and clinics so that the last remnants had no option but to leave.

With financial help from the charity Survival International, the Bushmen began a court case to fight for the right to go back. On December 13 last year, the 100th anniversary of my father’s birth, the High Court of Botswana ruled in their favour. “They were dispossessed of the land they occupied wrongfully and unlawfully and without their consent,” said the judgment, and they have the right to live inside the reserve, on their ancestral land.

So why, when I arrive to see for myself the happy sight of Bushmen returning to their land, do I find so many of them still living in the hated, dusty settlements? Why are they being prosecuted for hunting when that is their time-honoured means of feeding themselves? Why is the Government refusing to reopen the boreholes, schools and hospitals that they forcibly closed five years ago? Why is someone like Mohubu, a Bushman who used to live in the CKGR, spending his days either in idleness in New Xade, one of the new settlements, or mending roads miles from anywhere when he would really like to be back in the place he calls home, the reserve with its vast grassy plains, its wide-open skies and flat vleis, its black-maned lions, its hyaenas and gemsbok, its berries, beetles and birds?

For the moment he is grateful for his job mending the roads – it is only for a month but he will earn some pula. Then it will be back to New Xade, where there are few jobs, where most of the population live on destitution money (about £8 a month) and government rations, where illness is rife and where shebeens tempt the bored and unemployed with their cacophonous music and their alcohol night and day.

But at least Mohubu will be allowed back to New Xade. His fellow roadworker, Kedago Podi, may not be going back. Game scouts caught him and his five brothers hunting in the CKGR and he is probably facing a jail sentence or a fine he cannot pay. “I was very hungry and like my brothers we felt the need to hunt an eland,” he says. “It is our medicine. I miss it and I need it. The CKGR is my land, it’s my home and I thought I still had the right to hunt there.”

Everyone longs to return to the CKGR, but the Government claims that only those specifically mentioned in the High Court petition have the right to return. It has confiscated their goats, which they used for milk and meat, and the radios they used to communicate with each other. It has forbidden hunting without permits, which it is reluctant to issue. As one embittered writer in the local press put it: “A few can go back home, so long as they don’t mind not being able to eat or drink, and if they don’t mind leaving their kin in the miserable relocation camps.” These are the people whose domain once stretched from the Cape to the Zambezi, from the east coast to the coast of Namibia. Today they number slightly more than 100,000, with fewer than 2,000 laying claim to the 60,000 square kilometres of ancestral land. For 200 years or more they were hunted by black and white, more or less enslaved by others, jailed for breaking laws that they neither understood nor had any part in making.

While they owned little in the material sense, in their traditional habitat their life was rich in symbolism, filled with meaning. They are a captivating people. Small, graceful, apricot-coloured with a gentle manner and an easy laugh. The beauty of some of the young girls is breathtaking.

All those who come into contact with them speak of their great intelligence but in the schools, where they are taught in Setswana and English, languages they do not speak, they are bullied and harassed. “Why,” they ask, “can we not be taught in our own language?” Jumanda, our guide and interpreter, tells of how he, too, was beaten at school for not understanding things said to him in a language he couldn’t understand. “This is why many of our people are uneducated and drop out of school.”

Skin-clad hunter gatherers living off the land in perfect harmony in a pristine environment is a romantic image that belongs to folk memory. Most San today wear very unromantic tattered and torn Western clothing. Few of the young men still know how to hunt in the traditional manner. Most hunting was being done with horses, dogs and spears. What remains is a visceral identification with the land that they believe is theirs, and a longing to go back there.

Jumanda tells me: “The land is our church, it’s our mother earth, we believe we come from there. We Bushmen do not believe in God – we believe in ancestors and our ancestors are not people who are lost. We need to visit them. To us, having our land taken away feels as if our church has been destroyed.”

At first sight New Xade is not unprepossessing. It is nothing like the slums of Nairobi, Calcutta or Cape Town. Most of the population live on good-sized plots, either in small, breezeblock houses or in traditional huts made from branches and grasses. There is no electricity and no running water. There is a school, a clinic, there are boreholes and government rations, and each household was given five head of cattle when they moved in (though many have sold the cattle to pay their fines for hunting).

But stay a while and the plight of those who live there becomes clearer. Almost all the teachers, nurses, police and game scouts – in other words, all the people with real jobs – are Batswana (non-Bushmen Botswana citizens), whose larger, brick-built houses have electricity and running water. Few Bushmen have the skills, the education or the language to take on these jobs, and even if they did they face immense prejudice in the job market.

There is an eerie tranquility about New Xade (except when one is within sound of the shebeens). The town seems to exist in a spiritless vacuum. It is more than 70km (43 miles) from Old Xade and more than 300km from Metsiamanong, the two settlements inside the CKGR from which many of New Xade’s people came. It is surrounded by sad, degraded bush from which the game has vanished. Most of the people seem to spend their days lying in the shade of trees. There is, they tell me, nothing else for them to do. As Roy Sesana, a spokesman for the CKGR Bushmen puts it: “These places have turned our people into thieves and beggars and drunkards. I do not want this life. First they make us destitute by taking away our land, our hunting and our way of life, and then they say we are nothing because we are destitute.”

Matenego Mothukuthwe, who used to hunt with Jumanda, tells me: “I used to run 40km to hunt, then I’d do the hunting and then I’d run 40km back – all in a day. Now that I get mealie-meal [maize] to eat I can not run like that any more.”

Kaobusetswa Mokubiswe, who thinks she is about 65, sits despondently outside her brick house, longing to go back. Even though the CKGR is in the grip of a terrible drought, if her son could mend his truck and could afford the petrol she would go back tomorrow. “Even in a drought I would know how to survive. I am depressed and unhappy here.”

Her son, though, is one of the few who has a job. He works as a chef at the school and he knows that a traditional hunting/gathering life is not an option. Already he has ambitions and he wants to find a way of bridging the old world and the new but, crucially, he wants to be able to go home to the CKGR from time to time to visit his ancestors and to refresh his spirit. “Many of us,” he says, “would like to study, to become doctors or lawyers, but for the moment our most urgent need is for dignity. Wherever we go we find discrimination.”

We are unable to find any family in New Xade that has the means to return. Many of the young men have to appear in court in a few days’ time for hunting offences, and so cannot leave. Others have no cars, no petrol: and yet others have lost the skill to survive without the boreholes, goats, school, government rations and clinic that they had got used to but are now denied.

As Jumanda explained to me: “Before, our people used to know how to cure themselves with plants and medicine from the bush. Today many of our people are HIV-positive or suffer from Aids [the first case of Aids among the Bushmen was reported in 1998, just after the evictions and resettlement programmes began in 1996] and they need regular access to a clinic.”

A few have made it back to their old stamping grounds in the CKGR and we set out to visit them.

It is on a scintillating, glittery winter morning, the sun high in a brilliant blue sky, the grass golden in the breeze, that I begin to understand the aching sense of loss the CKGR bushmen feel. The land may be hard to live in but it is beautiful beyond imagining. The Kalahari is a desert only in the sense that it lacks surface water. Underneath is a rich water table and there is golden grass everywhere, thorny bushes: we see large shady groups of mopane trees, the Kalahari apple tree, and birds – and besides the large iconic animals there are many small living things.

At Molapo we come across a small group of Bushmen who have just returned. Their clothes are tattered, they are still building their huts. They are not allowed to hunt, though the women are allowed to look for melons, tubers and roots, and when we arrive they’re busy pounding at the tubers to make their evening meal. Tobacco is being passed around, cups of tea are being drunk. Little groups of children are running around looking happy and healthy, but underneath there is an air of sadness and desolation.

Their chief tells me: “Just looking at the land makes me happy, we are back where we belong. We don’t starve, but life is very difficult and we are still scared that the court ruling is not a permanent thing – one of my brothers was stopped from coming back.” There is a drought, and the tubers aren’t very good. Water has to be trucked in from outside the reserve and the petrol is expensive. But above all: “I don’t even want to think about New Xade. I hated it in New Xade and I never want to go back there.”

A ravishingly beautiful girl, Kebangwegetse Monwegelwe, sitting outside one of the huts, seems to me to embody the dilemma facing not just the Bushmen but also the Botswana Government. She is about 21. She was born and brought up in the CKGR until she was relocated to New Xade, where she lived for five years. Now she is at school in the capital, Gaberone, where she lives in a hostel, and she is back visiting for the holidays.

At her knee she has a small child. The father is a Matswana who has abandoned her and the baby. “I am happy to learn English and Setswana,” she tells me, “because I can’t get a job without them. I want to become a nurse and work for my people – possibly in New Xade.” She and many of the younger Bushmen seem to be looking for some way of moving into the future that allows them to retain their language, their culture, their identity.

This is the Botswana Government’s difficulty: they do not like the stigma (as they see it) of an impoverished, ill-educated, landless minority, but they have not yet found a humane way of empowering them or edging them into the modern world that does not clash with all the Bushmen hold dear.

But there are ways forward. All over Africa, new ways of using land are being looked at. The old model of turning indigenous peoples out of the land they had inhabited for centuries, of putting up fences to keep the animals in and the people out and then allowing only small rich minorities to visit them, is no longer morally or politically acceptable.

The CKGR is not rich in game: years of drought together with fences put up to contain the spread of foot-and-mouth disturbed the old migration routes and resulted in the destruction of the vast herds. But a landscape animated by people still living a rich and meaningful life would have purpose, would keep the old traditions alive and would earn revenue for both the Bushmen and the country.

Tourism enterprises of this kind have worked well in Namibia and in Botswana itself: in the delta there is the Gudwiga project, owned and largely run by the San. It is helping to preserve some of the San’s traditions and also provides development funds for the local Bukakhwe San community. What the Bushmen do not want is to be assimilated. As one wrote to a local paper. “We Basarwa, Bakalaka, Bakgalagadi, Hambukushu, Bayei, etc, say to hell with assimilation. Different languages, cultures, beliefs, histories, values, customs, etc, all make the faces of this country.”

Nobody doubts either that the Bushmen have a reservoir of knowledge that it would be a tragedy to lose. Ben-Erik van Wyk, a South African botanist, says: “Many of the healers who still have the ancient knowledge are very old; we need to act fast to find them.” Some of this knowledge could surely be parlayed into revenue-earning ventures.

But why, you may ask, does all this matter? Is it not an old, old story that need concern us no longer? This is not Darfur. It is not ethnic cleansing. The journalist Simon Jenkins, writing in this newspaper about my father a couple of days after he died in December 1996, had an answer: “He did not just idealise the Bushmen; he used them to champion the diversity of human beings and the fragility of their dependence on nature. He led the movement to record, understand and, when they wish for it, protect endangered peoples. This was not nostalgic paternalism. Van der Post’s exegesis of the Bushman way of life was based on his belief that we must retain some practical relationship with the past if we are not to fall victim to the future. He believed in history. He warned constantly against ‘a society that has lost its memory’. The warning applies as much to the built environment as to the natural, to what he termed our small memories of yesterday as well as our great ones of the Stone Age.”

This is, in part, what the Botswana High Court case was all about. It was a cry of despair for recognition, for acknowledgment that, though small in number, they and their way of life mattered and that they had a contribution to make if only the world could see it. My father, all those years go, saw that it was all over for the traditional Bushman way of life and he feared terribly for “the agony of the end they were about to endure”. It is this agony that we are now witnessing.

The Botswana High Court judgment had it absolutely right. “The case is, thus, ultimately about a people demanding dignity and respect.” It is a people saying, in essence: “Our way of life may be different but it is worthy of respect.”