NEWS 2005

 

An Eyewitness account

31 August 2005

I was at the relocation sites of New Xade and Kaudwane as well as settlements inside the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.

I have been buying crafts from the San and selling them in Canada. See www.nharo.com for more information.

I'll repost here some of the immediate thoughts I had when I came out of the reserve in December.

Anyone who is interested in getting more involved in this issue should contact me to discuss at info@nharo.com, I'll be away for the weekend but will be looking for responses on Tuesday.

Originally posted to my blog on December 9 and 10, 2004.

December 9:

Since I've come to Botswana I've been very keen to get into the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR). From my first time here, working at DITSHWANELO - The Botswana Centre for Human Rights in 2002-3, I'd heard about Bushmen who were living traditionally inside the reserve.

I even met some, they would come into the office looking ragged looking for help with water, a short-term problem, or help in the fight to stay inside CKGR, a long-term problem. Roy Sesana was the leader in this fight and it was at DITSHWANELO that I met him. A trip was organized to go inside to obtain legal statements against the government. I'd been really working to go to see for myself what was happening. There was no real reason or benefit for me to go so I was refused.

Two years later I finally made it. The challenge of going is that the area is so remote that two vehicles are required to go in together. If one fails the other can move out. Many stories are told about people flipping their vehicles and being stuck, injured or trapped, while lions prowl around outside. Luckily I'd connected with a couple Swiss holidayers who were interested in going to CKGR. This suited me and they were hiring a decked out 4x4 from Windhoek. I agreed to hire another car but that I would do so from close to CKGR.

In Ghanzi, the crossroads of Western Botswana, we began to look for transport and were lucky to find a car and a driver. The driver Mogolodi Moeti was a resident of Metsiamonong, inside CKGR. He was not a Bushmen but a Bakgalagadi. The Bakgalagadi are a tribe who have lived alongside the Bushmen for many years and share many of the same customs and traditions. Bringing Mogolodi had a big upside and a bit of a downside as well.

On the updside, Mogolodi knew the roads and was an excellent bush-mechanic, something that came in handy. As well, he was a delightful character. Quiet and reserved but with a good attitude and a smile on his face. The best thing was that it was very obvious that he was pleased to be going home. Of the many questions I asked him there was usually only one answer, in the affirmative.

The downside of having Mogolodi was that the his presence raised the suspicions of Wildlife officials at the gate to the park. Many of the residents of CKGR had been forcibly removed by the Government of Botswana. Some had left willingly, some had been compensated but whether they understood what they were giving up was questionable, others had never left the reserve. Mogolodi counted himself in the third group. Oddly I still paid an entry fee to gain his admission to the park.

We'd checked in Ghanzi before coming to the gate if we could camp at Molapo, one of the remaining settlements inside CKGR. Word was that there were about 100 people who had either returned there or who had never left. Everything looked fine and the lady at the office phoned Gaborone to check if we could stay there. We received an affirmative response which thrilled us. For Metsiamonong, the place where the vulture drinks water in Setswana, we were told the camp was not open but it was pleasing to know we'd have at least one overnight with the people. The opportunity to participate in some traditional dancing had my mind swirling.

But it was not to be. The official at the gate was extremely suspicious of our itinerary and having Mogolodi didn't help. Ronnie worked on him for a bit and at the point it looked he might let us camp at Molapo "at our own risk", as though there were more there than elsewhere, one of the Swiss jumped in impatiently and said we should just go. Annoyingly this bolstered the position of the Government official who retrenched and insisted that we stay at Xaka and Bape, camps where there were no Bushmen. In addition he promised to send patrols to check us each night.

At Xaka the patrol came and wildlife officials suspiciously tried to see what we were up to. Our tents were pitched, the fire was roaring and beers were in our hand so they skulked away but I really felt a negative vibe from their visit. Not very hospitable treatment in a national park especially a country claiming to be the leading light of African democracy.

The saving grace of staying at Xaka was that in the morning we were delighted to find a large female lion drinking at a nearby waterhole. It was my first time to see a lion in the wild and it was thrilling. I even managed to snap a picture which makes me very proud of my small Canon Powershot. Over the coming days I would snap over 300 pictures of happy people.

At the gate we'd been told that there was no animals to be viewed on the route that we'd chosen. This was not to be the case as we approached Molapo a wide pan opened up and we were treated to the sight of a Wildebeest being chased by a Gemsbok as they both ran to evade our car.

Coming to Molapo I saw something I'd only read about, bushmen gathering. There was a group of small shrubs brimming with berries near the village and a group of women and children holding full mugs, bowl and bags filled with the fruit. They readily shared it with us and I in return shared some moblare a bogale, Setswana for leaf tobacco, that I'd brought along. This delight one of the old ladies so much that she started to dance and sing.

At the village the people were pleased to see us. I recognized one of the men from a book I'd brought from home. The book, Kalahari Bushmen Healers published by an organization called Ringing Rock, was a big hit. I'd given it to Mogolodi as a gift and he showed the old man his picture. His face lit up and he exclaimed in G//anakhwe: "I am in a book!"

I interviewed the Man, Ngwaga Osele, and he told me about New Xade, the settlement where the people from Molapo were moved. He called the move to that place a "death sentence" and said that he had a lost many relatives there. His wife still remained there and they had split. The water at New Xade he said had made him start to lose his eyesight.

I tried to get an idea if life in Molapo was good. One young man I asked said that the people were suffering but this did not jive with what I saw. The children and adults looked well fed and the smiles on their faces said that they were in good spirits.

Coming into the park through New Xade showed another picture. A large proportion of the people there were drunk and drinking. We followed the the voices of traditional singing to where a girls initiation ceremony was happening. The elders who were dancing were clearly drunk.

The issue with alcohol seemed related to an overwhelming apathy. At New Xade, when asked, people told me that they had nothing to do. At Molapo it seemed that the people were living.

I asked at Molapo about hunting and the people said that they were afraid to hunt. Wildlife they said was constantly harassing them. If they were caught with meat and skins they were taken to court and put in jail for a month. They could also pay a fine but none had the means to do so.

Water was the other issue. There were drums of at the beginning of the village and the people were collecting rain water from the pan and placing it in the containers. As well, there was a large supply of melons from the bush stockpiled in each hut. Even the livestock, goats, donkeys and horses, were fed melons to give them water.

A short stop at Metsiamonong, revealed another happy village. The children here were running to and fro. A game of soccer kicked off with no nets, more or less just a game of keepaway, and then the children danced of to join the women who had spontaneously started a dance under the tree.

I met the elder of the village a man name Belesa. We showed him the healers book

It would have been nice to spend the night but we had to rush off to camp at Bape. It should be called the place of many scorpions. In two nights camping there we were collectively able to kill six scorpions. Mogolodi assured me that if bitten he would just drive me to the nearest healer who would touch the place with his two hands to make the pain disappear.

The next morning we went back to the village. The people seemed in even better moods this day. The women grabbed a small melon and proceeded to play a game, clapping a beat and dancing the women would toss the melon up for the next to catch. Laughing if it fell they'd pick it up and start and again. After that one they grabbed a rope made from old skin and proceeded to play at jumping rope.

Again the stark contrast between the life at New Xade and the place we were was evident. It was clear that the life inside the reserve was better. There was no steady supply of water but also no steady supply of alcohol which seemed to work. One caveat is that the current season had provided ample rains. Perhaps the story might look different in a different month or season.

The son of Belesa talked about another of the issues that affected the people, HIV/Aids. It was evident that he did not have a full understanding of the way AIDS was transmitted. If it was through sex he said how come we did not have it before? It seemed evident to me that isolation was a reasonable defense against the plague. Figures I'd read from Bushmen people at the village of Tsumkwe in Namibia seemed to indicate this was true with rates much lower than the national average. However, the rates are rising.

At New Xade we were told that people were dying, not just the old people but the young people as well, and AIDS seemed the logical reason. By bringing the people out of the reserve and closer to Ghanzi it was inevitable that the rates would go up especially when considered in conjunction with the large consumption of alcohol.

After another night at Bape we made our way to Mothomelo. I left early with Mogolodi and the Swedes weren't able to follow our tracks all the way to the village they spent some time going back and forth trying to find us. At any rate, oblivious to them, I found a village with 21 people of whom about 15 were around. I spoke at length to one man, a Bakgalagadi, who was a witness in an ongoing trial against the Government to allow his people to stay at their homes. The story was consistent with the rest. They did not want to leave.

We were told of one old man who upon hearing our oncoming car ran off into the bush. This was his practice. He was afraid that he would be moved from his home and feared harassment by wildlife.

At this village three men were working hard to fix a small radio. The connection to the antenna had come off and they were heating solder in a spoon on the fire trying to fix it. In the past each of the communities had radio equipment to send messages from village to village. The government had taken this equipment, provided by an outside donor. Given the isolation we would have appreciated if the Bushmen had radios in case we had a problem. At any rate today they were reduced to seeking out the scratchy medium wave signals of Radio Botswana 1.

It's enough writing for today. I'm staying in the village of Thamaga for a few days while taking care of business at Gaborone. Things are well. Tomorrow I can write more.

December 10:

Kukama means Gemsbok in Setswana. Kukama was the final village that we visited in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. The first young man I met was called Ontusitse. His english was very good. Now 16 he had done some schooling outside of the reserve at a village called Dkar.

In Kukama only about 18 people are living but some have been held out the whole time since government cut services to the villages. When you drive into each village you can see concrete slabs which formerly held large water tanks. Government would send trucks out monthly to top up the tanks.

One lady at Mothomelo showed us how she washed these days. She'd taken the seeds from the melons that they were using for drinking and made them into a powder using a mortar and pestle. Then she placed the powder in her mouth. This mash was then rubbed on the body and sure enough, the dirt clearly came off. A stark contrast to the luxurious showers from home.

Everything we had was appreciated if offered but not asked for. Even our empty five-litre water containers that we would have discarded were coveted. One man who received a container explained to me with pantomime and in simple Setswana that I could understand that the container he was given will be filled with 'pula-metsi', rainwater. Then they would use that water to drink.

The other obvious need was t-shirts. At Mothomelo the next obvious needs was clothes for the children and I was asked to see about three blankets before the winter. One possible solution to this might have been the traditional one of using animal skins but this was ruled out at least in the case of wild animals since hunting was forbidden. Some of the old women were wearing cloaks made from goat skins over otherwise western apparel but none of the young people seemed to be taken with this style.

Ontusitse spoke eloquently about his desire to live at Kukama for the rest of his life. It was his home and he was not leaving.

I hadn't recognized Ontusitse's father immediately but when he saw me he remembered me and I asked if I knew him. Then I realized that this man was Amogelang. During my time at DITSHWANELO - The Botswana Centre for Human Rights I had met him. He was in a pitiful state at that point in the depths of the Kalahari winter, the dry season, he'd made his way to Gaborone to ask for assistance bringing water to his people. Money was found and granted and Amogelang remembered fondly this act.

I remembered that Amogelang had been sick the time when I first met him and he said that yes, he was and pointed to his chest to indicate where the sickness had once been. This day he looked fit, healthy and happy.

I thought that it was Amogelang who had offered me a vest made from some sort of game those years ago but he corrected me that it was another man, a friend of his from Kaudwane, the place where most of Kukama had been resettled by the Government of Botswana.

A truck rolled into town and I wondered immediately if it was the Wildlife Department. I was thrown a back and felt slightly frightened even though I was doing nothing wrong. To be fair the Botswana has some of the best game parks in the world and a big part of this is owed to aggressive anti-poaching programs. The rare Kori Bustard, the world's largest flighted bird, is a common sight in the Central Kalahari but threatened elsewhere. The downside for the 200 or so Bushmen in CKGR is that they are not allowed to hunt. Surely their is some balance that could be struck but negotiations that were ongoing for some time failed and the matter is now before the High Court of Botswana.

It wasn't the Wildlife Department after all and Amogelang and his son assured me that the people were friends. I felt somewhat guarded still but relieved. Two men came from the vehicle, one was a relative of Amogelang's from Kaudwane and the other identified himself as an employee from the Australian/UK based resource company BHP Billiton. He'd come to inform the people that helicopters would be flying over in order to survey for the mineral that fuels Botswana's economy, diamonds.

The man from BHP was as suspicious of me as I might have been of him. He was concerned that I might be affiliated with the British NGO Survival International. Survival has been working with the Bushmen in Central Kalahari and have been reviled by the Government as a threat to the NGO's linkage between relocations and a disputed large deposit at Gope, a site about 60 kilometres west or so of our present location.

Safely I was able to assure the man that I was not a part of Survival and gave a part answer about why I was there which was for holiday. I was happy to say this truthfully as I was truly enjoying the experience of seeing and talking to the G//anakhwe people and seeing how good things were in the reserve. I couldn't help but think about the politics of the situation though as the situation is so clearly politicized. From suspicions at the front gate to this man at Kukama it was impossible to consider it just a holiday.

I would have liked to have chatted with Amogelang and Ontusitse more but our Swiss companions were feeling bullish and required that we push on. So off we went. Amogelang had a last question about the sale of ostrich eggshell jewellery overseas. He was unsure about the reason for demand that side. He wondered if it might be that we use them for magic but I explained that no, it was for the same reason that his people used them, to make themselves beautiful. Women might even use it to attract a gentleman. This must have disappointed him as he was hoping perhaps a windfall income from the production of jewellery at Kukama might allow them to buy a car. I answered truthfully that I doubted this was possible.

Ontusitse seemed to appreciate my frankness. I very much wanted to return but told the father and son that my wish but that I could not make a promise since if I didn't keep it they might be disappointed. With genuine feeling Ontusitse thanked me for coming we shook hands in goodbyes.

After a useless day in Khutse game reserve, hardly an animal in sight, we made our way out of the reserve through Kaudwane. It was sad to see that at eight in the morning the shabeens, informal local bars, were already doing a good business. This made me feel sad and provided a stark contrast to what was the joy and productivity that seemed possible inside the reserve. I'm left to wonder, forgetting about diamonds or any other issue, how a Government could justify a relocation. As a human rights test any move should bring the people a better life. It's very clear from what I've seen that this test is failed, miserably. The first building you see coming into New Xade is a bottle store and the people stink of booze and vomit.