NEWS 2005

 

Bitter dispute over bushmen lands

By Barnaby Phillips
BBC News, Botswana

Thursday, 24 November 2005, 18:11 GMT

Molatwe Mokalake, an old man probably in his 70s, is still seething with anger three weeks after he was forced out of his home village, Molapo.

He is now staying in the village of New Xade, a village close to the boundary of the vast Central Kalahari Game Reserve, in Botswana's harsh and dry bush country.

Dust blows across the streets, as he sits in a small kraal, surrounded by his family.

"It felt like a war against us", he says.

Bushmen children are in danger of forgetting their ancestors' culture

"The police came with guns. They did not allow the women to collect firewood, and we were not allowed to bring water from outside the reserve. This went on for two weeks. We felt frightened, and we did not come here of our own free will."

The grasslands which surround New Xade are heavily over-grazed. Donkeys, goats and dogs spend the day huddled under the few thorn trees, trying to shelter from the fierce Kalahari sun.

The houses are mostly small and drab, but New Xade does boast a new clinic, creche and primary school.

" We don't force around our people, and we believe in consultation"

Government spokesman Clifford Maribe

Wilderness

This unremarkable place is at the centre of a bitter ideological dispute, between bushman activists and the Botswana government.

The government is encouraging the bushmen to move out of the game reserve and settle in New Xade.

It says it can provide them with better social amenities here, while ensuring that the reserve remains a pristine wilderness.

The government accuses outsiders, and in particular the British lobby group, Survival International, of romanticising the bushmen, and of inciting them to oppose a democratically elected government.

Spokesman Clifford Maribe insists the authorities will not use force against the bushmen.

Molatwe Mokalake says he was forced to leave his home

"Those are false reports intended to raise emotions and make the government look bad," he says.

"The government of Botswana has a responsibility to all citizens - we don't force around our people, and we believe in consultation."

The authorities also deny persistent reports that the government is interested in prospecting for diamonds in the Game Reserve.

" The police came and told us they had permission to shoot us "

Gakeitumele

Intimidation

But it is clear that some of the bushmen in New Xade have been intimidated and are not happy to have left the reserve.

"The police came and told us they had permission to shoot us," says Gakeitumele, Mr Mokalake's granddaughter.

"They took my animals, and they lifted me into the truck to bring me here. But I will go back to Molapo whatever happens".

About a dozen bushmen were listening to our conversation. I asked them whether they preferred living in New Xade, or in the villages where they were born, inside the reserve.

Without hesitation, they all replied that they had been happier in the reserve.

Some said that in the reserve they were closer to their ancestors. Others complained that the move to New Xade has brought them nothing except HIV/Aids and alcoholism.

Court case

It is difficult to judge how representative these opinions are, because I was being shown around New Xade by activists from an organisation called First People of the Kalahari who are challenging government policy.

The fate of Molatwe, Gakeitumele and all the other bushmen who would like to return to their ancestral lands will ultimately be decided in court; the well-publicised case between the Botswana government and First People of the Kalahari is due to resume early next year.

The government argues that the bushmen have already abandoned many aspects of their traditional way of life: the bushmen today have livestock, and they use horses, spears, dogs and even guns to hunt wild animals.

And the fight over the land is only one aspect of a wider struggle for the bushmen's survival.

Preserving a culture

Two hours drive to the north of New Xade is the village of D'Kar, where bushmen elders, and missionaries from Europe and South Africa, are doing their best to keep bushman or San culture alive.

Bushmen perform a traditional healing dance, shuffling round and round in circles, chanting and clapping their hands in rhythm.

Children join in, first watching how the elders move, and then imitating them with difficulty.

While some of the children are enjoying the dance, others appear embarrassed, and choose not to join in.

In a nearby classroom, Tcega Fritz is teaching his particular bushmen dialect, Naro, to a group of children.

Teachers like Tcega Fritz are helping to save Bushmen languages from extinction

To the outsider, Naro consists of a bewildering array of 28 almost indistinguishable clicks.

But Tcega is an engaging teacher and the children are enthusiastic.

Whereas some bushmen languages are only spoken by about 1,000 people, Naro is comparatively healthy; there are some 10,000 Naro speakers in northern Botswana.

"Our world is changing so fast, and sometimes it seems our culture is dying, so we need to use our language to keep our culture alive" says Tcega.

He is fighting to preserve that which can be preserved. But the old way of life, hunting and gathering across the wonderful empty expanses of the Kalahari, has gone forever.

 

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