Bushmen struggle as modern world encroaches Ancient African culture finds itself besieged by pressures from outside

July 20, 1996|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

D'KAR, Botswana -- Komtsha Komtsha pulled his jacket around him to ward off the chill winter wind that blows unchecked across the flat plains of the Kalahari Desert on its way to this settlement of Bushmen huts.

"The very important thing is the land," Komtsha said. The Bushmen are the indigenous people of the Kalahari, a vast expanse of sandy soil that supports a variety of bushes, grasses and trees that fill the landscape as it diminishes to a distant horizon.

Over multitudes of generations, the Bushmen learned which of these plants provided food, which were good for medicine. They learned to track the antelope, wildebeest and other animals, hunting for their meat.

Today they are struggling to adapt once more, trying to accommodate the computer age without obliterating their

identity. As their landscape has shifted, they have found themselves marooned far from their past but adrift in the present, a predicament that has set off alarms worlds away.

About 6,000 of Botswana's estimated 49,000 Bushmen live in this, the Ghanzi district, almost all in dire poverty. The land is everything.

"If you have the land, then you have the right to use anything that exists on the land," Komtsha said.

Like most Bushmen, Komtsha doesn't know his exact age. He thinks he's between 60 and 70. But he does know that the elders have told him of the days when all this land belonged to the Bushmen.

"Life was good for us then," he said. "We were freer. There was not somebody to control our life. It was in our hands. When other people came here, everything changed."

The Bushmen's life was in their hands in the Kalahari for thousands of years. It was only 100 years ago that the other people came.

Whites, encouraged by Cecil Rhodes' attempt to extend the British Empire, arrived from the south and divided the land into cattle farms. Blacks of the Tswana tribe, who equated cattle with wealth, came from the east with their animals and now own almost all of the farms.

"The Bushmen found themselves squatters on their own land," said Braam Le Roux, who has worked with Bushmen aid groups for years in D'kar. "They had no choice but to work on the farms.

"They received no salary. Maybe they were entitled to milk from one cow, but that's about it."

"They were virtual slaves," is the way another aid worker in D'kar put it.

In more recent years, the anthropologists arrived. They wrote of a simple people who lived in harmony with nature, hunting with bows and arrows, drinking water from ostrich egg canteens, a romantic vision that has persisted, popularized in the movie "The Gods Must be Crazy" and its sequel.

That vision seemed to propel one of the latest group of visitors, a delegation of diplomats that appeared in May.

There were reports that the Botswana government was evicting Bushmen from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, where they had lived for generations. The matter was discussed in the U.S. Senate and the British House of Lords.

Botswana officials denied any forced removals and brought the entourage to this remote area to see for itself. The delegation, which included the United States ambassador, was apparently satisfied with the government explanation.

"All these people came, then they left, and now life is the same for us," said Tuelo Sekalabue of his distinguished visitors. He is headman of the group of Bushmen at Xade, the largest of the settlements within the 33,000-square-mile game reserve in the center of Botswana.

The diplomats apparently thought one of the continent's last groups of hunter-gatherers was being moved out of a reserve to make way for camera-toting tourists.

What they found in Xade was a gathering of stick-and-mud huts, home to about 500 Bushmen, half of all those in the game park. All around were donkeys, goats, sheep and cattle.

"The reason the Bushmen were allowed to stay in the park when it was declared was because their traditional hunting methods were consistent with the preservation of game," explained

Festus G. Mogae, Botswana's vice president.

Mogae said the Botswana government dug a well at Xade during drought 20 years ago. It was a contact point with the Bushmen who then were still semi-nomadic, hunting and gathering in the park.

A health clinic and school were built. The Bushmen left the youngsters behind for education as they went out to hunt. Then in the '80s, they began to settle around Xade. They also started keeping donkeys, then goats, sheep, now cattle.

Mogae said that these practices are incompatible with the preservation of wildlife. The choice given to the Bushmen is either to return to their traditional ways or leave the reserve and settle elsewhere.

For decades the government has encouraged the Bushmen to resettle outside the park, digging wells, building schools and clinics and offering each new settler five cows or 15 goats.

"How are you going to preserve this way of life, in a zoo?" Mogae says to those who argue that these policies are destroying an ancient culture.

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