METSIMANONG, Botswana - Here, deep in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, life has never been easy. Rainfall is scarce in the landscape of dry riverbeds, salt flats and barren plains. The days come to a boil under the desert sun. The nights are so cold and lonely, legend says, you can hear the stars sing.
The only people who have ever learned to survive here are the Bushmen, also known as the San or Basarwa. They call themselves the "first people" because God, they say, created them before all others.
Their people have roamed this land for 30,000 years, and the greatest threat to their survival is not their punishing environment, they say, but the government of Botswana.
One by one, Botswana has been evicting the last of the 2,000 Bushmen from the game reserve. Authorities have cut off food rations, denied them hunting licenses and shut off water supplies in an effort to force them to move to villages outside the reserve, where the government says it can provide them with education, health care and the benefits of modern life.
But the last Bushmen don't want to go.
Fewer than 30 remain in the reserve, which is the size of Switzerland. Most of the holdouts are elderly or infirm. Their legs too weak to carry them on long hunts for game, the Bushmen say they wake up each morning wondering what food they can find.
With no more visits from government doctors, they rely on remedies of their forefathers to cure their ills. Their water supplies gone, they drink the juice of desert melons to stay alive.
"We are thirsty and hungry now that we did not move," said Kaezha Sanao, one of the last 18 residents of Metsimanong, a village of thatch-roof huts more than 100 miles from the nearest paved road. "Our government has thrown us away."
A smallish man with a wrinkled face topped with a head of tight black curls, Sanao does not fit the storybook image of a Bushman dressed in loincloth. He wears Western-style clothes: a khaki safari jacket and black athletic shorts, in equal disrepair. Never far from his side, however, is a sharpened spear to ward off snakes and leopards.
His village's plight is at the center of a lawsuit being heard in the Botswana High Court. The Bushmen say the government has illegally moved the people of Metsimanong and other villages from their ancestral lands. Some Bushmen suspect that the evictions are to make way for tourism concessions and diamond exploration - accusations the government denies.
For Sanao and other Bushmen, the stand-off with the Botswana government is more than a dispute over land. It is their last defense against cultural extinction. They have been marginalized as a people by the steady march of development in Southern Africa over the past 500 years: first by African cattle herders who pushed them off the best land, then by the arrival of the Europeans, who viewed them as pests, shooting them for sport.
Their modern history has not been much better. Fewer than 100,000 Bushmen live in Southern Africa today; of those about half live in Botswana. They are mostly poor and unemployed. Most work as housekeepers or farm hands or live in bleak resettlement communities ravaged by alcoholism.
Founded in 1961 both to protect wildlife and the traditional lifestyle of the Bushmen, the Central Kalahari Game Reserve was one of the few places where the Bushmen were allowed to choose their own way of life. But Botswana has found the goals of conserving both wildlife and the Bushmen increasingly incompatible.
Officials say it is too expensive to bring schools, medical clinics and food into the game reserve. To reach a village like Metsimanong requires 15 hours of travel in a four-wheel drive vehicle along some of the worst roads on the continent. Those conditions make it impossible to ensure, for example, that all children are offered the chance to go to school.
The Bushmen, however, say that they should not have to move to receive government services.
"I want the San people to be allowed to decide how they want to live," said Roy Sesana, a founding member of the First People of the Kalahari, a group that has represented the interests of the reserve's Bushmen. "When people are moved, their culture is eroded."
The vast Kalahari Desert is everything to them - their home, their source of food, their school and their place of worship. Its secrets are passed from generation to generation.
This is where Bushmen learn how to hunt, how to read animal tracks, how to use plants to heal and how to honor the graves of those who came before them.
Without the land, said Sesana, their culture would be lost.
The retired army general who leads the resettlement program, Moeng Pheto, bristles in his office at the Ministry of Local Government when he hears those pleas.
"We have all had to move at one time or another to make way for development," Pheto said in the nation's capital, Gaborone. "[The Bushmen] are not special people. They should not be treated any differently from the rest of Botswana."