Bushmen in Botswana's Kalahari desert are torn between their ancestral traditions and the demands of the modern world. It leaves them struggling to maintain the remnants of their hunter-gatherer way of life.
The blazing sun of the Kalahari desert beats down on a village
inhabited by Bushmen in Botswana's Central Kalahari Game Reserve.
Women with babies sit on blankets in the shade of the doorways of their grass huts.
A man pounds maize under one of the few trees growing in the white
sand. Small children chase goats, while older ones try to ride reluctant
“This is our ancestral land,” said villager Kesebonye Roy, 29.
“If someone gets sick, we go to the grave site of that person's
ancestor to ask for help. We also pray to our ancestors for rain.”
The residents of Molapo re-established their village after the
Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that the Botswana government had no right to
force Kalahari Bushmen to live in resettlement camps, where they were
due to be integrated into modern society.
The camps were on the outskirts of the game reserve and have schools
and health centres. The Bushmen were also given land to cultivate.
But many of them preferred to return to Molapo and other villages in
remote areas of the 53 000-square-kilometre game reserve, where they are
struggling without any modern amenities to preserve remnants of their
ancient way of life.
“The Bushmen's connection to their land is very spiritual. Losing it
would destroy their identity,” said Fiona Watson from the tribal
people's lobby group, Survival International.
About 100 000 Bushmen - also known as the San or Basarwa - remain in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Angola.
They are known as the “first people” and are the oldest inhabitants of southern Africa.
Investigators and visitors have looked to the Bushmen for clues into how humans may have lived in the Stone Age.
But after two millennia of interaction with Bantu populations, and
now under heavy pressure from the modern world, the Bushmen no longer
provide an adequate model for the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that early
modern humans practised for hundreds of thousands of years.
Residents of Molapo - a village of about 50 people - still gather
wild berries, herbs and roots for nourishment and medicinal uses.
The government's refusal to supply them with water - allegedly to
force them back to resettlement camps to make room for tourism and
diamond mines - has left them reliant on the traditional method of
obtaining it from the rain, as well as from melons they cultivate or
collect in the wild.
But the Bushmen no longer hunt - with the exception of boys shooting
birds and rabbits with their bows and arrows - because it is forbidden
inside the game reserve.
President Ian Khama also imposed a nationwide hunting ban in January
on all species including the eland, the hunting of which was central to
the Kalahari Bushmen's culture.
The meat of the eland was shared between community members. Shamanic
healers absorbed the invisible energy of the slain animal in trance
during communal dances, touching the sick to try to heal them.
Today, there are no healers left in Molapo.
“We are Christians,” Roy said.
The villagers also have chiefs, contradicting their traditional lack
of social hierarchies - even if the Molapo chief is not recognised by
everyone. All of the male elders have a say when disputes arise.
In the face of such modernisation, Bushman culture is increasingly
becoming a spectacle for tourists. The Bushmen now dress in animal
skins, dance and make modern versions of their traditional ostrich
eggshell jewellery - a trend Bushman organisations are trying to
“We love who we are,” activist Jumanda Gakelebone said.
“The government is trying to turn us into pastoralists, which we are
not. We are ecological hunter-gatherers who have a lot to teach the
world about how to coexist peacefully with Mother Earth.”
But, while Gakelebone campaigns for the Bushmen's right to hunt,
Molapo residents are already leading a pastoralist lifestyle, living off
their cattle and goats - kept illegally inside the game reserve - and
Many Bushmen outside the game reserve make a living as farm labourers or as tourist guides.
The few who have gone to university “are ashamed of being Bushmen”, Gakelebone said.
“They even change their names to appear more civilised.”
Some of the Molapo residents also feel ambivalent about preserving their traditional way of life.
“We want the same opportunities as everyone else,” said Xamme
Gaothobogwe, 58, deploring the fact that children must move to a
resettlement camp in order to go to school.
At night, when countless stars fill the sky, some of the villagers
come to sit around a fire. The flames reveal the shapes of donkeys
standing in the darkness. The chirping of crickets fills the cooler air.
Such moments are good for telling stories - perhaps about animals - a
tradition that has not yet died out among the Kalahari Bushmen.
Source: Botswana’s Bushmen resist modernity