Outrunning the 21st century

The San people, bushman of the Kalahari, are among the world’s most ancient people – they’ve lived in the region for tens of thousands of years. It is to Botswana’s eternal shame that over the past decade, the government here has been systematically removing the bushman from their ancestral lands, destroying their culture and livelihoods in the process, to make way for the diamond mining industry and farmlands. During three major clearouts in 1997, 2002 and 2005, these indigenous people were forced to live in reservations, where the animals they depend on were soon depleted.

Like the Hadzabi people that we met and hunted with on the shores of Lake Eyasi in Tanzania, and the forest tribe we stayed with in Laos, the San – which exist in five tribal groups speaking seven different ‘click’ dialects – are true hunter-gatherers. They hunt game in various ways, including by bow and arrow and by setting innovative corkscrew traps frm underground-dwelling animals like the spring hair, which ensnares the mammal’s fur in its burrow, allowing it to be easily removed. Their most unusual hunting tactic is to outrun an animal, like an antelope, by pursuing it ceaselessly at a pace that just exceeds the animal’s comfort speed. In this way, a group of two or three bushmen can run down a large and fast mammal like a kudu until it collapses from exhaustion in 2.5-3 hours. A television crew from the UK filmed such a hunt here last year and had to reshoot the hunt entirely, because on the first attempt, the film crew in their 4WD vehicle couldn’t keep pace with the hunters on foot! This is in part because the bushmen use shortcuts across the bush to outrun the animal.

The San traditionally live together in small, sustainable, family groups of five-20 members, building temporary grass huts that can be easily dismantled to suit their nomadic lifestyle. Each group will move according to the seasonal availability of game, hunting only what is required to feed their families and supply materials for their clothes and weapons. But, if a family member should die in a certain spot, that place will be abandoned and the group will never again return to camp in that particular place.

Although the groups live and hunt separately from each other, they do come together a few times a year during healing ceremonies led by the Sangoma (medicine men). It is during these meetings that marriages between groups can be arranged. In the north west of Botswana is a place called Tsodilo Hills, a kind of Mecca or pilgrimage site for the San. Thousands of cave and rock paintings there testify to the extraordinarily ancient culture of the bushmen, including artwork depicting seals and whales in a landlocked nation hundreds of kilometres from the ocean. They were painted by San from Angola and Namibia who walked the long journey there.

Like for the nomadic herders we visited around Turkana, the San bushmen’s way of life is under serious threat. But unlike for the Turkana and Samburu tribes, where climate change induced drought is to blame, here in Botswana, the government is orchestrating the San’s decline. Bushmen living in reservations are unable to hunt and so are supplied with government handouts of maize and sugar, which they convert into alcohol to relieve their boredom and depression. Room for maneuvre is limited in a reservation, so people whose entire way of life is built on a roaming relationship with the land and its wildlife are reduced to a fixed-roof existance that’s as alien as asking a suburban Brit to live in a 2-man tent forever.

Alcoholism, HIV and TB rates have soared. There is conflict between the reservation people and locals, because of incidents like, for example, local shops selling things on credit to bushmen, who have never dealt with money transactions before and cannot pay. So they poach or steal goats to make payment.

Some bushmen will never be reservationised – they will hide in the bush and never be found. But the majority are seeing their culture and way of life eroded faster in the past 10 years than in the millennia before. Various concerned NGOs and agencies are trying to help, although some of their efforts seem inappropriate. Survival International, for example, has been handing out LandCruisers to the Bushmen.

In 2006, the Bushmen won the right in the International High Court to return to their ancestral lands. The problem now, though, is that the San have acquired guns, LandCruisers, become accustomed to borehole water supplies and a handy clinic – all provided either by the government or well-meaning NGOs. The bushmen want to return to their hunting grounds in the national parks with all their new comforts including the goats they’ve bought.

The government, rightly in my opinion, has said they are allowed to return, but not with accessories. They are allowed to hunt only with bows and arrows, and must live in their former sustainable way, building grass huts and travelling on foot. Some have returned to their former way of life, but for others, the transition back is just too difficult. Around 50 bushmen have been arrested for hunting in the national parks with guns, for example.

The mess has decimated this ancient peoples – a loss for Botswana and for the world.

“We’re seeing the destruction of a unique way of human life. I’ve lost so many frinds of mine who gave up the will to live once they were moved off their land,” says Martin Flattery, a white Botswanan, who grew up with the Bushmen – he had to have an interpreter when he started school because he only spoke the San click language.

3 thoughts

  1. Saw a less destructive interaction between our society and San last year when recording a radio documentary for the BBC world service. Scientists from Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank walked around with San folk taking notes about their uses of plants. Some of these will be grown in a community garden being established on the edge of the Kalahari. Listen again here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p003yd2w

    1. Sounds fascinating – I’ll have to listen. I don’t know anything about their plant use except the very many uses for the baobab.

  2. Hi Gaia!

    I’m a Minister for the Bushmen. I’m currently working on my thesis, and a big part of it is the problem you describe. The title of my thesis is: Contextual evangelisation to people in an identity crisis, with especial reference to the San of the Omaheke.

    I work day and night with the Bushmen in Namibia to alleviate social problems and poverty, due to the impact of western development. They’re culture is busy fading away – and fast – and it’s leaving behind empty shells of people who used to be so alive!!

    I was wondering if you had any insights into their religious beliefs etc? Or if you have any references?
    Thank you for a very insightful article!

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