The Plight of the Bushmen of Botswana

Making a firePhoto: Ian SewellMaking fire

Game roams over the beautiful landscape, while fresh water accumulates from boreholes. This is the land the indigenous people of Botswana have hunted on for 10,000 years. It’s a plethora of riches for hunter-gatherer people, but in recent times the Bushmen of Botswana have only been able to look from afar while huddled in “resettlement” camps. This is a story of a government trying to push out and reshape indigenous people, while the people push back and fight for their rights as a tribe and for basic human needs such as water.

Bushmen children in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana.Photo: © SurvivalChildren smiling

The people have tried to keep to their traditional ways and fought to get back to their lands, but the government of Botswana had already started a ‘modernization’ program which saw the people move from being a hunter-gatherer society to pastoral farming. Many of them lived on the Kalahari game reserve, their home for generations.

Mamonye Segoko at Gope in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve before they were moved to the Kaudwane resettlement camp, Botswana.Photo: © Fiona Watson/SurvivalMamonye Segoko at Gope in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve before they were moved to the Kaudwane resettlement camp, Botswana.

In the 1980s, diamonds were found in the reserve. This was the start of the effort to destroy the Bushmen and their way of life. Government members told them the people must leave because the officials were going to be mining the diamonds. Of course, the people did not just leave, so stronger measures were taken.

A Bushman carrying wood for cooking, Molapo, BotwanaPhoto: © SurvivalA Bushman carrying wood for cooking, Molapo, Botswana

According to Survival International, an organization that works to protect indigenous tribes worldwide: ‘In three big clearances, in 1997, 2002 and 2005, virtually all the Bushmen were forced out. Their homes were dismantled, their school and health posts were closed, their water supply was destroyed and the people were threatened and trucked away.’

Bushman drinking waterPhoto: DVL2Bushman drinking from an ostrich egg

In 2006, with the help of Survival, the Bushmen won a landmark case allowing them to return to the land – but the government were not forced to allow them basic needs like access to water.

Bushman woman grinding melon seeds for soup. CKGR, BotswanaPhoto: © SurvivalWoman grinding melon seeds for soup

Women are often the leaders of Bushman society. They make major decisions, and it is they who claim the rights to watering holes and foraging areas. Water is the one most important things in the lives of the Bushman due to the severe droughts that overcome the area.

Bushman woman on tribal homelands within the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana.Photo: © SurvivalBushman woman on tribal homelands within the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana

When there is no water, the people traditionally turn to ‘sip wells’, making a deep hole in damp sand and using a hollow reed to suck the water into their mouths before sending it down a second straw into an ostrich egg. Needless to say, this is a time-consuming method that often won’t give enough water for all the women, men and children in a tribal group.

San grandaughterPhoto: Lisa Gray

In terrific news, on January 27, 2011, the people won an historic appeal. The high court ruled against the government and ordered that the Bushmen be allowed to access water in the borehole.

According to an article on Wikipedia: ‘Barrister Gordon Bennett represented the Bushmen in court as the judges declared the Botswana government guilty of ‘degrading treatment’ and described the case as ‘a harrowing story of human suffering and despair’. Furthermore, the Government were ordered to pay the costs of the Bushmen’s appeal.’ The government has said they will obey the court order.

San (Bushmen) preparing poison arrows by using roasted seeds of Bobgunnia madagascariensis (=Swartzia m.) and innards of Diamphidia nigroornata, Namibia (border to Botswana)Photo: Werner HammerPreparing poison arrows by using roasted seeds of Bobgunnia madagascariensis and innards of Diamphidia nigroornata

The Bushmen won a huge victory, but there are other issues to fight for before they can safely live their traditional lives and save their unique society. According to Survival International the government has:

Refused to issue a single permit to hunt on their land (despite Botswana’s High Court ruling that its refusal to issue permits was unlawful), Arrested more than 50 Bushmen for hunting to feed their families, Banned them from taking their small herds of goats back to the reserve.’

If you want to help the Bushmen’s plight in some way, Survival has a few ways in which you can. Visit the Bushmen’s page at Survival International

Sources: 1, 2