Rootless in the Kalahari

No one can agree on why Gantsi Mokapasamokawa lacks a roof on his new straw hut.

The local grade-school principal says Mr. Mokapasamokawa was too drunk or lazy to build one. Mokapasamokawa says it's because he has no money. But the government insists that he should have used the $300 it paid him to move from his ancestral Basarwa homeland in the Kalahari Desert.

The issue goes beyond the roofless home, where the rain soaks Mokapasamokawa's blankets and the wind chills his four children at night. The main point is how Mokapasamokawa and 582 other Basarwa are coping after the Botswanan government moved them from their traditional hunting grounds in the Kalahari Desert, which their ancestors first settled 30,000 years ago.

For four months, the Basarwa, also known as Bushmen, have sat in a desolate spot in the desert three hours from the nearest paved road, without running water, bewildered about how to obtain the homes and cattle promised them.

The government moved them from the reserve they have lived on for 30 years, saying that their traditional hunting and cattle-raising ways could not continue in what is now a wildlife national park.

But Basarwa advocates accuse the government of forcing them off the Central Kalahari National Park to make way for more tourist development. They say the Basarwa were lured with promises of cattle and compensation that have not always been met.

But for some observers, their plight is a paradigm of the difficulty of preserving tradition while easing a marginalized indigenous people into the 21st century.

American Ambassador Robert Krueger, on a July fact-finding mission with European counterparts, drew a parallel with the dislocation of life on native American reservations, where depression and alcoholism are also rife. The Botswana government was not uncaring and really wanted to improve the Basarwas' lives, he believes.

"The US cannot claim to present a model for how to deal with indigenous populations. The problem is: How does a hunter-gatherer culture fit into modern life in an age of telecommunications and travel to Mars?" he says.

By all accounts, the old settlement was no paradise, and the Basarwa had already lost most of the ways for which they have been romanticized. Long gone were the days when they hunted game with bows and poisoned arrows, wore leather thongs, and carried water in ostrich eggshells.

Centuries of being treated as outcasts and even vermin - settlers hunted them down and exploited them as slave labor - whittled away their old customs. Life at Old Xade may have been better than at the New Xade, but it was a difficult one, marked by government handouts and job discrimination.

But critics say the government could be more sensitive toward the Botswana Basarwa, who account for half of the estimated 100,000 wandering through this country, Namibia, and South Africa.

"The government is putting them in a worse situation, by removing people and not giving them the development promised," says Qose Xhukuri, a Basarwa and an official of the First People of the Kalahari, a human rights group that claims to speak for Botswana's 50,000 Basarwa.

The government retorts that aside from protecting the wildlife, it is in the Basarwa's best interests to relocate to New Xade, where they will enjoy modern services such as schools and clinics.

"Culture is not static. It changes with time," says Boometswe Mokgothu, deputy minister of local government, lands, and housing. "We want to move them to improve their lives. We want them to be absorbed into society and enjoy what other citizens have. Their life at Old Xade was very difficult. How can we let these people suffer while we are one of the richest countries in Africa?"

He points out that the government has invested almost 15 million pula ($1.75 million) this year alone to resettle the Basarwa. But he admits there have been delays in setting up a clinic and laying water pipelines, which will only be operational by early next year.

The new primary school consists of tents where the sand blows onto desks and blackboards.

The government also does not have a good explanation for why prospecting for diamonds by the South African mining house Anglo American does not disrupt wildlife in the park, yet Basarwa villagers do.

The Basarwa themselves express the fatalism of people with little education who are accustomed to being marginalized. They complain that their ancestors are buried at the old place, a four-hour drive through sand. Many say they have not received the government compensation, which ranges from the equivalent of $85 to $5,500.

"I think the government loves animals more than us. We were told we had to move here. We long for home. We'd go back if we could," says Xhoose Xheruu, a toothless, withered man in his 30s.

Stories like his have stoked resistance in Old Xade, where 1,000 residents still refuse to relocate. The government says they can remain but it will make no further improvements on services to induce them to leave.

While agreeing that life could be better, the visiting ambassadors warned against notions about preserving the Basarwa in a pristine state that no longer exists.

"It is tempting to engage in romantic reverie about primitive people, and for those who fly in on 747 jets to wish to observe the Basarwa in a way of life now lost. The fact is that that way of life is now lost [and] the Basarwa have no more desire to go back to it than we do to live it," says Mr. Krueger.

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