Botswana's Bushmen face more-modern world

Last week, the Bushmen's case to return home was thrown out of court.

A hot wind blows Kalahari sand into the eyes of Molatlhwe Mokalake, a member of one of the world's oldest tribes. He is not sure of his age, but he's definitely an elder.

A few hundred yards away from him in this resettlement camp is a pile of sticks. It is what's left of Mr. Mokalake's small hut from when he lived in the community of Molapo, in Botswana's Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR).

A government delegation came to his village in February, dismantled his house, and placed it Â- and him Â- on the back of a truck, sending him 150 miles away to start a new life.

But it is a life he does not want. Mokalake spent his whole life on the same land his ancestors have trod for the past 20,000 years.

"I am feeling very sad," he says, speaking in the Bushmen language with its trademark clicks and tuts. "We were created by God on the land of our fathers and their forefathers Â- it is our ancestral home. The government has treated us unfairly. We were not given any choice about moving out."

For the Gana and Gwi Â- the so-called Bushmen of the Kalahari Â- it is a story that has been repeated over and over during the past 15 years as the government has pursued its declared aim of "developing and integrating" them into the mainstream of Botswana society.

The Bushmen say that the government just wants access to the CKGR's potential diamond wealth, though no diamond deposits have been found there.

21st-century action

Assisted by local advocacy and tribal-rights groups, the Bushmen, accused by their government of living a "stone-age" existence, put their faith in 21st-century action. Two weeks ago, the hearing to have their eviction declared illegal and their right to return home upheld went to court.

But last Friday, the case was thrown out. A judge ruled that the advocacy group First People of the Kalahari was not authorized to speak for the 242 displaced Bushmen. Lawyers plan to refile the case.

Earlier this month, the United Nations' special rapporteur on indigenous peoples condemned the government for its "discriminatory practices," warning that separation from their tribal lands risks the Bushmen's very survival "as a distinct people."

The government rejects criticism, however, maintaining that by "encouraging" these people to move to areas outside the reserve they may be more easily provided with modern facilities, such as schools and clinics.

The last straw for the Bushmen came in February when the government cut off their water supply in the CKGR.

"The government itself had given them water in the reserve and food supplies and mobile clinics," says Qose Xukuri, of First People of the Kalahari. "Now the government has stopped the water supply and told them to get out."

The government said it had become too expensive to pump water into the area, despite the European Union having offered to foot the bill.

Spiritual and traditional

The Bushmen are a highly spiritual and traditional people who believe that they are guided through life by their ancestors who are buried in the reserve. If they fall sick, for example, they may stand at the gravesides and ask for advice as to what leaf to use to heal a wound or which bark to boil as medicine.

"It's our first experience of life outside the reserve and we feel like fish who have been taken out of the river," says Khumanego Phethadipuo. "The government knows our culture very well, they know we must be able to communicate with our ancestors. Making us leave the place of our forefathers' graves is a form of oppression."

The tribesfolk also express indignance at the government's assertion that their presence in the reserve is harming wildlife stocks.

"Our people have lived in harmony with the land and the animals for thousands of years," says Mokganedi Kanyo. "When we hunted there, we killed only what we needed to eat Â- one animal here, one animal there. The animals are our friends."

Bushmen in baseball caps

The Bushmen no longer live up to the primitive image their name may still conjure up for some people. They wear ordinary clothes, for example. Mosaise Gaorapelwe, another of the Bushmen living in the camp, sports a black baseball cap bearing the slogan "Batman: the Dark Knight."

Some younger tribe members welcome the move and seem more comfortable with their new life than the older people.

Bushmen raise goats and cattle where they previously hunted wild game with arrows and spears.

There are around 1,600 Bushmen in New Xade, which has its own primary school and a health post. Older children travel to school in the town of Ghanzi more than three hours away, where they remain during the term.

Many among the younger generations have intermarried, some have moved away. For others, both young and old, moving off the reserve and closer to civilization has brought problems such as depression and alcoholism.

"Last December, a man here got drunk and killed his girlfriend," says New Xade resident Mosodi Gaoberekwe. "Then two weeks ago, we had a young man here who just went mad, stabbing people with spears and chopping them with axes if they went near. Some people here have got serious alcohol problems ... it's frustration, boredom."

Global campaign

Survival International, a tribal rights organization, refuses to give up on them launching a global campaign to persuade Botswana's government to reverse its policy. It is holding weekly vigils outside Botswana embassies and publishing advertisements around the world.

"These people have been oppressed and undermined," says Mr. Gaoberekwe, a Bushman educated in a modern school who now assists First People of the Kalahari in their advocacy work. "They don't know about the law and the courts, but they do know that they have human rights."

The 20,000-square-mile CKGR, a semi-desert region in the middle of the country, was established in 1960.

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