Friday, August 6.
Jumanda must be stopped.
He has turned our morning supply run into a veritable shopping spree – a bonanza of little squeezy juice boxes and cartons of Clover milk and packages of processed cheese at a whopping P30 ($4.30) for 10 individually wrapped slices. Casey steps in as the voice of reason: the cheese will melt; the milk will spoil. We are trying desperately to rein in the costs of our trip to the Kalahari – a trip which has already burst my budget – and some thrift at the Choppies is required. It is a losing battle. Our cart is overflowing; between the three of us, we’re planning to consume enough to undoubtedly feed an entire San village for a week. The two storage containers we’ve wedged into the back of our Hilux, beside four 20-liter jugs of fresh Ghanzi tap water, include: 3kg of Choppies brand macaroni, 2kg of Tastic rice, 2.5kg of onions, 3.5kg of potatoes, 1kg of soon-to-be-bruised tomatoes, 1kg of carrots, 1.5kg of Class 1 apples, imported from South Africa; 800g of Yum Yum brand creamy peanut butter; 1 loaf of sliced white bread; 1 loaf of sliced brown bread; 500ml of Excella brand sunflower oil; 8 400g cans of Choppies baked beans in tomato sauce; 500ml of All Time brand chilli sauce in squeezable container; 3 satchets of Robertsons (“The Spice People”) Spice for Rice;1 box of Jungle brand tasty oats (apple cinnamon flavor); ± 500g of beef biltong (a master stroke by Casey, as we’ll soon discover); 1 liter of Choppies mango juice; 1 liter of Purejoy peach juice;1 liter of Choppies tropical nectar juice (the three liters of which combined will not be used once to quench our parched thirst);1 liter of Clover milk (a concession to Jumanda, who wanted to buy two); 1 500g can of Ricoffy instant coffee;1 500g package of Pure Sugar white sugar; 8 2.5kg packages of Pure Sugar white sugar, as tribute to village elders; and 15 50g packages of Boxer brand Piet Retief leaf tobacco, for same. It is an impressive haul. In the Choppies parking lot, struggling to find room for all our booty, we’re surrounded by hungry, eager San children. No doubt it looks to them like we’ve carted off the whole damn supermarket. Casey and I share our concerns – is it really enough? – lest we break down and find ourselves chewing on our extremities for survival. The chasm between the two worlds – the desert thrift of the Bushmen; the zealous abundance of the West – is something I’ll leave for the reader to comment upon.
On the way out of town we stop at the mechanic for one last tune-up. This will prove superfluous: the San of the Kalahari, as we’ll later learn, are not only skilled hunters and gatherers but seriously talented mechanics. With a toot of the horn and a wave of the hand, we kiss Ghanzi goodbye. Between us and our next hot shower are some 500 miles of parched sand and Kalahari dust, much of which we’ll be carting back to Ghanzi in our eyes, ears and hair.
Jumanda is focused; Casey is giddy; I am a bundle of raw nerves in the backseat. I’ve just plunked down close to $600 to research a story that has attracted exactly no interest from the editorial gurus of the great Western media houses; this strikes me, as does so much of my traveling, as entirely keeping with the passionate absurdity of my life. The thought will occur to me often this week, watching the San with their dusty feet and matchstick bodies persisting against the influences of the modern world: there is a part of our bodies hard-wired to live in a certain state because it is coded into each brain cell and corpuscle, and is as natural to us as the way we breathe. You couldn’t expect a San hunter to leave the sun-scoured veld and the desert sky for the sterile life of West Hannahai or New Xade, any more than you could ask a travel writer to leave his laptop and passport for a 401k and a comfy place in middle management. My bank account might be as dry as a Bushman’s borehole, but really, how else am I supposed to live?
This is pseudo-high-brow stuff; in the backseat, with the sun warm on my arms and face, I’m just trying to talk myself down from the cliff of my financial anxieties. It will be, if nothing else, an interesting week. On the outskirts of Ghanzi, we stop to pick up three hitchhikers on their way to New Xade. They are young, wiry, eager. One wears a blue lab coat with Charlton Electrical (Pty) Ltd. written across the back; another has a Billabong cap and a messenger bag with the Manchester United logo on it. They know Jumanda well; they cry out, “Juksi! Juksi!” when we roll to a stop. There is laughter, handshakes, greetings. They climb into the back of the truck, wedging themselves between the luggage and the spare tank of gas as we make our way to New Xade.
It is a long, dusty drive. We’ve turned off the tarmac road – smooth as a baby’s backside from here to Gaborone – and onto a powdery road of fine Kalahari sand. The barren trees and knotted clumps of grass scroll endlessly by. The palette is yellow, brown, gray. Now and then we’ll pass a small, bright-plumaged bird perched on a power line, lifting into the air with a flash of electric blue and ruby red. These small signs of color, of life, we receive like a benediction.
New Xade, suddenly, is upon us. It is a bleak town, washed of color by the Kalahari sun. Broad, dusty roads clotted with donkey dung. San youths on horseback prodding cows and goats toward meager clumps of grass. There are countless cinderblock homes, about as big as a single room, and thatched huts with dusty yards separated by short barbed-wire fences. I have read much of this place: more than a few journalists, reporting on the grim prospects of the San outside the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, have come to New Xade for the requisite Local Color. I suspect I, too, will be returning at some point for the same. We stop outside a small shop; our passengers hop off. Good-natured words of parting are exchanged. A pack of teenage girls saunter by, big-hipped and -butted. One has a giant stomach looped over the front of her skirt. Her t-shirt reads, “LAZY AND PROUD.”
On our way from town we stop at the Coolway Bar & Fresh Produce (“Come 1 Come All”) for some spirits to pass the cold Kalahari nights. The shelves are stocked with disreputable brands of liquor: Clubman Mint Punch, something called Zorba. Casey buys two small bottles of whiskey, earning the approval of the young drunk propping up the wall. Outside I meet a civil servant, a young man from Gaborone, who seems not at all put off by the heat and dreariness of New Xade. He has been here for two years and plans to stay much longer. “It is a decent, decent place,” he assures me.
Decentness notwithstanding, settlements like New Xade have been at the heart of the ideological debate over the fate of the San of the Kalahari. Critics of the government say that these settlements have deprived the San of their traditional means of survival (hunting and gathering), moving them instead into settlements where a lack of job prospects – and few qualifications to compete for work in larger towns, like Ghanzi – forces them to rely on government handouts. Programs to provide the San with cattle and goats have been counterproductive: the communal land shared by the herders is often crowded and overgrazed. The future for many San is bleak. Alcoholism is widespread; so, too, is HIV, which was only introduced into San communities after they left the CKGR. During our conversation in Ghanzi earlier in the week, Jumanda dismissed the notion that the government buildings in the settlements – a new brick schoolhouse here in New Xade, as well as a clinic with a fresh coat of paint – made up for what the San had lost.
“If you have the buildings there – the hospitals, the schools, the clinics – but there is no one getting anything from those schools and clinics,” he said, “to my knowledge, I cannot call that development.”
Having exchanged our passengers for booze, our business in New Xade is complete. On the way from town, we pass a group of youths sitting on a wooden bench outside a shebeen. The sun is hot and glaring off the tin roof. There is a listless stirring of bodies in the shade.
“This is what young people do,” says Jumanda. “They are getting bored. They have nothing to do all day.”
(A recent article in Botswana’s Telegraph newspaper highlighted the problem of home-brewed alcohol in San settlements, which led to high incidences of “rape, defilement and domestic violence,” in the words of an assistant court clerk. One woman, a shebeen owner named Barulaganye Inalame, lamented the fact that her husband could only find work as a “herd boy” on nearby cattle posts and ranches – not nearly enough income to support their family of 12. “I can make close to 200 pula (around $29) a day,” she told the newspaper. “I use the money to feed my children and take them to school, because my husband wastes all his money on young girls and alcohol every month end.”)
Now we have left New Xade and its woes behind. Finally, now, the desert is before us. I would like to wax poetic here about the vastness and emptiness and etc. of this exhilarating landscape, but that would be disingenuous; what I feel is claustrophobic instead. We’re hemmed in by the wild growth of the Kalahari, with a wall of brush rising on either side of us. The road is two narrow ruts in the sand; the going is slow. More than once we have to stop and dig ourselves out of sand as deep as a snow bank. When the engine sputters, Casey and Jumanda have a very technical high-level discussion about engine failures past and present. In the backseat, I furrow my brow. As a native New Yorker – a non-driving, cappuccino-drinking sub-species of homo sapiens who regards asphalt as the fifth element – my usefulness runs out with the tarmac. I say a few prayers to my private, pagan gods. The engine coughs and thrums to life. Again we are moving forward at a rate of roughly 40 kph. We have biltong and apples for lunch.
What is incredible, as we make our slow, lurching progress ahead, is how much life stirs in that bleak landscape around us. Bright, jeweled desert birds thread their colors through the trees; squirrels and spring hares dart from the way of our sand-spinning tires. Coming around a bend we startle a posse of plump guinea fowls, which move skittish and quick-footed from our path. Later, at dusk, we will see three hartebeest prancing across the road, and a lovely kudu whose bright eyes catch our headlights long before we watch its body scampering into the bush.
This should not be surprising. “For the miraculous thing about the Kalahari,” wrote Laurens van der Post in The Lost World of the Kalahari, “is that it is a desert only in the sense that it contains no permanent surface water.”
“Otherwise its deep fertile sands are covered with grass glistening in the wind like fields of gallant corn. It has luxuriant bush, clumps of tress and in places great strips of its own dense woods. It is filled, too, with its own varieties of game, buck of all kinds, birds and lion and leopard. When the rains come it grows sweet-tasting grasses and hangs its bushes with amber berries, glowing raisins and sugared plums. Even the spaces between the satin grass are filled with succulent melons and fragrant cucumbers, and in the earth itself bulbs, tubers, wild carrots, potatoes, turnips and sweet potatoes grow great with moisture and abundantly multiply.
True, in the dry heat of this driest month, I see nothing of the glistening grass and luxuriant bush, let alone the glowing raisins and sugared plums. Still, the frequent sightings of game we’ll have in the coming days – a herd of zebra stamping their hooves in the dust; a solitary gemsbok swishing its lovely tail – were testament enough to the remarkable powers of this terrible place to sustain its desert children.
This has been another source of contention between the San and the Botswana government, which insists that the Basarwa represent a threat to conservation efforts in the CKGR. This is a difficult position to defend: the San, after all, have coexisted with Kalahari wildlife for thousands of years. The government has used whatever means it can, rejecting the applications of hunting permits by the Basarwa or tying them up in reams of red tape. (Appreciate the irony, if you will, of the government making hundreds of thousands of dollars each year from sport-hunting licenses, but rejecting the appeals of the San to hunt for their survival on the grounds of “conservation.”) Many San, Jumanda and others will tell me, have been waiting more than five years for their applications to be approved, and are forced to hunt illegally instead.
Casey brings up the case of Conservation International – an NGO which has been working with the government on a controversial plan to build a wilderness corridor between the CKGR and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, straddling the Botswana-South Africa border. That corridor would run smack through dozens of San settlements; thousands would be displaced. Conservation, says Casey, has a terrible track record with indigenous people’s rights. Meeting a high-level official at a lodge in Ghanzi the night before, Casey says, “She had no idea about the Bushmen situation at all.”
“There are towns, there are villages,” says Jumanda. “I don’t know what they’re going to do about those people.”
It is late in the day when we arrive at last at the Xade gate – the nearest entrance, from Ghanzi, to the CKGR. Inside the office sits a somnolent ranger whose spirit seems as rumpled as his uniform. Only with the greatest of efforts does he heave himself to his feet, open the log book – an ancient, hefty, weathered tome, like a Gutenberg Bible – and point to the place for us to sign our names. His duties discharged thusly, he slumps back into his chair. In a few hours, I’m sure the Kalahari spiders will be spinning their cobwebs around his head.
Outside, there is a new sense of purpose around the car. We had planned to spend the night at the government campsite here in Xade, but Casey – newly spry, after those sluggish hours behind the wheel – asks Jumanda if we can press on instead. The prospect doesn’t seem to thrill him; it is another “two or three” hours to Molapo, he says, which I take to mean “closer to four.” Still, Casey persists. We were hoping, after all, to spend as much time in San settlements as possible. Why waste a night camping in Xade when we could make it to Molapo just after dark? Jumanda seems reluctant, but he warily agrees. Five minutes after stretching our legs and preparing to set up camp, we’re back in the Hilux, making our slow, grinding way through the Kalahari sand to the place where we’ll spend the night.
I can imagine what sadness this trip brings Jumanda. He was born in Mothomelo and educated in Xade; inside the gate to the reserve, he points to a few derelict buildings in the bush: a clinic and the primary school where he was taught as a child. Both were closed when the Xade settlement was relocated in 1997. (“Those buildings there are not being used,” he says, shaking his head. “They are just going to waste.”) Growing up outside the reserve, he attended secondary school in Molepolole. It was there, mixed in with the other Batswana students, that his life began to change. “I felt the pressure at school with kids, the way they treated me,” he told me earlier in the week. He quit his studies and joined First People of the Kalahari, which was founded by Roy Sessana in 1993. Already Jumanda had heard of the work they were doing fighting for the rights of the San. He wanted to join the cause. “I decided to help people make a voice,” he said.
Darkness, now, and still an hour from Molapo. Little creatures dart from the road: spring hares and silver foxes, their eyes glowing in the headlights. We pass a tourist campsite, a shuffling of shadows around a roaring campfire. Across the road is a watering hole the government built for wildlife, which the San are forbidden from using. Jumanda’s voice is bitter as he tells us this. In 2005, he and 31 others were arrested for bringing water into the reserve. There were women and children in the prison with him. Later in the week we’ll meet a young boy who was locked up when he was eight months old.
Finally, now, nearly ten hours after leaving Ghanzi, we see the first San huts silhouetted against the night. We have come at last to Molapo. We park in a small clearing, dust off our hair, stretch our legs. The sky is strung with stars: Scorpio with its upturned tail, Orion the hunter chasing some heavenly game toward the horizon. Cooking fires burn brightly in the darkness outside a few of the homes. It is a cozy settlement.
Jumanda wants us to announce ourselves before setting up camp. He leads us to a large rondavel nearby and calls into the doorway. There are muffled voices, laughter crying out to us. We follow Jumanda inside, where two older couples are sitting around a small fire. It seems we’ve walked in on a dinner party. One gentleman rises, dusts his hands against his pant legs, and greets us warmly. (It is only later that I’ll learn this is Roy Sessana, founder of the First People of the Kalahari.) He exchanges some words with Jumanda, who turns to me and Casey and says only, “It is okay.” I had not realized there was a possibility of things being not okay. There are more handshakes, many words of thanks, much confusion of tongues. Outside a shooting star burns a bright trail across the sky. We pitch our tents in the sand, our tired bodies moving as if through water.
Before long a few men from the village start a fire in a nearby shelter. Their slender bodies crouch in the sand, flames licking at their bare feet. Soon an old man in a Sunday jacket and woolen hat shuffles past and assumes a squatting position by the fire. Much good-natured clicking commences. Casey and I sit whitely to the side as Jumanda and the villagers exchange the latest news. After some minutes Roy comes to join us: a tall man with a strong, noble bearing and a face like bark from the Tree of Life. He listens quietly as Jumanda introduces us and our business in the CKGR, punctuating his monologue with soft notes of approval. In the dim light that dances up from the fire, I can see him scrutinizing our faces closely.
When the introductions are finished, he rises for more firewood and returns with a single branch, presenting it to us like a priest holding aloft the Holy Eucharist. In the days ahead, I’ll note often the solemnity with which the San tend to their fires: the careful placement of wood to keep the fire burning slowly and steadily through the night, or the gentle breaths used to puff a dying fire back to life. Always these acts are performed with an ease and grace that make them seem like an extension of the body’s natural movements, matching the rhythms of our conversations. Probably these same gestures, these same silences, are as old as the earth itself.
Roy has heard our stories and sits with a great ponderous silence on his shoulders. We follow his lead, watching the sparks as they leap through the darkness. Finally he makes a short, guttural noise, as if in preamble, and rocks forward slightly in his seat. “I’m dying,” he says, slowly, but without sadness. “The government close the water. The clinic. The food.” He shakes his head and prods the fire, falling again into silence. We sit there in dumb, quiet reverence. It is like sitting at the feet of an ancient oracle. After some minutes Roy turns to Jumanda and asks him a question in Naro. Jumanda laughs. “He wants to know why President Obama doesn’t talk to Ian” – Ian Khama, the president of Botswana. We laugh and offer apologies on behalf of our country. It is hard to imagine our beleaguered president taking up the cause of the San anytime soon. Roy laughs and shakes his marvelous old head – a man schooled in disappointment. He pushes a branch deeper into the fire and combs the ashes with his foot.
“They said that we chose to live here, so we have done this to ourselves,” he says.
The others sit stone-faced, their knees gathered close to their chins. The sounds of the night surround us: the chirrups of desert insects, the growling of dogs, the rhythmic beat of Congolese music playing on some old household radio. Roy slowly creeks to his feet and apologizes: it is late, and he would like to prepare for bed. We shake his hand again in gratitude and wish him a restful night of sleep. He exchanges a few words with the others before turning toward his home. Then one by one they rise and, without a parting word, vanish into the darkness.