It’s a good thing to chase away people for wildlife.

Thursday, July 29

I’ve done my best to keep busy this week, but for the past two days I’ve been leveled by a chest cold – a gripping, hacking cough that seems, to my mind at least, to be not unrelated to the clouds of dust swirling through the streets of Gaborone. This has made it difficult for me to be my usual, freewheeling self. I suspect many a fine friendship might have blossomed this week, had I not spent the bulk of my time doubled over at the waist, wheezing for air.

I have, nonetheless, managed to keep my few appointments around town. Today, after much good-natured negotiating of kombis and guzzling of cough syrup, I’ve come to the University of Botswana to meet with Professor Lydia Saleshando, a specialist in indigenous people’s rights in Botswana. The university occupies a large chunk of prime Gaborone real estate in the center of town, a short drive from the government’s administrative enclave and what passes for a CBD. It is the start of the school year, and there is much milling of new students around campus: outside the humanities building, to the very loud accompaniment of house music, they gather around the tables of student groups and local banks, signing up for Christian youth choirs and low-fees checking accounts with equal fervor. On the notice boards are advertisements for furnished rooms to let, and the services offered by Gadrey Cabs, and the Gaborone Cancer Walk 2010, and a public lecture on “the many ways of realizing God.” Here I regret the sickness that’s drained me of my strength and charms this week. In better spirits, I’d be happy to kill a few hours walking around campus, chatting with the future leaders of Botswana. (“ACADEMIC DISHONESTY,” a poster assures them, “harms the good name of the University”; “affects your personal integrity”; and “has a heavy penalty.”) Instead I find my way to Administrative Block 108, Office 143, where Prof. Saleshando – a tall, husky woman in traditional dress – is waiting at the appointed hour, two mugs of instant coffee at the ready.

The professor has long been a vocal advocate for the rights of Botswana’s indigenous people; her work with Reteng, a local NGO, seeks, according to the group’s literature, “to promote, nurture and preserve the linguistic and cultural diversity of Botswana’s heritage.” This has been no easy task. Since independence, Botswana has been portrayed by its rulers as a homogenous ethnic grouping, the Batswana; but the reality is that the Batswana – literally, the Setswana-speaking tribes – account for no more than 70 percent of the population. This invented homogeneity poses more than a few problems, not least because it ensures that minority groups – including, among others, the Bakalanga, the Bakgalagadi, the Bayeyi, and the Basarwa, or San – are culturally marginalized, forced to abandon their languages for Setswana in schools, and more or less compelled to adopt an ethnic identity that’s not their own.

(The myth of the Batswana also has a particular bearing on the conflict over land rights in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. The government, by cynically insisting that all Batswana are equal inheritors of the land, has in effect prevented the San from claiming ancestral rights to tribal lands they’ve inhabited for tens of thousands of years – long before the Batswana were anything more than a twinkle in the eye of some Bantu herdsmen in the Horn of Africa. More on this later.)

“Since independence,” says the professor, “[the government] have opposed the rights of indigenous groups.” Earlier this year, the UN slammed Botswana for its appalling track record on the rights of indigenous groups. Reteng, an umbrella group of some dozen indigenous-people’s organizations, including the San advocacy group the First People of the Kalahari, has had some success in uniting Botswana’s marginalized ethnic groups under one banner. But the dominance of the Batswana in government – a dominance now stretching back more than four decades – has made even small victories a challenge. “The government is very clear they don’t want to recognize any groups beside the Tswana-speaking groups,” says Saleshando, “whether it’s with regard to land, to culture, to chieftaincy, to language.”

Reteng has described this in the past as a form of “cultural genocide”; not surprisingly, the group is on less than amicable terms with the Khama government. Their broad appeal across tribal lines has made them one of the country’s most prominent voices for minority rights.

“We are seen negatively by the government,” says Saleshando. “We are a stronger force because we’re a number of ethnic groups working together.”

In my talks with the San in the coming weeks – especially with Jumanda Gakelebone, the outspoken spokesman for the First People of the Kalahari – I’ll learn that Reteng is the only locally based NGO (apart from FPK) that is seen in an unambiguously positive light by the Basarwa. (The London-based advocacy group Survival International – the most contentious and controversial of the San supporters – will get their own separate treatment later.) Ditshwanelo, the country’s leading human-rights NGO, has fallen out of favor with the Basarwa over its continued insistence to negotiate with the government, despite the fact that negotiations over land and water rights in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve have dragged on for over a decade. (As a not-irrelevant sidebar, Saleshando, Gakelebone, and others will point out that the leader of Ditshwanelo, Alice Mogwe, is the daughter of a former Minister for Minerals, and that her family owns shares in a number of mineral-exploration companies.) The San have lost faith in negotiations; in their recent high court hearing, as well as in conversations I’ll have with San leaders in the CKGR, the group has insisted that it wants only the right to prospect and drill for water – something it would be able to accomplish on its own initiative with the help of donors from overseas.

The government has stubbornly refused to grant the San permission to drill in what it claims is a state-owned and -protected area. But as Saleshando points out, “the constitution created the game reserve to allow the Basarwa to practice their hunter-gatherer culture.” You read that right: the Central Kalahari Game Reserve was initially created as much for the protection of the San as for the preservation of the wildlife that inhabited it. Saleshando insists that the government’s appeals for conservation simply (and cynically) obscure its more profit-driven motive to prospect for more minerals. (I have a feeling that the government’s position, given its hopes to develop the high-end tourism sector, is a bit more nuanced. But only a bit. As Saleshando concedes: “The government gets praised by international organizations by reserving 17 percent of its land for wildlife. For them, it’s a good thing to chase away people for wildlife.”)

In the mean time, talks over the fate of the San continue to drag on; a proposed Management Plan, which would allow for San habitation of the CKGR, was discussed and tabled; it now gathers dust. Many of the groups in the negotiating team, says Saleshando, have ties to the BDP government; there seems to be no political commitment to find a resolution to the impasse.

And while the court battle dragged on, the San continued to get uprooted from their homes. In 2005, during the last wave of large-scale resettlements, government trucks entered the reserve, rounded up villagers (often, according to the Basarwa, at gunpoint – a claim the government denies), and relocated them to government-built settlements outside the CKGR. Ostensibly these settlements, like West Hannahai and New Xade, offered a better way of life: there were schools, and clinics, and freshly drilled boreholes. (Two schools inside the reserve were closed by the government; a borehole used by a number of San communities for nearly two decades was sealed in 2002.) But many San felt alienated in their new homes. They were denied their traditional hunting and gathering ways; alcoholism and HIV rates were high. There were few jobs, and few prospects for finding a meaningful way of life that didn’t rely on government hand-outs. The fact that these resettlements were continuing throughout the negotiation process over the CKGR, says Saleshando, demonstrated the government’s bad faith in finding a solution that would satisfy the San. Instead, they were looking to gradually assimilate the San into mainstream – that is, Batswana – life.

“They are very adamant on their policies of assimilation,” says Saleshando. “Their model of development is everybody is the same – they don’t need to be sensitive to the needs of various communities.

“That kind of model is dangerous for development.”

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