The government loves those Bushmen.

Tuesday, August 3.

Ghanzi, cow country. Dusty roads grazed by lean, scraggily goats. Chloe tells me to loop a wire around the front gate to keep the donkeys from pushing their way in. There are still prodigious piles of shit lying around from the last time they laid waste to the place. There is something slightly disreputable about her untidy plot; one of the neighbors, mildly alarmed, recently offered to help her rein in the entropy. Clearly, the last tenant – also an American volunteer – was not the whirlwind of domestic ferocity that is your typical African homemaker. Across the street, the newer government homes have solar panels and satellite dishes and well-groomed yards. Chloe’s house is old, there are bats in the walls. She has a screen door that’s coming off at the hinges. Already she’s wasted two full days at government offices, trying to persuade them to send a handy man. She is getting used to the African schedule of long waits and unkept promises.

I’m on my own version of Africa time: I’ve arrived in Ghanzi, as in so many African cities, with just a slight hint of how I’d like to spend the days ahead. I’ve arranged to meet with Jumanda Gakelebone, spokesman for First People of the Kalahari, later in the week, hoping that by then, my ambiguous San story will have started to take shape. Until then – what? Long walks, conversations on the roadside, a blind stumbling for clues in a sort of poor-man’s mystery novel. Often it feels like I’ve arrived at a locked door with a very large set of keys, fumbling to find the one that will fit inside and turn the tumbler. How I got to the door – and what I’m hoping to find on the other side – is never altogether clear to me. This is my African life.

The nights are cold. In the morning, after Chloe’s padded out the door en route to her ambiguous Peace Corps duties, I wind myself in my blanket and wait for the sun to drag itself into the sky. It is after seven when the day finally breaks. I watch the shadows creeping across the walls, dreading the shower. The water is so cold it burns. Later I leave the house wrapped like a roast beef sandwich. It is winter, but still, an African winter. By mid-day I’m shedding layers; the sun is a furnace. Everyone moves in a sort of dream state. The donkeys sit in the shade, swishing their fly-tormented tails.

The city stirs. Outside the Choppies and the Spar, women sit at small wooden tables selling hard candy, cigarettes and airtime. Others sit in the shade selling pillows and blankets, or second-hand shoes, or little baggies of herbal medicines. Raggedy street children scuffle in the dust – small, shrewd, barefoot San boys who ask you for change and then pursue you through the streets with naked aggression. Outside the CB Stores – purveyor of style-less, affordable clothing – ancient San men and women sit in the shade, watching the traffic. Now and then a 4WD will barrel down the road in a cloud of dust, its roof weighted down with camping gear and coolers and jerry cans filled with spare petrol. Most have South African plates and are full of ruddy South African faces, stocking up in Ghanzi at the start of their Kalahari expeditions. You get the feeling these bold Boers might just pitch up and plant the old oranje-blanje-bleu in the first barren patch of veld they come across. The trucks roar past, the city returns to its stupor. Like Chloe, I have taken to lingering walks through the supermarket, stockpiling dry goods for the coming days, as if I’m preparing for a nuclear winter.

Though low on excitement, Ghanzi is proving to be a friendly town – a reminder of African travels past. One morning I stop to greet a man on the road. Instantly we begin to chat with great warmth and animation, as if we’re the oldest of friends. His name is Tom; he is a campaign worker for the Botswana National Front, the country’s oldest opposition party. Campaign-working Tom has much to say about the state of affairs in Botswana c. 2010. The government is corrupt; the San are lazy; the president is untrustworthy (“He does not have a first lady or a child – can you imagine?”). Khama, he says, has overstayed his welcome in state house. “He has the paramount chieftancy in Serowe,” says Tom. “Those people there, they tell him, ‘Why don’t you come here and relax?’ That man does not know about the politicians.”

Tom, it seems, knows quite a bit about the politicians. He has high hopes for the opposition in 2014. The three main opposition parties are ready to form a coalition; next week, he says, there will be a massive rally in Ghanzi, where the opposition will show its strength. The challenge to the ruling party is long overdue. “We Batswana, we are suffering here,” he says. He makes a ragged, hang-dog gesture. “There is no work. Maybe someone with a small plot will pay me to clean their land.” He says he is on his way to the district hospital, where the government pays him P50.15 (slightly more than $7) a day to keep the grounds tidy. That the same government he is railing against keeps him gainfully employed doesn’t seem to deter this fiery young radical. Instead he decries government corruption and wastefulness. He turns his attention to the San, who he implies are more or less rolling in government pula.

“The government gives them living expenses every month, it gives them housing,” he says. “But they say, ‘You, Motswana, you must find work.’” He gestures to a middle-aged San, a beanpost of a man, walking past us with a grocery bag. “That man, he can go to the Choppies or Spar and swipe his card, and the government pays for everything,” says Tom.

“You to go New Xade, they have boreholes, they have everything.” The government, he says, gives the San cattle and goats to graze around the area. He sighs. “Those people have so much freedom. The government loves those Basarwa people.”

Now, this is not exactly accurate. The government largesse is part of its long and complicated relationship with the San – part welfare program, part reparations for the relocations from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. (Most of the San who have been given cattle and goats had earlier been evicted from their homes in the reserve.) Also, as Jumanda Gakelebone will explain later in the week, the monthly allowances are “not only for the Basarwa.” They are part of the government’s Remote Area Dweller Program (RADP), a program which was implemented in the 1970s as a successor to the Bushmen Development Programme, and which offers government assistance to tens of thousands of impoverished people from across the ethnic spectrum. (If it has a disproportionate impact on the San, this owes largely to their persistent exclusion from mainstream Botswana society.) The program, says Gakelebone, “is for the very old and destitute who cannot find work.

“There are many Basarwa here in Ghanzi who do not receive allowances,” he says.

Still, the perception that it is the San – and the San alone – who benefit from government hand-outs is pervasive; it is part of a broader pattern of discimination I will encounter throughout the week in Ghanzi. One man, who works at the local senior secondary school, will tell me, “The San do not value education.” (A large body of research depicts a causal relationship between discrimination against the San in schools and their consistently high drop-out rates.) They also, he says, squander the advantages the government gives them.

“The government will give them cattle and goats, and they do not know what to do with them,” he says. “You will see a man with ten cattle, and two years later he has none. Maybe he has sold them for 200 pula to buy his local beer.”

Spend enough time around disgruntled Batswana and you’d be convinced that the country’s San – long discriminated against, marginalized, and forced from their tribal homes – are little more than the welfare kings and queens of the Kalahari.

This is not surprising; as I’ve consistently discovered in the past few weeks, there are many Batswana who feel they’ve been excluded from the great economic miracles of this ostensibly prosperous nation. It would naturally follow that resentment against those who benefit from the government’s social-welfare policies is also widespread. (How do you tell a poor man that he’s not poor enough?) But then, the strongest criticism against the RADP – and the government’s attitude toward the San – is precisely that it encourages a reliance on handouts, rather than nurturing some broader development goals that would enable a greater degree of self-reliance from the San and other marginalized minority communities.

If you’ve spent any time in Africa, this debate might sound familiar. But the interesting wrinkle in Botswana is that it’s not the development industry of the West that’s at the heart of the debate, but the government itself – in effect, the first I’ve encountered in Africa that might be described as a welfare state. Conspicuous by their absence in Ghanzi are the ubiquitous SUVs of NGOs that one might come to expect in a frontier town like this one. In effect, the government is providing the services that in other countries would be outsourced to Western aid groups – what you would more or less consider to be a healthy thing in much-maligned sub-Saharan Africa. (This is a very crude treatment which requires boatloads of research for me to understand more fully; were it not for the terrible stomach bug that will level me for two days later in the week, I might have had a fruitful talk with the regional head of the UNDP here in Ghanzi.)

But the system isn’t without its flaws, not least because shrinking government revenue and the looming diamond draught are going to tax this country’s ability to sustain such costly programs. (Later in the month, the local press will give extensive, less-than-flattering coverage to the Ministry of Education’s failure to live up to its scholarship commitments to university students.) There’s also the fact that, as one Peace Corps volunteer tells me on a visit to Ghanzi, a culture of complacency has taken root in Botswana. Government handouts, she says, have stunted any sense of initiative. “Now no one wants to work,” she says.

This, too, bears further scrutiny – probably more than my time and money will allow before leaving the country. (My research efforts have been further hampered by piss-poor Internet connections at the bush camps from which I’m writing.) Still, as someone who’s witnessed firsthand the deleterious effects of Western aid in developing nations, I’m compelled to think that Botswana’s approach is a very big step in the right direction. (Please, anyone with a better understanding of the Botswana As A Welfare State hypothesis, feel free to chime in.) The Peace Corps worker I quoted above was visiting Ghanzi with a busload of seniors from a remote western district. They were in Ghanzi on a government-funded shopping spree, purchasing clothes with their 400 pula (about $58) monthly clothing allowance. A dozen of the old and infirm shuffled through the aisles of the CB Stores, holding up shapeless blouses and pairs of pleated khakis. (“Please note,” said a sign on the counter, “that for hygiene reasons no intimate apparel may be returned after purchase.”) The women wore knit hats and colorful sweaters and mismatched socks. The men were lean, leathery, with faces like corduroy. (One tall, copper-colored man with a neck like a Slim Jim wore a battered hunting cap, both ear flaps pulled tightly down.) At the counter, as the cashier rang up each purchase, they signed their names in careful, wobbly script on an RADP form. Those who couldn’t write pressed their thumbs onto an inkpad and left a black thumbprint on the sheet. (This brought one congenial old man to the brink of hysteria.) Beside them Amy, the Peace Corps volunteer, shepherded them through the whole process, offering her good-natured encouragement. Then they picked up their new jackets and sweaters and pants and, with smudged thumbs, went outside to the bus that was waiting to take them home.

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One response to “The government loves those Bushmen.

  1. Ah Botswana, my country. Nothing intelligent to add, just nostalgia. Great descriptions!

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