Tag Archives: basarwa

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.


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.”