Tag Archives: san

We have done this to ourselves.

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.

A cozy squeeze in the backseat.

Fully stocked and getting one last tune-up en route to the CKGR.

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.”

Enticing, isn't it?

Coolway Bar: The place to see and be shit-faced in New Xade.

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.”)

Self-portrait in New Xade.

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.

San homes on the outskirts of New Xade.

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.

Frisky business in the Kalahari.

Plotting our next move at the Xade gate.

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.

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.”

Buses, Bushmen, and the road to Botswana.

Saturday, July 24.

Treasure is at the wheel, laughing and shaking his head.

“You cannot understand a word they say!” he says, laughing a rich, marvelous laugh. He lapses into clucks and clicks, wagging his head from side to side, smacking the wheel. Then again he is hysterical laughing. “You cannot understand them!” he shouts with undiminished pleasure. He turns the wheel, eases into traffic, shakes his head. What on earth am I going to say to the San, the legendary Bushmen? And just why am I going to Botswana anyway?

Treasure, the taxi driver, my Zimbabwean friend, is taking me to Park Station in central Johannesburg. In ten hours my 90-day tourist visa for South Africa expires, an event which would no doubt provoke South African immigration officials to ask the sort of reasonable questions – “Just what are you doing in Joburg again?” – that I would very much rather avoid. And so, Botswana. I should make it across the border with a few hours to spare. I will stay a week, or less, or more. Many of the practical details of this trip I haven’t worked out. My first priority is to make it across the border – to turn the clock back on my South African visa to the vital zero hour. Beyond that, everything that happens is a gift, a bonus.

Treasure – three decades now in South Africa – hasn’t lost any of the mischievous wit, the quickness and mirth, that I associate with his native countrymen. He is reciting now the vowel sounds of half a dozen African languages – isiZulu and Shona and Setswana and Sesotho – grammar lessons that he learned thirty years ago as a schoolboy. “Those languages are too easy to learn,” he says. And for him, they undoubtedly are. In the same way that I’ve come to move easily between the Romance languages – exchanging my modest Spanish for threadbare French or Portuguese, as the situation dictates – Treasure can converse with any of the region’s Bantu tribes. He is laughing again, asking my name in Setswana, in Shona. At the station we part warmly, riotously, exchanging our hopes for a happy reunion in a few weeks’ time.

In the parking lot hopeful porters push luggage carts my way. Buses idle, pouring out exhaust. The main terminal is bright, cavernous. Much bustling of passengers coming and going, families parting and reuniting. The briskness, the modernness of South Africa continues, after these past few years on the continent, to amaze. Each of the bus companies has its own departure desk, and at each of these a patient queue of passengers waits. Hanging over the hall is a massive TV screen showing World Cup highlights. I am mesmerized.

At the waiting area for the Intercape bus line I meet a Congolese girl who works at the French Embassy in Gaborone. She is waiting for her uncle who, it follows almost naturally from the fact of his Congolese-ness, is running late. We stand there and marvel at the simple fact of South Africa’s existence. Nancy, a Kinshasa native, has left the chaos and improbable happenstance of her home for a new life in the place they call Gabs. It is, after Kinshasa, a bit dull. She looks happily overwhelmed here in the bus terminal, a young girl in a big city with the unknown pleasures of the coming week ahead of her. We stand there laughing at the doldrums of Gaborone, the happy whirl and din of life in the Congo. More joyful cries around us as families are reunited. A young colored man comes up to us, pleasant and well-spoken, asking for change.

At twenty past two, just minutes shy of our departure, I join the queue at the Intercape desk. I hand my ticket and passport to the relevant functionary. There is brief scanning of the passenger manifest, then a more involved version of same. Something is amiss. Scrutinizing my ticket with a jeweler’s eye, the man gives a peremptory snort, hands it back to me, and says, “This is yesterday’s date.”

And so it is.

It seems my Joburg jailbreak has already hit a snag. Somehow, incredibly, I managed to miss the fact that the Computicket agent who processed my ticket had issued it for the same day. I was supposed to be on yesterday’s bus. My heart sinks; the ticket agent has already moved on to the next passenger. It hardly troubles me that a day-long delay might run me into potential visa problems. More to the point is the fact that I’m ready to go. Another taxi ride back to Auckland Park, another night of trying to scratch together a meal from the dregs of my cupboard, simply won’t do. One way or another, by the end of the day, I expect to be sleeping in Botswana.

Fortunately, my emergency plan – a long, crowded kombi ride to the border – isn’t set into motion: there are two seats left on the very same bus. Boarding with the bitter knowledge that my tight budget has already taken another R170 hit, I give myself a few mental kicks in the ass before acknowledging that, really, it could’ve been worse.

True to the agent’s word, there’s little room to spare. I take a seat beside a slender, woefully deprived looking backpacker with blond dreads tied in an unruly knot above his head. He smells powerfully of cigarettes and unwashed hair. He is from Reunion – “You know eet?” – a small, volcanic, francophone island a few hundred miles off the east African coast. He arrived in Joburg two days ago with plans to make his way north to Malawi in the weeks ahead. Wedged between his legs are a guitar and another string instrument of ambiguous provenance. I can picture him settling happily in a hammock overlooking Nkhata Bay, seducing some young Australian backpacker with romantic tales of Reunion – “You know eet?” – and rolling spliffs the size of a horse’s leg. Across the aisle is a white-haired couple wearing the pleasantly narcotized facial expression I associate with senility and happy old age. Shortly before leaving Joburg they lovingly interlock their hands, and whether on account of tender solicitude or arthritis, their fingers will remain like so for the remainder of the seven-hour trip.

Outside the sprawl to the south of Johannesburg: shopping centers, car dealerships, housing developments with row upon tidy row of identical, candy-colored homes. Dotting the veld around the city are mine dumps as broad and flat as table tops. The light is flat and chalk-colored; it makes everything look harsh, unlovely. Before long a stout, church-going woman rises, introduces herself as Faith, and asks to lead the bus in prayer. Murmurs – of assent or otherwise – are taken as tacit approval. Faith staggers from side to side as the bus weaves through traffic, keeping a tight hold on the small black Bible in her hand. “We want to invite Jesus onto this bus,” she says. (I think, not unreasonably, that he’ll have to fight for a seat.) Shortly into her homily the bus conductor taps on her shoulder and asks her to take a seat. It’s not that he objects to her preaching – oh no, on the contrary. He himself would like to lead us in a prayer of his own – part of the Christian mission of the Intercape bus company, which informs us during a short promotional video that they “start and finish every journey with a prayer.” (Also: “We will expand the company by the grace and guidance of God.”) When the conductor finishes he entrusts us again into Faith’s capable hands. “You might ask God, ‘Why am I suffering? Why do I not have a job?’” says Faith. “But His will for you – they are perfect!”

We are beyond the city now, barreling through landscapes parched by the dry Highveld winter. Brown hills and valleys, pastures the color of burnt wheat. Cattle with their dumb bovine heads bowed to the grass. Tractors, windmills. A line of distant ridges, like an EKG. We pass a squatter camp of wooden clapboard homes and tin shacks with tin roofs. Laundry is strung across the yards – bright print dresses, primary-colored sweatshirts, little kid-sized socks. Clouds of dust blow through the settlement with a Biblical fury. A woman and a man are on the side of the road, sitting beside two empty wheelbarrows. (“Are you HIV-positive? Do you have cancer? Just lie there, relax, because He is there. He is the great healer.”) Power lines stitched across the sky. A freight train solemnly scrolling across the landscape with a ponderous certainty.

Approaching dusk we pull into a rest stop, the Platinum Highway Super Shop. Much happy piling out and stretching of legs. Bakkies are lined up along the curb; teenagers pull into the lot, their cars throbbing with bass. There is a low-rent convenience store and a greasy fast-food joint charging R40-50 to clog your arteries. I buy cookies and a bar of Cadbury’s chocolate – neither the first nor last time I’ve had a meal of pure carbs on the road. Outside darkness is drawing like a curtain across the horizon. By the time we pile into the bus and pull back onto the highway, night has fallen like a rock off a cliff.

Half-way to Botswana now, and I’m nearly 100 pages into The Lost World of the Kalahari, Laurens van der Post’s tale of the San – or Bushmen – of the Kalahari Desert, written half a century ago. Van der Post, an Afrikaner whose family were among the first Voertrekkers to set out from the Cape in the 1800s, was one of the last century’s great explorers. The books describing his travels across southern Africa are a rich repository of myth, memory, history, anthropology, naturalism, humanism – and, of course, a florid prose in which a sky can be described as “velvet” or a view as “Olympian” without the slightest hint of irony. The Lost World of the Kalahari is a fine, fine book. Writing about the Bushmen – considered to be southern Africa’s earliest inhabitants, and a fixation of van der Post’s from an early age – he seemed to find the one subject whom, despite his diminutive stature, could match the epic scale of the elder van der Post’s velvet, Olympian prose.

My interest in van der Post’s Bushmen is not incidental. Nearly two years ago I proposed a story about the San of the Kalahari to my editor at National Geographic Traveler – a story that, I hoped, would match the heroic and comic exploits of my time with Kenya’s Masai in 2007. Though my editor left the magazine before we could discuss the details, it’s a story I’ve wanted to write ever since – sitting, as it does, at the crossroads of tradition and modernity in a way that seems emblematic of so many upheavals across Africa today.

A decade ago, the government of Botswana launched a series of large-scale relocations of the San, forcing them from their ancestral lands into resettlement camps. Thousands were uprooted. Four years ago, a grassroots organization called the First Peoples of the Kalahari launched a campaign for the restitution of their lands in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. A high court ruling in 2006 declared that the San had been wrongfully evicted. Yet since then, those that have returned say they continue to face harassment from the government.

Last week, the San returned to the high court to protest government efforts to deny them access to water – literally a matter of life and death in the Kalahari, one of the driest regions in the world. Since 2008, the San have failed in their attempt to reopen a borehole that had been sealed by the government in 2002; they have also been denied permission to drill a new one. Rights groups say the government is trying to expel the San as a concession to a nearby luxury safari lodge, as well as to a number of diamond mining concerns with interests in the area. Stephen Cory, of the rights group Survival International, noted that the Bushmen are being “denied water on their lands when it is freely provided for tourists, animals, and diamond mines.” As a result, the 1,000-strong San community still living in the Kalahari are forced to bring water to their households from outside the reserve – a long, difficult journey which is usually undertaken on foot.

The government has claimed that the San’s presence in the Kalahari is at odds with conservation efforts; they have also said that the desert’s harsh landscape and punishing climate offer no future for their traditional way of life. The government-built settlements, they note, provide access to education, health care – in effect, a modern way of life. But advocates insist that the San are entitled to preserve a lifestyle they have lived for thousands of years. They paint a bleak picture of San life in the government camps, where they are denied their traditional vocations as hunters and gathers. Few can find work; alcoholism is rife. In a matter of years, the way of life of the San – one of the world’s oldest tribes – could become extinct.

This is a complicated story on many levels. Leaving aside the usual and obvious critiques about various parties’ interests and the malleability of the facts in serving the same, what seems to be at the heart of this conflict are two distinct and wholly incompatible visions of what it means to live in 21st century Botswana. The government, despite troublingly authoritarian tendencies in recent years (more on this later), has one of this continent’s most enviable post-independence track records – one that would most likely impress, even if the bar weren’t set so terribly low. For President Khama, the future of Botswana lies in a robust, diversified economy, led by an educated population of entrepreneurs and technocrats – not hunter-gatherers. The San are trying to preserve the way of life – however difficult, however incompatible with the country’s development goals – that they have lived with dignity and pride for thousands, if not tens of thousands, of years – a way of life that, by Khama’s standards, is not only archaic, but obsolete.

The president’s feelings toward the San can best be summed up by the tale of Dorsey Dube, a South African who was detained by authorities last year after she commented that the president “looked like a Bushman.” Insulting the president is a punishable offence in Botswana. Clearly, Khama did not take the comparison as a compliment.

These are the thoughts occupying my admittedly overworked noggin as we make our way to Botswana. At the border we move briskly through passport control. Money is exchanged at a less-than-favorable rate. Outside the bus the musician-cum-vagabond from Reunion is smoking cigarettes with a tight, pinched face. He is talking to a young rasta from Gaborone, also a musician. The impression they give is of co-conspirators in a plot that involves much good-natured jamming and boatloads of weed.

Soon after boarding the bus we are again barreling through darkness. But after just a few kilometers, suddenly, the city is upon us. There is, at first glance, little to differentiate it from the bush that preceded it. Only the telltale signs of streetlights and round-abouts – and then, magnificently, a very South African-looking shopping mall – are enough to convince me that this is, in fact, a capital city.

At the bus station, a driver from Mokolodi Backpackers is waiting to collect us. Along with my dreadlocked friend, a young couple from Switzerland crowd into the idling hatchback. Much good-natured negotiating of oversized string instruments commences. Finally we’re settled and making our way through the lifeless, Saturday-night streets toward Mokolodi – a 12-kilometer trip from the center of town. On the outskirts of the city, again, darkness. My feeling is that, after three months in Joburg, I’m back in an Africa that I’ve come to know so well. It is a peaceful feeling indeed. I sit in the happy glow of this reverie as a cold wind blows through the car, a moonlit, starless sky overhead. It is a new country, a new adventure, and yet in some small way, it still feels like a homecoming.