Kalahari Bushmen unite to end oppression

Bushman boy with bow and arrow. Photo: Survival International.
Bushman boy with bow and arrow. Photo: Survival International.
Representatives of the Basarwa or Bushman peoples of Botswana will make 2014 the year to step up their fight to end structural oppression of their communities. Joanna Eede reports ...
We have decided that enough is enough. We have been taken for granted for too long.

Six advocacy groups representing the various Bushman communities of the Kalahari resolved in their December 2013 meeting to unite in their fight for emancipation.

From now on they will "speak with one voice" to address the grievances the have in common. These include the seizure by government of their traditional lands, and constant legal tussles with government over relocations and access to water.

Gana Bushman Roy Sesana, leader of advocacy group First People of the Kalahari (FPK) says the tribes are "tired of being taken for granted, being spoken for and decisions being made on their behalf".

He said they also want to be involved in tourism businesses - especially in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve - and called for affirmative actions in public sector positions in their districts.

Bushmen are currently "invisible" in government institutions, he complained, including in districts where the communities are in the majority. And they suffer educational disadvantage because they are not allowed to use their mother-tongue language in schools.

After 70,000 years, fighting for survival

Yet the Bushmen are the indigenous peoples of southern Africa. Once largely hunter-gatherers, they have lived in the region for 70,000 years, or more. They are also the most victimized peoples in the history of southern Africa.

In 1961, The Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) was created in Botswana to protect the ancestral lands of the 5,000 Gana, Gwi and Tsila, some of the last hunting Bushmen in Africa.

Today they are fighting for their survival as they face persecution from a government intent on driving them off their ancestral land, while promoting the CKGR as a luxury tourist destination.

To add to the Bushmen's woes, recent revelations show that Botswana has opened up their land to fracking companies without the tribe's consent. Survival International, the global movement for tribal peoples' rights, has called for a tourism boycott of Botswana until the Bushmen are allowed to live in peace on their land.

The Central Kalahari Game Reserve, a vast area bigger than Switzerland (52, 000 km2) of open plains, grasslands and fossil rivers, lies in the middle of the richest diamond-producing area in the world.

But after diamonds were discovered in the CKGR in the 1980s, the Botswana government started to forcibly evict the country's oldest inhabitants.

Between 1997 and 2002, almost all Bushmen were forced from their homes and taken away from their hunting grounds to eviction camps outside the reserve.

Their villages were pulled down, the well they had used destroyed, its water drained into the sand. The government tried to make what are their human rights - home, food and water - impossibilities.

Victory in the courts

The Bushmen took the Botswana government to court. The case became the longest and most expensive in the country's history, despite being brought about by its poorest inhabitants.

We have decided that enough is enough. We have been taken for granted for too long.

In 2006, in a landmark victory for tribal peoples the world over, they won the right to return home. But the government continued to prevent the Bushmen from returning home, by banning them from accessing a well which it capped during the evictions.

With support from Survival International, the Bushmen appealed a 2010 High Court judgment that enforced the ban.

On 27th January 2011, in a victory for the Bushman peoples and human rights worldwide, the Botswana's Court of Appeal quashed the 2010 judgment.

Forced evictions

During the forced evictions, the Bushmen's traditional homes were pulled down, their school and health posts closed, the well they had used destroyed, and the water drained into the sand.

"If I went to a Minister and said, 'move from your land,' he'd think I was mad", said a Bushman.

Yet this is what happened to the peoples who once lived from the Zambezi Basin to the Cape.

The Botswana government claim that the Bushmen need to leave behind what they assert is a miserable life "among the animals", in order to "catch up" with the development of the rest of the country. They have also argued that the Bushmen's presence in the reserve is not compatible with preserving wildlife.

But the Bushmen have been living sustainably alongside the Kalahari's wildlife for centuries. President Ian Khama's hypocrisy was recently exposed by revelations that half of the CKGR has been leased out to fracking companies, threatening wildlife and the Bushmen alike.

"They should be elevated from the status where they find themselves", said the Foreign Minister of Botswana. "We would all be concerned that any tribe should remain in the bush communing with flora and fauna."

The government tried to persuade the Bushmen that the eviction was for their own good; that they would benefit from the move socially and economically. The provision of education and health services in the new camps were emphasised.

"How can anyone argue that it's better to live in the wilderness with animals than be here at the relocation site?" asked James Kilo, a government representative.

Relocation sites are 'places of death'

The truth is that the 'relocation sites', however, are places of depression and prostitution where AIDS and alcoholism are rife. They are referred to as "places of death" by the Bushmen.

The truth is that forcibly wrenching people away from their lands, homes, myths, rituals and memories is a fast route to the annihilation of self-worth and the breakdown of an entire society.

"The lion and I are brothers, and I am confused that I should have to leave this place and that the lion can stay", said a Gwi leader.

Life in the eviction camps means the Bushmen are rarely able to earn their livelihood in the way they have for millennia, by hunting animals and gathering bush plants. Hunting is what they have always known; it is their livelihood, their history and their identity as a people.

Now they have been denied hunting licences, and are frequently arrested and beaten when they do hunt. In the eviction camps, however, they are dependent on government hand-outs.

One Bushman man was given a permit to enter the reserve for three days only; he was followed everywhere by armed guards. Others have been severely tortured by wildlife officials on suspicion of hunting.

"The Bushmen are a hunting people", said Roy Sesana. "I grew up a hunter. All our boys and men were hunters. We were made the same as the sand, we were born here. This place is my father's father's father's land."

"I do not want this life", said another Gana Bushman. "First they make us destitute by taking away our way of life, then they say we are nothing because we are destitute."

The majority of Bushmen are still required to apply for restrictive access permits in order to enter their ancestral land in the CKGR. The permits are only granted to Bushmen with relatives inside the reserve. Following Survival's call for a tourism boycott of Botswana, three travel companies have already suspended their tours to the country.

"Why is the government of Botswana persecuting the Bushmen?" asked one Bushman. "I was born in this place and I have been here for a very long time. This is my birthright: here, where my father's body lies in the sand."

The Bushmen will now call a conference of all tribal leaders in Gantsi District in early 2014, said Mogudu, representing the Khwendom Council, and engage with the Gantsi District, which is made of 95 percent of their tribe members, to recruit social workers from within their communities.

"We have decided that enough is enough. We have been taken for granted for too long."


Joanna Eede is a writer and author who specializes in indigenous peoples, natural history and travel. She has created and edited three photographic anthologies and collaborates with leading photojournalists on photo-features and online galleries.

Her work has been published in The Times, The Guardian, Huffington Post, National Geographic, The Atlantic, Geographical, The Ecologist, El Mundo, Conde Nast, Vice, Independent on Sunday, The Daily Mail and many others. Joanna is Editorial and Features consultant to Survival International, the movement for tribal peoples.

Join Survival's Campaign for the Bushmen!


More from this author