Botswana to Relocate San Bushmen from Kalahari In Southern Africa, the government of Botswana is moving some of the last San Bushmen out of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Botswana officials call it progress, but Bushmen argue that the move threatens their culture. Alex Chadwick interviewed some of the San Bushmen about their plight last year, and NPR foreign correspondent Jason Beaubien has an update from Botswana.

Botswana to Relocate San Bushmen from Kalahari

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

About a year ago, I had a chance to meet a small group of travelers from what many anthropologists think is the oldest human community in the world. From a huge desert in southern Africa, they're known as the Bushmen of the Kalahari.

(Soundbite of tribal music)

CHADWICK: After living there for at least 20,000 years, almost all of the Bushmen have now been forced off their land in the Kalahari. Most of the area is in the country of Botswana and part of a huge game reserve. More about that in a moment. But last September, when I met a group of Bushmen visiting Los Angeles, we went for a hike.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

CHADWICK: High above the Pacific Ocean, up here on Nicholas Flat, the late summer meadow grass is brown and wilted. The Bushmen pause on our hike, examining the dust-tried trail.

(Soundbite of voices)

CHADWICK: They are comfortable outdoors anywhere. `My father taught me to hunt,' says Roy Sesana. `He learned to kill a lion with a spear because he had to, and there are still many lions in the Kalahari.' And I wonder who really wants to keep these old ways.

Mr. ROY SESANA (Bushman): (Through Translator) Bushman's life nowadays is difficult because someone has made it to be difficult. But at that time when they were very old, their life was not difficult and that's what's hard.

CHADWICK: When the Bushmen lived by themselves.

Unidentified Translator: Yes.

CHADWICK: Hard to kill a lion with a spear.

Mr. SESANA: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Translator: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. SESANA: (Through Translator) You have to be good at aiming.

CHADWICK: Good at aiming, and possessed of other talents, too. One of the Bushmen--his name is VetKat--was quiet and distant during most of the hike, and then something happened and suddenly he opened up.

(Soundbite of bird)

CHADWICK: There's a bird calling nearby. VetKat answers.

VETKAT (Bushman): (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Translator: VetKat's calling the bird.

(Soundbite of bird, footsteps)

VETKAT: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Translator: He says that it could just be in the bush in the south.

VETKAT: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Translator: Says better off in the bush.

VETKAT: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Translator: He can hunt. He can be happy and just be himself. He says because of circumstances...

VETKAT: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Translator: ...he can't hunt his game anymore. He has to hunt money now.

(Soundbite of footsteps, voices)

CHADWICK: VetKat and Roy Sesana and the other Bushmen I met last year came to this country to gain support against the government of Botswana and its policy of moving them out of their ancestral home, now called the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. The Bushmen say the government is killing their culture, and that its relocation camps are like prisons. But officials in Botswana say the Bushmen are becoming more modern and their lifestyle is no longer compatible with the game reserve. With an update from southern Africa, here is NPR's Jason Beaubien.


There's a stillness in New Gaday(ph), one of the government relocation camps set up for the Bushmen just outside the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. It's a stillness born of dejection, boredom and an oppressive late morning heat. Malata Mugalata(ph) is sitting with a dozen members of his family in the sandy gray dirt outside a thatched hut. He's the leader of a group of 25 Bushmen who were trucked out of the game reserve by the government just a few days earlier. Mugalata's bony weathered shoulders poke through the holes in his T-shirt.

Mr. MALATA MUGALATA: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: `To tell you the truth, I hate this place. I hate this place,' he says. `I hate it. I hate it. Why should I be taken to a place I don't know away from my ancestors. I hate this place. I want to go back to where I came from.' Mugalata doesn't know how old he is, but deep wrinkles radiate from his eyes and he says he has many grandchildren. The sand Bushmen are the oldest human inhabitants of southern Africa; they've lived for more than 20,000 years in the Kalahari Desert that stretches across South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. At their peak, there were possibly several million Bushmen. Now there are less than 100,000. Most of them have given up their hunter/gatherer existence and live in cities or towns. The last few dozen who remained in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Mugalata says, are now being driven out by the Botswana government.

Mr. MUGALATA: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: `We were even told by the officers,' he says, `that if you refuse to move from here we are going to shoot you with the guns.' The Central Kalahari Game Reserve is a vast stretch of scrubby desert and arid grassland. Covering more than 27,000 square miles, it's twice the size of Rwanda. Efforts by the Botswana government to move the Bushmen out of the reserve began in the 1990s. In 2002, they were barred from hunting in the reserve. Then at the end of August of this year, the game reserve was sealed off and Mugalata says the Bushmen were told they couldn't gather roots, berries or water.

Mugalata's account of what's happening contrasts sharply with the government's version, but both sides agree that after the most recent removals there are probably fewer than 30 Bushmen left in the reserve. Ruth Maphorisa, the district commissioner for the area of Botswana that includes the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, says she not aware of any forced removals. She says the Bushmen who've left have done so voluntarily because they've run out of water. Maphorisa says the current government action in the reserve is to combat a disease outbreak among the Bushmen's goats.

Ms. RUTH MAPHORISA (Commissioner): And we discovered that there was some outbreak of disease among goats in the reserve, so what happened is the reserve has been sealed off, temporarily closed.

BEAUBIEN: A few weeks ago, relatives of the Bushmen tried to defy the quarantine and bring provisions to the several dozen people remaining inside. Botswana security forces repelled them with rubber bullets and tear gas. The government argues that the Bushmen are no longer traditional hunter/gatherers. Now they cultivate crops, herd livestock and use horses to track and spear game. Maphorisa says humans, including the Bushmen, are not supposed to live inside Botswana's game reserves. She adds that the government wants to relocate the Bushmen to make it easier to deliver social services.

Ms. MAPHORISA: Government found it very expensive to provide services within the reserve. ...(Unintelligible) all over the reserve and provisional services would be very costly for the government. That's why it was very important to find one particular location where these services could be provided.

BEAUBIEN: Botswana is one of the richest nations in Africa because of its extensive diamond reserves. There's speculation by the Bushmen that the government wants to move them out to open up the reserve to diamond mining. Maphorisa strongly denies this.

Ms. MAPHORISA: And in the issue of diamonds--not an issue at all.

BEAUBIEN: She says the diamonds mined in the reserve or elsewhere in Botswana no additional mineral royalties would be paid to the local tribes--in this case, the Bushmen or the Basarwa, as she calls them.

Ms. MAPHORISA: There has been some exploration, of course, but I don't know whether it's profitable to mine or not but all I'm saying is that the reason why Basarwa are being relocated has got nothing to do with the diamond mining.

BEAUBIEN: At the Nucati relocation camp(ph) the government has built modern schools, a health clinic and a community center in an isolated stretch of gray desert. The government doles out money rations of cornmeal, ultrapasteurized long-life milk and tea. The Bushmen build their own huts in fenced-off plots that they're allocated by the government. Alcoholism, unemployment and HIV are rampant in the camp.

(Soundbite of rooster crowing)

BEAUBIEN: As you enter Nucati, a pile of empty beer cans stands waist-high in the sand in front of the Cool Way Bar(ph). The government says Nucati is very similar to where the Bushmen used to live, and in addition they're allowed to hunt and gather roots in the surrounding grasslands. But Chief Mugalata says the Bushmen don't know where to find edible plants or understand the patterns of game in this area.

Mr. MUGALATA: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: `This is what I do each day,' he says. `Just like you find me here now. I go nowhere. I'm just here, sitting, like this. I don't have anywhere to go.' Mugalata says his ancestors are angry with him because he's left their grave sites, and he says all he wants now is to go back to where his people have lived for thousands and thousands of years. Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

CHADWICK: More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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