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Why the native people of the Kalahari are struggling to stay

July 4, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
Botswana's enormous Central Kalahari Game Reserve is one of the last places on the planet where Bushmen still hunt and gather to survive. But the San people’s culture and way of life has been under threat since precious diamonds were found in the area in the 1980s. Special correspondent Martin Seemungal reports on their long struggle to remain on their ancestral lands.
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WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Now we travel to Botswana in Southern Africa to meet a tribe who are fighting their government to retain the right to live on their ancestral lands.

They were forced off in part because their lands are rich with diamonds.

Special correspondent Martin Seemungal has our story.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Their clothes are modern, but their tools of the hunt are thousands of years old.

The San bushmen still use the spear and the bow and arrow. Botswana’s enormous Central Kalahari Game Reserve is their home, and one of the last places on the planet where you can find bushmen who still hunt and gather to survive.

The San have been tracking like this for generations. Technically, it’s illegal, because the government has banned hunting inside the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, but some of them do it anyway. They say it’s very difficult to stop because it defines who they are.

Tolme Etata’s first memories are of hunting this land.

“If we stop hunting, our culture would be affected,” he says. “Hunting and gathering is part of us.”

Though it is part of them, it is not part of the plan for the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, as Botswana’s government sees it. The San bushmen’s way of life and culture are under threat.

Their struggle to remain here, in a place originally set aside for them in the 1960s, goes back to a major discovery in the 1980s: diamonds. By the mid-1990s, the hunt for precious stones in vast open pit mines like this meant eviction from the reserve for the hunter-gatherers.

Mohulude Moete says it was done by soldiers and military police.

He says: “We were given instructions: If you don’t get into the truck, we will shoot you. Some of our water containers were emptied into the ground. We had no options, so we had to go along with them or be shot.”

These women were young when the authorities came for them, but say the memories are unforgettable.

MUDIKOLELO LEMTODI, Removed Person: All the houses were destroyed. Houses that they used their energies to built were destroyed.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Wells were sealed up. In spite of that, small numbers refused to leave. But there were more evictions, another big one in 2002. The government denied any connection between the evictions and diamonds in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.

It said the bushmen were being moved out to protect the wildlife in the reserve. Botswana’s president at the time was Festus Mogae.

QUESTION: Will you let the bushmen go home, Mr. Mogae?

FORMER PRESIDENT FESTUS MOGAE, Botswana: Where is home? Home is in Botswana.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: In the CKGR. Will you let them go home?

FESTUS MOGAE: No, no.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: The semi-arid Kalahari Desert is a harsh place, but it’s livable, if you know where to gather, along with the hunt. Whether its roots buried deep in the sandy soil or wild melons worth a day’s water, all of their sparse world is put to work.

Traditional huts comes from the desert brush. Onjustice Xothelo says two days’ work will last a decade. The roof is a type of grassy thatch.

ONJUSTICE XOTHELO, Bushman: The thatching grass on top won’t allow even water to get in.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: But the government wanted fewer bushmen staying in, and the evictions from this land continued for nearly 10 years.

Bushmen were relocated to new settlements. This one is called New Xade, named for the village they were forced to leave.

New Xade is just 50 miles from the Kalahari, but it might as well be 5,000 miles away. Officially, nobody is allowed to return. Over the years, some have tried to recreate life in the villages, but they say it’s just not the same.

You can find those traditional huts among the small government-built houses.

“Building the structures here is a reminder to us that we had these huts in Kalahari,” he says. “But our ancestors aren’t here. We build them to remind us what we had.”

New Xade has good roads, a modern clinic and a school. But beyond government-related jobs, there is little else.

MAN: I’m looking for a job, a job.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Right. There’s nothing to do here?

MAN: Yes, we have nothing to do, so, dying for hunger, looking for job.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: There is a small mountain of beer cans outside the one building that does do big business: the local bar. Alcohol abuse is rampant, leading some to criticize the government for creating these relocated towns.

Survival International, an agency that works to protect indigenous people, has been the most vocal. A spokesperson with survival says, it is clear that it is not a viable way of life. It is not based on choice. It deprives people of their meaning, their sense of well-being.

Survival helped the bushmen in Botswana’s courts, a proposition that ended up winning in 2006. The high court ruled the bushmen had been removed unfairly and should be allowed to return. But the government decided it would read the court ruling very selectively. Only bushmen who’d brought the suit would be allowed to return.

Mosetayani Matsipane was there for the court case and heard the judges’ ruling, and could return. Ten years later, he is the leader of Motlomelo, one of a handful of small bushmen settlements in the reserve.

The government says it is working with the villages to restore some basic services, like access to water. It also wants to focus on community-based tourism projects.

Matsipane is happy to be out of New Xade, but he doesn’t think the government’s attitude has changed. He believes they still want him out of the reserve.

“I continually get pressure,” he says. “The government has been doing the same thing as before. But I would rather they take my dead body. I won’t go back.”

His wife, Hakanyaziwe, says this is where she belongs.

“What’s important to me is the fruit of the land in Kalahari,” she says. “In the resettlement camps, everything is about money. If you don’t have money, people end up stealing to survive.”

Professor Maitseo Bolaane is the director of the San Research Center, a small office at the University of Botswana in Gaborone. She believes the San people are a resource that can be used for the good of the Kalahari reserve.

MAITSEO BOLAANE, University of Botswana: They have ideas. They can contribute their knowledge system in the utilization of the resources.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Inside the CKGR, those small communities hold on, numbers dwindling every year, living in the hope that others will be able to return. For now, it is only them, dancing in the desert under the Kalahari stars.

For the NewsHour, I’m Martin Seemungal in the Central Kalahari.

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