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Return to the desert

  • Written by  James Howe
  • Published in Deserts
The Bushmen still live in traditional single-room huts known as nguun, which contain the family's possessions and a small fire for warmth The Bushmen still live in traditional single-room huts known as nguun, which contain the family's possessions and a small fire for warmth James Howe
01 Aug
Despite a court victory that allowed Botswana’s Bushmen to return to their ancestral land, they continue to face harassment from a government keen to turn the land over to mining

Murmuring quietly through a shy smile, the young Bushman tells me that he has come back to the desert to find a new life. It’s a chilly June evening, and he braces his whip-thin frame against the savannah wind as children huddle at his feet, silently listening to the conversation.

Speaking through an interpreter, Pateletsa Monwelo tells me that he was 16 when the Botswanan government forced his entire village to leave the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) and relocate to Kaudwane, a camp on the outskirts of the Kalahari Desert. Six years later, it became clear to him that if he didn’t find a way to get back to the desert, he would end up either in prison or dead. ‘The humblest people from this village have gone to Kaudwane and are now killing people. They hang themselves and they do all sorts of bad things that we never saw here,’ he says.

That night in the CKGR, as I join the Bushmen around a tiny fire, the talk turns to epic tales of problem-lion hunting. A gnarled old character in an oversized T-shirt takes on the persona of a beast struck by a spear, folding comically into the sand to howls of laughter from his audience. The air is freezing, and the children lean in close to the fire, warming their feet on coals buried in the sand. Strips of roasted eland meat are passed around, followed by a bowl of wild melon and seed porridge. Everyone is happy.

But just a few kilometres away, the desert is changing. Bulldozers have carved wide swathes through the grass and heavy trucks now rumble up and down them, filled with machinery and men. Behind a 2.5-metre barbed-wire fence, green canvas tents have risen in their dozens. The extraction of US$3.3billion of diamonds – the stone that has defined the lives of the Bushmen for more than a decade – has begun.



Kaudwane is hell. When the Bushmen – one of Africa’s last hunter-gatherer peoples – were trucked off their land at the turn of the century, they were promised brand new villages with healthcare centres, schools and permanent homes. What they got was alcohol, HIV/AIDS, prison, depression and death.

In Kaudwane, tiny concrete houses lie scattered across the dust like discarded shoe boxes. Too small to live in, most are empty; the families sleep in the open behind makeshift wind shelters or in thatched huts. Deep into the night, hip hop beats pulse through the desert air until, in the early hours of the morning, the drunks sing and shout their way home.

The Bushmen to whom I speak say that they feel powerless and constantly fearful in the resettlement camps. With little understanding of life outside the desert, the best they can hope for is to earn a few dollars working for foreign cattle farmers. Most can’t find work.

‘Relocation has changed everything,’ says Kaudwane resident Kgaogano Lefatshe, who was once a hunter in the Kalahari. ‘If I was in the CKGR, at least I could set a noose trap and get something out of that, rather than sitting here doing nothing. Once you have money, the only thing you think of is the bar...’

It began in 1997, when the Botswanan government started systematically removing the Bushmen from their land. By 2002, they were nearly all gone. The evictions started peacefully and unobtrusively; residents of Xade (pronounced with a soft tongue-click) were having trouble with a pride of lions, so they asked the wildlife scouts to relocate the lions. Instead, the scouts suggested that the Bushmen themselves relocate.

Desperate to get away from the lions, and with promises of development, they agreed. They were taken to the outskirts of the reserve and left in New Xade, which quickly grew into a refugee-camp-like ghetto.

Cut off from their traditional ways, they instantly became dependent on government money. Outsiders arrived to cash in on the new arrivals and for the first time, the Bushmen came into contact with drugs, alcohol, prostitution and HIV/AIDS.



Buoyed by this easy victory and undeterred by early signs of social collapse in New Xade, the government sent representatives into the CKGR, inviting the residents to relocate in exchange for cash and development. If they refused, wildlife scouts and police confiscated their belongings and forced them into trucks at gunpoint. Some Bushmen were handcuffed and savagely beaten before being carted away.

In 2002, the few Bushmen who had escaped relocation had their tiny welfare payments cut off. Their sole source of water – a borehole at Mothomelo – was destroyed and a slab of concrete laid over it to prevent it being re-drilled. A ban was placed on hunting and brutally enforced.

The international community was deeply shocked by the treatment. Although the Botswanan government claimed it was trying to preserve the natural integrity of the game park and bring the impoverished Bushmen to greater prosperity, most saw the evictions as a calculated drive to clear the land for diamond mining. Tribal rights NGO Survival International provided funds for the Bushmen to take the government to court. In 2004, proceedings began in the High Court of Botswana.

As the case dragged on, many of the Bushmen tried to slip back into the CKGR, but the government stepped up its intimidation. In April 2005, a party of 28 unarmed men, women and children left New Xade to bring supplies to their relatives in the CKGR. They were headed off by police, and pounded with rubber bullets and tear gas. Some of the men were beaten after being handcuffed. At the same time, wildlife scouts were stationed at villages inside the CKGR, telling the remaining Bushmen that they would be killed if they left to find food and water.

In 2006, the Bushmen won their case. It had been the longest and most expensive in Botswana’s history. The judges ordered that the Bushmen be allowed to re-enter the CKGR immediately to resume their hunter-gatherer lives. A media storm broadcast the David and Goliath story around the world, but few stuck around to see what happened next.



Four years after the court case, Monwelo Kaongae went hunting. He killed a ramsbok with a poisoned arrow, skinned it, pegged out the hide and distributed the meat among the community. Elated by his kill and happy that he would have a hide to keep him warm in winter, he went out to look for some tubers.

That evening, armed wildlife scouts visited his village and found the skin drying in the sun. They interrogated his children and waited for Kaongae. When he hadn’t returned by sunset, they took the skin and left. A few hours later, they came back with the police. ‘I was arrested during the night time,’ says Kaongae. ‘It was very cold, and I had no clothes on. But they didn’t give me the chance to get myself a T-shirt to put on.’

The police threw Kaongae – naked, freezing and disorientated – into the back of a 4WD police wagon and drove roughly out of the CKGR. ‘They took me to Khutse gate and after interrogating me and doing all sorts of humiliating things to me, they took me down to Kaudwane and threw me away,’ he says. ‘These days, whenever I hear something that resembles a vehicle, I rush into the bush to hide myself, and later discover that it was only an aeroplane.’

Survival International believes that more than 50 Bushmen have been arrested for hunting without a licence. At least seven were arrested last year, including two who were apprehended in December for killing an eland. One of these men was allegedly strangled until he passed out. When he regained consciousness, he said, the police pretended to bury him alive.

In recent months, paramilitary police camps have been set up near villages and the Bushmen say that the intimidation has returned. Owaa Duxee, an old man who hid alone deep in the desert during the relocations, believes that the government will eventually force the Bushmen out, despite the court ruling. ‘The government has still been visiting the village and telling me I have to move, even after the court case,’ he says. ‘So obviously I should be suspicious. It’s still the government’s stance that we should move out of the CKGR.’  



The Bushmen themselves are torn. On the one hand is their desire to stay on their ancestral land; on the other, is their need for services. Like so many impoverished people worldwide, they are well aware of the benefits of development, especially with regard to education. But during the relocations, the only schools in the CKGR were permanently shut down, along with the travelling medical service. So parents wishing to educate their children must send them back to the resettlement camps.

And when children travel away from home, they lose vital years from their desert education. Many of the young Bushmen who grew up in Kaudwane and New Xade now find it impossible to envisage going back to the desert.

Mpho Tshiama, who was ten years old when he was taken to Kaudwane, tells me that he longs to return to the happy life he knew as a child. But despite his need to escape the desperation of life in Kaudwane, he’s uneasy at the thought of going back. ‘A lot of things make it difficult for me to just pack up my things and go,’ he admits. ‘I’ve stayed here for such a long time. For me to just say, “Because others used to live in the desert, I’ll move back out there too” – it won’t do with me.’

The Bushmen want schools and clinics on their own land. And beneath the sands they have hunted for so long lies tremendous wealth – wealth that could fund the services they so badly need. Gem Diamonds recently provided funds for water charity Vox United to re-open the borehole at Mothomelo, but the drilling project only represents a minute part of the mine’s forecasted profit.



I ask Gem Diamonds’ Haile Mpuso, managing director of the CKGR mine, if the Bushmen will experience any other benefits. He talks long about the company’s corporate social responsibility policies, and refers vaguely to a future ecotourism venture for the Bushmen. But when pressed on Gem Diamonds’ commitment to sequestering a cut of the profits for this project, he admits that the company ‘hasn’t even started to discuss it yet’.

Mpuso tells me that Gem Diamonds is unable to fund schools or medical services, despite the presence of a travelling health service that cares for remote mine workers. ‘This US$3.3billion that we’re talking about – you know who gets the lion’s share? It’s the government. The government is saying, “We get the money, we will look after our people.”’

Understandably, the Bushmen are cynical; after all, their government purposefully sabotaged their sole source of fresh water in the middle of the desert, despite installing bores for animals to drink from elsewhere in the CKGR. The Bushmen feel that Gem Diamonds should have used its power to push for services in the CKGR, or should at least have waited until the government had softened its position.

When I visited the people of Gope, a village situated a stone’s throw from the mine, the only benefit they were receiving was the occasional dump of salty water on the road near their village, which only their donkeys can drink. Jobs have been promised, but none have eventuated. When I follow this up with Mpuso, he admits that most of the positions require years of training, and there are no plans to set up training for Bushmen.

The Bushmen feel that they deserve more, but Mpuso says that Gem Diamonds will simply close the mine if the Bushmen demand too much or if shareholders take issue with the mine’s ethics. The Bushmen say that they won’t miss it; if they can’t benefit from the mine, they would rather their hunting grounds were left in peace.



Shortly before we leave the CKGR, my interpreter and I come upon a family of Bushmen on their way to Kaudwane to fetch supplies. They’ve been walking for three days without water, and they gulp thirstily from our bottles.

The young father lights a pipe and asks if we’ve seen any lions in the direction he’s travelling. Despite the hardships, he and his family intend to rest briefly in Kaudwane, then turn around and walk straight back into the desert.

I ask if it wouldn’t be easier just to stay in Kaudwane. ‘Kaudwane is not our land – that land is for other people,’ he says. ‘Where our ancestors lived, that is where we want to be.’

He draws quietly on his pipe, then sits back to gaze out across the empty savannah. He looks exhausted. ‘If we stay here,’ he says, ‘then maybe, once again, we can become a dignified tribe.’

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