Defying Ban, Bushmen Return to Kalahari Homeland

July 26, 2004

Since opening to independent tourism in the early 1990s, Botswana's Central Kalahari Game Reserve has gained fame as one of Africa's greatest adventures: a 20,386-square-mile (52,800-square-kilometer) wildlife preserve where one can rent a 4x4 and go exploring virtually unchaperoned through a landscape packed with giraffes, lions, and antelope.

An equal draw for many was the chance to visit with 2,000 Bushmen, or San—a population of hunter-gatherers made famous by the 1980 film The Gods Must Be Crazy.

Those encounters ended two years ago, when Botswana completed a multiyear process of relocating Bushmen outside the reserve. Officials say the tribespeople moved willingly to the new settlements to receive government services such as education and health care.

Many observers charge that the Bushmen were forced out. But while the argument—among the government, tribal leaders, outside advocacy groups, and lawyers—continues, many Bushmen have stopped waiting for a resolution.

When I visited earlier this year, dozens of Bushmen had returned to the Kalahari reserve to take up their old lives as hunter-gatherers, in defiance of government edicts. Then, during a media tour orchestrated in March to show off the quality of life in the resettlement areas outside the reserve, reporters say they witnessed widespread hunger and more Bushmen streaming into the reserve.

By late spring the number of returnees to the reserve was headed into the hundreds.

Resisting Resettlement

New Xade, one of three new resettlement towns located just beyond the reserve boundaries, is a sprawling collection of mud huts grouped around a few concrete, tin-roof shops and government buildings. The sand bakes in the heat. Most of the vegetation has been stripped away by desiccated-looking livestock.

There I met Xuxuri Johannes, a leader of the ragtag Bushman-rights group First People of the Kalahari. "If the government says that people were volunteering to come out of that place, it will be lying," he told me.

Johannes claimed the move was designed to "create space" for diamond mining.

Officials hotly contest that interpretation. "Those allegations are false and misleading," said Clifford Maribe, a government spokesman. "There is no link whatsoever between the relocation and diamond mining."

Continued on Next Page >>


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