African Bushmen Tour U.S. to Fund Fight for Land

Stefan Lovgren in Los Angeles
for National Geographic News
September 14, 2004
The worlds of the wild and vast grasslands of southern Africa's Kalahari
region and the manicured mansions of Beverly Hills couldn't
be much further apart.

So Roy Sesana should be forgiven for looking a little bewildered as he took the stage at an Amnesty International fundraiser. Wearing an animal skin, he had come to tell a glitzy Hollywood crowd gathered at musician Jackson Browne's Beverly Hills home about the plight of his Bushmen people.

"I stand before you as a refugee," the 75-year-old San Bushman said through his interpreter, fellow Bushman Jumanda Gakelebone. "Our people have been evicted from our land. I am begging for your help."

It was a star-studded start to a monthlong journey across the United States. The Bushmen hope to raise funds for a court battle against their eviction by the Botswana government from ancestral lands in the Kalahari Game Reserve.

The tour was organized by Rupert Isaacson, a journalist who was born to white Africans but grew up in London. He says loss of that land could mean the end of the Bushmen in Botswana.

"We can't stand by and let these people be destroyed," Isaacson said. He has spent much of the last decade with the Bushmen and has written a book about it, The Healing Land: A Kalahari Journey.


The Bushmen may be the oldest human culture on Earth, with some scientists suggesting that it dates back a hundred thousand years. For tens of thousands of years, the Bushmen populated all of sub-Saharan Africa before settling in the southern region.

Then, perhaps as early as 2,000 years ago, African Bantu warriors arrived from elsewhere on the continent and pushed the Bushmen out of much of the lush southern region.

Extermination of the Bushmen by white invaders began centuries ago. By the 20th century the Bushmen survived only in the dry Kalahari region.

Today there are an estimated hundred thousand Bushmen left in the Kalahari, which stretches across South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia. Most work on other people's cattle ranches or eke out a meager existence in shantytowns and resettlement camps.

Fewer than 10,000 Bushmen live in the traditional way, as hunter-gatherers. Dressed in skin loincloths, the men hunt antelope and other game with bows and arrows. Their tracking and hunting skills are legendary, but the Bushmen have always remained pacifists.

In 2002 the Botswana government evicted almost 2,000 Gana and Gwi San Bushmen from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. The government relocated them to makeshift camps outside the reserve, despite promises that the reserve had been created in part to protect the culture of the Bushmen.

The reserve contains large diamond deposits. The Bushmen accuse the government of relocating them to make way for diamond mines to be exploited by Debswana, a mining company owned jointly by DeBeers, the South African conglomerate, and the Botswana government.

The Botswana government denies the charge. It says the Bushmen must be integrated into mainstream society if they are to benefit from education and medical services.

A group called the First People of Kalahari, led by Sesana, has filed suit against the Botswana government over the evictions. Hearings in the case were postponed to November 3 after the Bushmen ran out of money to fund the case.

Meanwhile, at least a hundred Bushmen remain inside the reserve, and more have been streaming back in recent months. Human rights groups claim some of the Bushmen have been victims of torture and harassment by the Botswana government.

"This is a struggle that's been going on for generations," Isaacson said. "It's cultural genocide, there's just no other way to describe it."

Conflict Resolution

Isaacson says he grew up with his South African mother telling him stories about the Bushmen, golden-skinned hunters called San who had lived in Africa longer than everyone else. As a child, he had Bushman hand-axes on the wall and skin blankets slung over the couch.

Once he began spending time with the Bushmen in the mid-1990s, however, Isaacson says his romanticized image of the Bushmen quickly faded.

"They're not a pristine culture of the past," he said. "They're a living culture that we can learn a lot from."

Isaacson says the Bushmen's emphasis on community and communication has made them masters at conflict resolution.

"All decisions are taken by tribe," he said. "There is no hierarchy and no chief. They don't set up a power that exists only to be abused. Instead, every person has a voice."

The Bushmen are known for their extensive knowledge of medicinal plants. The culture also places great emphasis on spiritual healing. Elaborate dancing rituals, in which traditional healers contact ancestor spirits to drive out bad blood in the community, are carried out regularly.


Sesana, the elder Bushmen activist, was once both a skilled hunter and a faith healer. He says the Bushmen are nothing without their land.

"The government says that it is giving us development," he said a few days after the Hollywood fundraiser. "But I can't get this word into my head. What does it mean?"

In the camps, human rights observers say, the Bushmen are unemployed and bored. Alcoholism is rampant. Sexual abuse is widespread but hardly acknowledged. HIV/AIDS is creeping in.

Seated in the backyard of a private Los Angeles residence where the Bushmen stayed in two tents during their visit, Sesana says his people are not against change.

"But it must be on our terms," said Sesana, who has three wives and nine children. "Why can't we mix with other people and be hunter-gatherers, too?"

Sesana said he has nothing against DeBeers. But if diamond mines are planned for the reserve, the Basarwa, as the Bushmen are known in Botswana, should also get a share of the profits, he said.

The odds of winning the legal battle may seem overwhelming. But the Bushmen have been encouraged by South African tribesmen, who are traveling with them in the United States. In 1999 the South Africans won a claim against their government for 65,000 hectares (160,000 acres) of land, the largest such land claim in South African history.

"We need to go back to our land," said Sesana, who was nursing a toothache. "My ancestors are there. If I could go back there now, I would talk to them and they would cure me."

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