Defying Ban, Bushmen Return to Kalahari Homeland

Tom Price
for National Geographic Adventure
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."

In the years since independence from Britain, Botswana has thrived on adventure tourism, while also becoming the world's largest diamond producer. Its 2.4-billion-dollar-a-year (U.S.) mining operations are run through a partnership between the De Beers corporation and Botswana's central government.

Most of the country's Central Kalahari Game Reserve was leased for mineral exploration not long after the Bushmen were resettled. But Maribe and others say that so far no commercially viable diamond deposits have been found.

Returnees I met in the reserve reported harassment, occasional physical abuse, and hardship.

"The government is giving us lots of troubles," said Gakeitswe Gaorapelwe, a Bushman who, along with others, has re-homesteaded the razed village of Molapo inside the reserve.

Gaorapelwe said officials have dismantled pumps on wells and let them fill with sand, forcing villagers to drive a truck 13 hours each way to fill jugs with water.

Tourist Protection

So far, the reserve's status as a natural attraction has helped the Bushmen.

According to University of Nebraska anthropologist Robert Hitchcock, a leading advocate for the tribe, the presence of freewheeling tourists has been a critical deterrent to stronger action by the government.

In April, however, Botswana announced that, starting in 2005, visitors may be allowed to tour the nation's game parks only on professionally outfitted tours.

The stated aim is conservation. Yet without potential witnesses wandering through, says Hitchcock, "This could be the death knell for the [reserve] residents and those who might wish to move back."

That means that this year could be not only the last opportunity for visitors to enjoy Botswana's famous do-it-yourself Kalahari touring, but also the final chance to witness the traditional life of the Kalahari Bushmen.

The preceding story was excerpted from a longer feature article on the Kalahari Bushmen by Tom Price that appears in the August 2004 issue of National Geographic Adventure magazine.

For more African Bushman news, scroll down.

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.