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

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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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