BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Arabic Spanish Russian Chinese Welsh

 You are in: World: Africa
Front Page 
Middle East 
South Asia 
From Our Own Correspondent 
Letter From America 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Thursday, 19 July, 2001, 21:44 GMT 22:44 UK
Losing battle for Kalahari
San people
Only several hundred remain on their ancestral lands
By Rageh Omaar

The modern world has barely touched the Kalahari desert, in the middle of Botswana. Nature, not man, governs the daily pattern of life.

It is as bare, remote and harsh as life can get - and yet there is a natural, undisturbed order that gives this land its own sense of beauty.

It's up to us, we will stay here even if they try to kill us. We know this land. We are as free as birds and we will live as we want

Gakemothowasepe Molapong
But yet people do live here, as they have done for nearly 30,000 years. This is home to the San people - or the Bushmen of the Kalahari.

They have lived here as hunter-gatherers. Only several hundred remain on their ancestral lands. But now they face a battle to cling on to their way of life.

The Botswanan Government is urging - some would say forcing - them to move. Huddled around fires outside their huts in the cold early morning the villagers told me about their plight.

"It's up to us, we will stay here even if they try to kill us", said 28-year-old Gakemothowasepe Molapong. "We know this land. We are as free as birds and we will live as we want."

It is a competition between the indigenous rights of the San people, and the economic interests of Botswana.

The government says it wants to protect the wildlife, but many believe that they are motivated by the huge mineral wealth the Kalahari is believed to possess, including diamonds and possible uranium. And so, the government wants to relocate the San communities.


The Botswanan Government says that if they do move, they can provide them with a better life in relocation camps.

The camps are located hundreds of miles away. It took six hours to drive to the main camp, New Xadi.

San settlement
The government wants to relocate Bush communities
It has many things that people would recognise as being part of the modern world. Most people live in houses, there is electricity.

In stark contrast to their villages in the desert, you can hear the sound of radios around the camp and you can see quite a few consumer goods. The government provides them with regular food parcels.

But despite this, those who have moved are now living a life of dependency. There is little sense of belonging amongst those that are now living in the camp.

Instead, people who used to be self-reliant now live on handouts. They sit all day with nothing to do. Alcoholism is rife.

Tsamxegea Dumela told me: "We don't have any work. Every day we get up, and the only time we move is to keep in the sunlight. That's all. We have nothing else to do."

Another way

On a farm on the outskirts of the town of Ghanzi, three Bushwomen gather wild roots and fruit. They have been able to live here and freely preserve their culture.

They share the land with Andrea Hardbattle. She speak their language, and considers these people as family.

They don't want to move to these resettlement camps because they will feel totally lost. I think a lot of them will just die there

Andrea Hardbattle
Her father was a policeman from a small village near Hull, in England. He settled here in the 1900s.

He met and married her mother, who was a Bushwoman.

When she was young and her mother was unable to breastfeed her, Andrea was instead breastfed by Nxaniki who still lives with Andrea.

Nxaniki is 70. I spoke to her as she sat under a thorn tree, cooking as her still fit 90-year-old mother, looked on quietly smoking her home-made pipe.

I asked Nxaniki how life had changed for the San people over the years.

She looked at me quizzically, and said she would not know as she was still a young woman.

But she acknowledged that she was fortunate to be able to live all her life, on her own land.

Andrea Hardbattle says the Bush people are slowly losing the ability to shape their own lives.

San settlement
Bush people have lived in this harsh environment for nearly 30,000 years
"Probably they'll eventually have to move," she says, "but a lot of them, particularly the old, are making a stand.

"They were born on their ancestral lands in the Kalahari and they want to die there.

"They don't want to move to these resettlement camps because they will feel totally lost. I think a lot of them will just die there."

Andrea Hardbattle says the San people are not fighting against modernisation, but they want the right to determine the pace of change and how they adapt their ancient culture to it.

The San people of the Kalahari are determined to prevent their way of life from simply disappearing.

But they know all too well that the desert itself is set to change forever, as the mineral wealth that lies within its dry soil is developed - and as more and more tourists are drawn to this region.

In the face of this, they feel they are fighting a losing battle, but it is a battle they have to fight.

See also:

04 Jul 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Botswana
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Africa stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Africa stories