A Culture Vanishes in Kalahari Dust

Mongwegi Thabogwelo looks for edible roots near her native village. She vows to remain in the Kalahari Game Reserve, defying relocation efforts.
Mongwegi Thabogwelo looks for edible roots near her native village. She vows to remain in the Kalahari Game Reserve, defying relocation efforts. (Photos By Craig Timberg -- The Washington Post)
By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 3, 2005

MALAPO, Botswana -- In the Kalahari Desert, where the landscape stretches brown and dusty in every direction, water is power. So when the truckloads of men from the government rumbled up to this ancient Bushmen village three years ago, they found the steel drums that held the community's precious reserves. Then, said villagers, the men tipped the drums over, spilling the water into the sand.

Mongwegi Thabogwelo, a lean, hard-working woman who appeared to be in her forties, recalls their cruel words that day: " 'It's the water,' they said, 'that is keeping you from relocating.' "

The forced removal of the Bushmen was the culmination of what the Botswana government said was years of effort to bring development to southern Africa's most traditional people. The Bushmen have resisted at every turn, defying hunting restrictions, refusing to abandon their villages and battling the government in a court challenge they hope will reverse policies that, they say, have pushed them to the edge of extinction.

At the center of the court case has been testimony about the destruction of such villages as Malapo, which proceeded with an efficiency the Bushmen found terrifying. The men from the government dismantled dozens of huts made of branches and brush, villagers said. Then they ordered the Bushmen -- descendants of people who have survived the harsh conditions of the Kalahari for tens of thousands of years -- to board the trucks for an arduous, six-hour drive to the government camp that was to be their new home.

It was a patch of scrubby land far from their traditional sources of game and water-rich plants and, worse still, far from their ancestors' graves, which encircle Malapo. The displeasure of the ancestors, who Bushmen believe provide guidance and protection, was soon apparent, said Thabogwelo. " 'You have lost us,' " her great-grandparents told her in recurrent dreams, she said. " 'Why are you not next to us?' "

The Bushmen once roamed most of southern Africa as hunter-gatherers, wearing animal skins and surviving on the abundant wildlife and edible plants throughout the region. But over the past several hundred years, their territory and numbers have been steadily shrinking. First Bantu African farmers moved south; then European settlers expanded north from Cape Town.

Both groups historically regarded the Bushmen with disdain, treating them inhumanely and pushing them into ever smaller and less hospitable corners of the region. Slaughters of Bushmen were once common.

More recently, assimilation has undermined the Bushmen as a culturally distinct group, with growing numbers in their twenties and thirties choosing to live and work outside the game reserve, where steady supplies of water and other government services are available.

By the time the government began its forced relocations with the razing of the village of Xade in 1997, only about 2,000 Bushmen remained in the heart of the Kalahari, in a game reserve larger than Switzerland. The residents of Xade were forced beyond the western border of the reserve into a settlement the government dubbed New Xade. But many Bushmen regard it as a dismal and terrifying place where they are estranged from their ancestors and therefore subject to mysterious diseases and even death.

The second sweep came in 2002, when Malapo and other remaining villages were destroyed and inhabitants such as Thabogwelo were trucked to New Xade. Many had never been on a truck and had no idea where they were being taken.

"We were really scared that we were going to die that day," Gabolowe Rathotato, a thin, animated woman of about 70, said in a recent interview. "We were not even given a chance to think if we wanted to move or not. It was really painful."

The Bushmen say they remain puzzled by the relocations, though many suspect that the government wants easy access to the rich veins of diamonds in the eastern portion of the game reserve.

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