Bushmen in Botswana Say They Were Forcibly Evicted From Village

Molathwe Mokalaka, with his wife Toiwa Setlhobogwe, said they were harassed into leaving Molapo, one of the last traditional Bushmen villages.
Molathwe Mokalaka, with his wife Toiwa Setlhobogwe, said they were harassed into leaving Molapo, one of the last traditional Bushmen villages. (By Craig Timberg -- The Washington Post)
By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 16, 2005

NEW XADE, Botswana -- In the end, the Bushmen of Molapo village could neither hunt nor gather, they said. Nor could they tend crops, collect firewood or lead their goats to pasture. After tens of thousands of years, the dry but life-giving vastness of the Kalahari Desert was declared off-limits by police and wildlife officers.

According to Molapo's chief, Molathwe Mokalaka, officials told the villagers that if they stayed, "you will eat the soil. Nothing else but the soil."

Sealed off from their land and prohibited from using alternative sources of food or water, the final 25 villagers left Molapo on government trucks just over a week ago. They were deposited several hours later in New Xade, a resettlement camp beyond the western border of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Most now spend the hot days here sitting beneath trees or in makeshift huts, dreaming of returning home.

"The government is demolishing our tribe and our race," said Mokalaka, who is about 80 and has the caved chest and ropey arms of the chronically hungry. As he spoke, his air of quiet dignity melted into anger.

Villagers here said they never would have left Molapo if not for the guns and threats of police and wildlife officers. Some critics also contend that the government's motive in removing the Bushmen is to gain easier access to deposits of diamonds located in the game reserve.

Government officials maintain that Mokalaka and the others left voluntarily after their goats, sickened with a contagious disease, were confiscated as part of a quarantine. And though the government has long sought to relocate the Bushmen from the game reserve and banned hunting there, officials denied that the villagers were harassed, prevented from gathering roots or forcibly removed.

A two-hour video that officials shot the week the villagers were removed showed Bushmen who appeared angry and shouted at the camera, but it did not show guns.

"We're not forcing people out," Jan F. Broekhuis, assistant parks director, said in an interview in Gaborone, the capital.

Ruth Maphorisa, the top official in the district that includes the game reserve, said 72 wildlife and police officers entered the game park Sept. 2, the day after the quarantine was declared, to prevent illegal poaching. Maphorisa said the officers were under orders not to harass the Bushmen and that their accounts were an "exaggeration."

But all sides agreed that Molapo is now just a ghost town of empty huts made of sticks and grass. It was one of the last traditional communities of the hunter-gatherers who once roamed most of southern Africa.

Interviews with villagers from Molapo and the other main Bushmen village, Metsiamanong, provided nearly identical accounts of the last two months.

They said armed officers arrived several weeks ago and made their lives virtually impossible, prohibiting hunting and the collecting of water-rich roots that sustain Bushmen in dry months. Patrols were so heavy that even when the Bushmen walked into wooded areas to relieve themselves, they usually drew an armed escort.

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