BOTSWANA: Exiles of the Kalahari

Forcibly resettled by a Botswanan government eager to clear the way for diamond mining, the Bushmen are battling to regain their ancestral homeland.
Publisher Name: 
Mother Jones

It's the middle of the month, and nearly all of the residents of New Xade, a dusty resettlement camp on the edge of Botswana's Central Kalahari Game Reserve, are lining up in the muggy heat. Today is food-aid day, and sacks of cornmeal are being tossed from a government truck parked near a mound of dirty cabbage. A wizened woman shuffles forward, leading her blind husband behind her by a thin stick. In the reserve she might have foraged for wild sweet potatoes, but here she has no choice but to wait for their rations -- the edible plants she knows don't grow here. Nor is there any game to hunt, which perhaps explains why a scrum of men sits sullenly in the shade out front of a bar, building a pile of empty Castle Lager cans.

The 1,500 residents of New Xade represent many of the remaining Bushmen of the Central Kalahari. In 2002, in a move that Botswana's government trumpeted as bringing the Bushmen into the modern age and that international observers decried as a grab for diamonds, these villagers were rounded up from their ancestral homes and relocated -- stick huts and all -- into three camps like this one. The relative isolation that had kept them safe from the AIDS pandemic is now only a memory. "Here we are burying people week by week or daily," says Roy Sesana, head of the advocacy group First People of the Kalahari (FPK). "We can't call that development."

But unless Sesana and his fellow Bushmen win the right to return to the Kalahari in a lawsuit now before Botswana's High Court, it's here the Bushmen are likely to end their days, reduced to collecting handouts in communities overrun with disease, alcoholism, and despair. "This," resident Tshara Johannes tells me, gesturing toward the garbage-strewn streets and loitering drunks, "is the place of perishing."

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AMP Section Name:Natural Resources