WASHINGTON - For most of an hour on Sept. 24, the translator's best efforts
had been mostly incomprehensible to English-only ears. The result had been
a disjointed telling, hard to follow for the uninitiated but for others,
all too familiar with the broad outline, semi-biblical in its sacrifice of
detail to narrative power:
"Now is our time ... we like to have our rights now ... Wherever Bushman
is, he is sitting where he is not supposed to be sitting ... Development
has come fast ... A Bushman, any tree he sits under, all that land is his.
There is a lot of food around ... they take him away. The government
relocates us because of diamonds. We cannot stay where there are mines ...
Stay away with riches and leave us to stay in our ancestral lands ... I
don't know if I die, what is supposed to be heritage of my children ...
I'll tell you what I'm saying here today. I'm Bushman and I'm taking my
government to court."
About then, Botswana's ambassador to the United States arose to cast doubt
on the modern saga of the San, the nomadic Native peoples of the Kalahari
Desert in southern Africa.
Suddenly Ray Sesana and his translator, Jumanda Gakelebone, here in advance
of the November resumption in Botswana courts of a large San land claim
against the government, could say it clear and say it cold, compressing a
history of dispossession into three clipped sentences: "I'm oppressed for
my lands, taken by the government. And I'm not here talking about my
cattle. I'm talking about my elands that have been taken away."
They've got an ancient story to tell, the San (or Bushmen, as they refer to
themselves among outsiders because their own word for themselves, No'akwe,
cannot be pronounced outside the culture - the apostrophe indicates a
unique hard clicking sound, considered by some to be a direct imitation of
nature in one of the world's oldest languages). But the modern version of
that story begins with lands and elands (also known as the African
For centuries, the southern star in its silver-blue brilliant phase meant
to the San that "winter has washed its face" and the time had come to hunt
the eland bull. Then the Botswana government put up cordon fences around
San lands, creating a game reserve that cut off the eland and other animals
- wildebeest, hartebeest, gemsbok and springbok - from their accustomed
direct routes to water. Many animals died along the high fence lines. Many
more were segregated onto game reserves, a disruption of the San culture
based on following the great herds and living among them in nature. As a
San defined his culturally-appropriate role for a delegation from the West
in 1995, "We take care of the gemsbok. We are here to take care of the
The San could no longer hunt as they always had. The Botswana government
defined nomadic hunting as "poaching" now. Much as U.S. and Canadian
officials have been known to blame dwindling salmon runs on the miniscule
catch of Native subsistence fishing, their counterparts in Botswana have
been known to suggest that the bows and arrows of the San have caused the
deep dent in the eland population.
Then came economic development. With the discovery of diamonds and the
advent of favored access to European beef markets, all-out development in
Botswana has never looked back. Cattle have assumed an economic importance
more exalted than any functioning constituent of the natural ecosystem -
the wild eland and gemsbok have been eclipsed like the buffalo in that
respect. Cattle barons, diamond mining interests, elements of the middle
class and the political elite form powerful vested interests that "know
what's best" for the San.
So, whereas the wildlife of Botswana are allowed a limited freedom in the
interests of tourism, many San have been herded into settlements where they
can "develop" - a euphemism, as elsewhere in colonized settings, for
cultural loss, alcoholism, idleness and the economic and sexual
exploitation of highly vulnerable individuals.
The Botswana state denies that any of that is the central problem; the
central problem in the state's view, reportedly in the public words of one
head of state, is that the San will be "extinct as the dodo" if they don't
adapt and modernize. To that end the government has relocated them to
settlements and given them cars, cattle and houses.
Rebecca Adamson, president of First Nations Development Institute in
Fredericksburg, Va., recognized the pattern of colonization when she
visited the San in the Kalahari in 1995. Safari leaders could not take her
group into the Kalahari to meet with the San, for the government would have
seized their operators' licenses, leaving them without a way to make a
living. So the group trekked some miles into the Kalahari, set up camp and
the San appeared. Adamson has spoken often of that meeting by firelight and
the sound of the San language, like dry grasses or crackling fire in its
oneness with natural elements.
Then she saw the settlements. "Under the guise of progress, civilization
and profit, people are absolutely destroyed ... You create a dependency for
food, you create a dependency for cash, and then you are in the
Rupert Isaacson, an author on the modern Kalahari and the San and a minder
for Sesana and Gakelebone on their September visit to the United States,
London and Scandinavia, has spent more time in the settlements. "Money and
compensation packages are no consolation," he said, "when a peoples'
culture and way of life has been taken away ... When they're scavenging on
the edge of cities, it's stretching the truth at best to suggest that the
Bushmen have benefited in any way [from relocation]."
Of San demands on Botswana, Isaacson said, "This is not an armed struggle.
They're not taking land back. All they're asking for is to go back home to
land they've resided on for at least 30,000 years."
Sesana, Gakelebone and Isaacson have been assisted in their travels here by
generous hosts on the Navajo and Hopi nations, by Ms. Foundation For Women,
Sacharuna, Ponds Foundation, Indigenous Land Rights Fund, National
Geographic magazine, private individuals and First Nations Development
Institute. The Sept. 24 presentation in Washington was one stop on the