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Story Publication logo July 17, 2013

Botswana: The San and Sands of the Kalahari

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Botswana's Diamond-Cattle-Water Paradox
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Despite Botswana's mineral wealth and rapid development, thirst is widespread across its sandy lands...

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Two years after Kalahari bushmen won the right to access borehole water on their ancestral lands, Botswana's indigenous people remain thirsty.

Since the 1980s, Botswana's policy of mandated modernization and assimilation has displaced thousands of bushmen or San people from their native homes and supplanted their tradition of hunting and gathering with a sedentary farming and livestock-rearing lifestyle. In the hostile desert environment of the Ngamiland District, this translates into curbing access to water.

"Back then, water was always enough. We are nomadic. We always know where to find water. In the rainy season, we'll drink from one side and then we go to another when it is dry. We climb the Hills and fetch water from a rock well which we know is eternal. But now, [settlement] has killed us. We are not living very well," said Xontae Xhao, a San elder of Tsodilo Hills village.

In Tsodilo, or "Mountain of the Gods," two natural sinkholes were once a major source of water for the Ju/'hoansi San in the area. Since 2001, however, the designation of the Hills as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (it is home to the largest collection of rock paintings in the world) led to the relocation of Tsodilo's 300 inhabitants outside the site. In the past decade, the village has been plagued by problems – dried boreholes, an ongoing conflict with a nearby Hambushuku Bantu village, and a broken diesel pump. That same year, however, a $1.2 million donation from Debswana Diamond Trust financed the drilling and maintenance of the two boreholes under five years' worth of community projects. Though water is free, it is untreated and may run out as soon as next year when the projects will end.

Water in Tsodilo is not only scarce but sacred, attracting international visitors with its reputedly anointing properties. "The water in the Hills is strong water with strong spirits. People from all over come to see it and touch it. Today, a group came from Maun. There are people from South Africa all the time and, some months ago, people all the way from Switzerland!" said Darkie Kamunduuoo, Tsodilo's museum manager. "But all water is so precious here."

Tsodilo not only shares its two boreholes with the Hambushuku but also both communities' livestock, as the boreholes specifically drilled for cattle ranching are not functional. Moreover, according to Xhao, livestock are dying due to a combination of thirst and improper care.

"It was a hard life, the past life. We were struggling," he said, "This new life is a bit better. But our lives are still developing slowly."

"We're new to this. I think the San people would prefer to hunt but now the government says we can't hunt and so we don't have licenses or permits. It is very difficult," said Nxisae Kiema, Tsodilo's community liaison.

She believes that very few can actually survive on cattle ranching alone and that most villagers wish to transition into tourism, focusing naturally on the Hills. This too depends on the success of the Trust's five-year projects, which include tour guide training programs and a community-run campsite slated to open in the summer months.

Kiema and Xhao both say that villagers are frustrated with the lack of transparency in the development of the projects. Outside contractors and workers are hired to complete construction while the Trust board seldom communicates project updates or future plans to Tsodilo's leaders. As a result, "the community doesn't feel involved," said Kiema. To Xhao, this is emblematic of a larger, systematic problem in Botswana's policy towards Bushmen.

"The park, they don't talk to us. And the government neglects the San when they should give us more consideration like the Hambushuku," he said.

Despite what is viewed as discriminatory policies, the San will always continue their struggle to subsist, Kiema explained. "We are San. We know the bush, what plants to eat, what berries have water. We have always survived."

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