Late at night in the Kalahari Desert, a little more than a decade ago, the clouds drew together like rippled crocodile skin, and the Bushmen, led by an old man named Kexla Sanao, danced on the cool sand. Sanao shook his body and stamped his feet, rhythmically mimicking the movement of the bush creatures he had lived with all his life.
An old woman named Qoroxloo Duxee laughed at him. She told me she wasn’t afraid to live among the lions or hyenas in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve of Botswana.
Sanao’s people were fighting for their right to exist after being evicted in 2002 by the Botswanan government from the reserve. Authorities had sealed their wells, leaving them without water, and barred them from hunting.
“They said they were moving us because they wanted to develop us. I don’t know what development means,” he told me in 2005, explaining his shock, and fear, at the idea of moving far from his land and the graves of his ancestors. “To me, it felt like dying.”
The woman, Duxee, died that year of starvation and dehydration, according to a postmortem report, after the government cut off food supplies in a bid to get her and other die-hards to leave. Sanao, who like most Bushmen doesn’t know his age, is still clinging on in the park with a few hundred others.
It would be 10 years before I’d again see Jumanda Gakelebone, the Bushman activist who took me to the reserve to meet his people in 2005. Now 40, he said Thursday at a news conference in Johannesburg that despite three court victories since 2006 affirming the right of the Bushmen to live, hunt for survival and have access to water in the reserve, his people are still struggling for the right to pursue their ancient way of life.
He estimates that the number of Bushmen in the reserve is 150 to 300, after about 600 were evicted in 2002. About 50,000 to 60,000 Bushmen live in Botswana, a country of 2 million, and few have access to their traditional lands, according to the U.S. State Department.
Government harassment of the Bushmen, who call themselves Kua, continued even after the 2006 court ruling that the evictions were illegal, Gakelebone and Gordon Bennett, a British lawyer who represented the Bushmen in their landmark legal action, said Thursday.
Several weeks ago, Botswana’s government extended a yearlong national hunting ban, which it says is necessary to protect wildlife. Gakelebone said the ban made it almost impossible for Bushmen to survive on their traditional lands.
“A person living in the reserve cannot go to a supermarket and get food. If a person can only get food he has hunted and gathered, so allow him to do that,” Gakelebone said.
The ban doesn’t affect hunting in registered game ranches catering mainly to affluent foreign tourists and big-game hunters paying large sums for animal trophies.
The government has denied that it carried out forced resettlement and argued that some Bushmen want to leave the reserve to benefit from government schools and clinics. It has said it imposed the hunting ban to halt a decline in wildlife populations.
Diamond mining and some fracking are allowed in the reserve, according to Survival International, a rights group for indigenous people.
“While the government is pushing [Bushmen] off their land, they’re allowing trucks and hundreds of workers in the reserve, and that must be much more damaging to the wildlife,” Survival International spokeswoman Rebecca Spooner said at the news conference.
Gakelebone believes the government still wants the Bushmen out of the reserve.
“They want us to be modernized. They say that life is primitive,” Gakelebone said. “It seems we are not treated like Botswana citizens. The situation keeps getting worse and worse. It’s never changed.”
Many Bushmen who have moved out of the reserve live in squalid squatter camps around towns. In one desolate settlement named New Xade, they suffer from joblessness, alcohol abuse and other social ills.
When I visited New Xade in 2005, one old man named Molathwe said living there was “like being asleep.” A woman named Molawe Belese, beset by a recurring dream about cars coming for her and people hunting her down, told me that living in New Xade felt “just like being sick.”
She has since returned to the reserve to be with her brother and other family members.
In November, several members of a police special forces unit accused a Bushman, Nkemetseng Motsoko, of poaching an eland and demanded that he surrender the carcass, according to Bennett, the British lawyer. Terrified, Motsoko denied everything.
Bennett said police tortured Motsoko, suspending him upside down in a hole in the sand and filling in the hole, submerging his head until he passed out. They repeated this twice until he confessed and led them to the carcass.
Gakelebone, a small man with a reticent smile, says he became an activist because of painful feelings he had growing up.
“The people in Botswana look down on us,” he told me after the news conference. “They don’t respect us.”
“If a Botswana child does something wrong, they’re told, ‘Don’t behave like a Bushman.’ If I’m dirty, they say, ‘You are dirty like a Bushman.’ So all the bad things are getting close to us. It makes me sad because it seems I’m not a proper human being.
“I was once listening to a radio announcement. I heard there was an accident that killed four people and one Bushman. So we are not people.”
The Botswana government did not respond to phone calls and emails from The Times seeking a response. The U.S. State Department has called the government’s treatment of the Bushmen a major human rights concern.
Bennett said the Botswanan government has to accept the Bushmen’s right to live and hunt in the reserve and should seek ways to address their needs through negotiations, instead of pressuring them to leave.
“The way of life of the Kua people is theirs,” Gakelebone said. “If they choose it, they choose it.”