The First People - by Leigh Barrett

Photo: Clarke Wheeler

Photo: Clarke Wheeler

Botswana: a country of proud history, stunning landscapes, and home to a semi-desert region that extends far beyond its colonial-drawn borders, to South Africa, Namibia, Angola, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. This sparse landscape hides some exceptional diversity of life: from Africa’s largest mammals to 240 species of birds, all finding a home in the Kgalagadi, this “waterless place”. The Kalahari Desert.

The Kalahari occupies 70% of Botswana, and the only permanent river running through it is the fourth longest river system in southern Africa. Born in the Angolan highlands after the January rains, the Okavango snakes its way over 1,000 miles, forming the border between Angola and Namibia, crossing the Caprivi Strip into Botswana, where after a 4-month journey,  it empties into a swamp in the Kalahari Desert. In the rainy season, the swamp becomes an extraordinary delta, a wetland that sustains the grateful life that flocks to it. In ancient times, the Kalahari was a lake, which the Okavango would have fed as a tributary, but now, it simply peters out in the sand.

Ancient fossil river beds, or “omaramba”, now exist in mere moments of time and yet provide the sustenance for all living beings in the region, attracting one of the continent’s greatest concentrations of game.

In the largest-ever study of African genetic data, published in 2009, researchers at University of Pennsylvania demonstrated that the ancestral origins of humans lies in southern Africa, specifically near the South African-Namibian border, and it is from that point migration began, confirming that the San or Bushmen, are indeed the oldest continuous population of humans on Earth.

They are the oldest inhabitants of Africa, and have lived in southern Africa for anywhere between 20,000 and 45,000 years.  If “indigenous” is defined as originating in a particular place, they truly are the “first people”.

Some Namibian children, when asked, thought the San have always lived in the Kalahari, while the Bushmen have long since died out.

While the wide areas they traverse have often led western cultures to consider them nomadic, they are not. Nor have they settled in one spot, preferring to build temporary shelters in traditional areas, with each group “owning” their waterhole (although it is customary to never deny another access to it). With their hunter-gatherer tradition, they obtain most of their food from native plants, and around one-third of their diet coming from hunting antelope and small game.

Elizabeth Marshall-Thomas was a teenager when her anthropologist parents trekked into the desert in 1950 to begin their study of these extraordinary people, and she outlined the concept of the shelters:

“To my way of looking at things, there was a glacial period of 150,000 years ago, the forests dried up and grasslands spread… and there are only a certain number of ways you can live by hunting and gathering on a savanna – you have to live near water, you have to live within walking distance of water, you have to protect yourself against predators. To make nests, the great apes weave branches together and stuff them with leaves - but they just use them for a brief period of time and then move on. If they return to that place they make new nests. It seems to me that when people came down from the trees and lived on the savanna, they kept the nest-making practice: the nests are made from branches, stuck in the ground, woven together and covered with grass. If you look at a great ape nest it’s like your hand is cupped palm up, and if you look at a Bushmen shelter, it’s a hand cupped on its side – it’s the same thing. They don’t go back to the old shelters, they make new ones.”

She explained their interesting relationship with the big cats: “In those days, the lions in the interior didn’t hunt people. Even so, lions loomed large in people’s imaginations, and there were rules that they didn’t talk about lions in daytime, and you couldn’t use the word ‘lion’ – or you shouldn’t. Lions did not hunt people, and the people did not hunt the lions; they shared their living spaces. The lions used it at night, and the people used it during the daytime. At a waterhole, lions drank at night, and people stayed in the encampment. Leopards did prey on people, not much but they were very different from lions. The shelters protected the people from leopards, as they most frequently attack from behind, so if all the shelters face in different directions, someone is going to see a leopard.

“You don’t change things unless you have to. If there is a system that works, you keep it. You have enough to worry about without experimenting with different kinds of shelters. That aspect of their culture goes back a very long time and may have come from the nests that all the great apes build.”

Call it a good marriage:
They never fought in public,
They acted circumspectly
And faced the world with pride. ~ Call It A Good Marriage, by Robert Graves

Gender equality is a long accepted practice in Bushmen culture. Megan Biesele called it a “natural democracy”, with women and men engaged in decision-making and child rearing. Men played a role in hunting and fending off dangerous animals, but were just as capable of fetching firewood and water.

Marshall Thomas: “People were often betrothed as children, and married very young, not to have sexual relations until the girl had passed the menarch. Marriage is less for sex and more for the ties it brings – relationship ties. But, people didn’t have to stay married, and divorce is merely a matter of announcing that you’re divorced. Bushmen society recognized the validity of marriage, and the validity of divorce, but unlike us, they didn’t need a ceremony to bring it about. When young people married for the first time they had a little ceremony attended by other kids—adults weren’t supposed to attend. For later marriages people just announced their marriage, no ceremony. You entered the married state and stayed there, just as we enter the adult state. Marriage was a kind of state of being, as adulthood is a state of being. It is a very different concept of marriage from ours.”

Safety is the most important thing
When hunting with a bow or a gun
A terrible tragedy they can bring
When using them just for fun ~ Hunting, by Kevin Seals

“I was standing near a fire when men were poisoning their arrows, putting the remains of grubs in the fire when the poison was taken out, and somebody told me to get out of the smoke, so I did”, recounts Marshall Thomas. “But, I began to feel pain in my hand and up my arm. I had a hangnail and had bitten on it so it was open. Somebody came and sucked the poison out – it was a couple of molecules and I don’t know if it causes pain, but they were adamant about me getting away from the fire. They use a few drops on an arrow, and the arrow has a shaft and a point, so when the victim tries to remove it, the shaft comes apart and the poisoned head stays in.”

As much as it is a “natural democracy”, children are still disciplined to be quiet, listen, and learn. Babies stay close to their mothers, and the parents are excellent observers. This carried through to the children, and they learn to observe the smallest details.

“I never saw a kid do anything bad and be punished. An interesting thing happened: one little boy had an eye infection, and I was giving him medicine but he didn’t like it. One day, he saw me coming towards him with the medicine and he grabbed an arrow out of his father’s quiver – a poison arrow. There was a gasp and a hush fell over everybody. He realized that he had done something terrible, not from anyone punishing him, but how everyone reacted.

“They had real approval. Not in the way we do, but in a much more accepting way. Also, kids are spaced about 4 years apart, so they don’t have immediate rivals for their parents’ attention.”

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour. ~ Auguries of Innocence, by William Blake                                                 

To understand the ways of the Oldest People is to rethink almost everything we’ve learned since the Neolithic Age, and nowhere is there a better illustration than when Marshall-Thomas presented the group she visited with a Rorschach Test.

Photo: Max Bastard/African Eyes Photography

Photo: Max Bastard/African Eyes Photography

“We tend to see a whole picture – we’re used to looking at pictures. You see a whole picture and you know: that’s what it is, that’s what it’s for. When they look at a picture, they saw the details which made the collective picture. When you look at the natural world, small things will tell you a wide variety of stuff. They very much lived in the present, in the moment, and they noticed things – they had to. It was terribly important to pay attention and to be aware of (everything) around you. So, I got young boys – the girls didn’t want to do it – I got them to draw things. They drew tracks. Of course they drew tracks! It’s the only visual representation they ever encounter. That just made perfect sense to me. When they looked at a Rorschach picture, they wanted to see the details, they wanted to know what’s going on there.”

In the West dance silhouettes of small bodies housing large hearts
And the cosmic sense of one-ness
A cow yawns and a skinny dog barks and a fire flickers
A fire that induces the birth of stories about the master, the trickster and the hero
Chants and songs. Chants and songs.
Notes in a strange and peculiar combination escape their throats
A joyful noise to their creator that still remembered them.
They dance.
Yodels and circle songs reach a fervent peak.
And the stars begin to fall.
A jerk in the jugular string.
Umbilical anchor to the universal mind.
Brings a trance ~ from Khoisan-Ultra African, by Zena Edwards

The purpose of the trance dance is to eliminate “star sickness” – jealousy, a bad feeling within the group – and it works. As more so-called “advanced” cultures are recently starting to learn, dancing and music is good for the soul, and that is something the Bushmen learned many thousands of years ago. A common misconception is that they do “rain dances”. Marshall Thomas calls that one silly.

“Nobody thought a dance could bring the rain. They know their environment so well, they can feel the rain is coming, and they dance to use the power of the rain to affect the ‘star sickness’”. She continues, “Dances are a marvelous thing – on a moonlit night, around a fire, and people dancing, women singing, and clapping.”

“When I dance, I dance for the healing of all people. I dance for our traditions to stand up.
When I play, I speak of all I see and all that I am.” ~ !Gube, quoted from the Lianne Cox film, “Lion Shaman”.

Music has always played an important part in the lives of the Bushmen. Songs to commemorate events in their lives are composed in the moment, accompanied by instruments made from a hunting bow or a gourd rigged with sinews.

Those songs have changed since Marshall Thomas lived with the people in the desert. These days, the songs have turned to topics like forced relocations, and the government’s harsh oppression of this ancient people.

Water, water, everywhere (… for Elephants…. for Diamonds)
Nor any drop to drink ~ (with apologies to Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

Botswana’s economy depends on mining, contributing 25% of the country’s economy, and forming the foundation that has marked the country’s history of being a stable, ongoing peaceful democracy. The other largest contributor is tourism, contributing around 12% to the GDP. Botswana is, in almost every way, one of Africa’s few success stories.

That achievement is tarnished when one examines their record on human rights in recent years. While the country rarely holds back in speaking out against abuses in other parts of the continent, Botswana has its own flaws: criminalization of homosexuality (rarely enforced), death penalty (where executions are generally unannounced and families unable to attend the burial of a loved one, nor visit the grave), and then there is their treatment of the First People.

Persecuted since 1800 when African pastoralists moved into the region, trekking herds of pasture-depleting cattle from northern parts of Africa, then confronted by white settlers who hunted them down as trophies and debated whether to declare them “vermin”, until recently, when this diamond of Africa turned on its people and drove them into the arms of the 21st century and all that comes with it: alcoholism, illness, poverty, and disengagement.

With the government of Botswana failing to recognize the uniqueness and anthropological value of the Bushmen, they seem to be repeating all that has come before: being dispossessed of land because they do not have cattle (a symbol of wealth amongst the pastoral African tribes), to being treated as sub-human because they do not value the materialistic and do not wield political power.

When the government trucks rattled noisily into Bushmen camps in 1997 (and many times since then), the wheels set in motion a change for the people that would be irreversible. Taken from a life that had sustained them for tens of thousands of years, into an unheard of poverty – all with the promise of health care, education, and jobs – the groups struggle to survive. A leaked cable written by the US Ambassador to Botswana in 2005 and released by Wikileaks said, “It is also clear that people have been dumped in economically absolutely unviable situations without forethought, and without follow-up support… The lack of imagination displayed on the part of the GOB (government of Botswana) is breathtaking.”

The promise the Botswana government made - that there would be no mining on the Central Kalahari Game Reserve - was reneged in 2014, when they approved a new diamond mine open just a few miles from a Bushmen village. The $5billion mining operation is in the middle of the ancestral land of the Bushmen, and exposes Botswana’s claim of a commitment to conservation as fraudulent.

Large tracts of the Reserve have also been opened up to fracking, with exploration covering around half the area of the Reserve, raising the specter of land grabs, using up any potable water (fracking cannot be done with the water accessible to animals as it is high in mineral salts), and irreparable damage to the already fragile ecosystem. Australian company Tiou Energy has started exploratory drilling for fracking wells on traditional hunting land, with no consultation with the Bushmen.

James Workman, author of 'Heart of dryness' and water management expert

James Workman, author of 'Heart of dryness' and water management expert

Water management expert, environmentalist, and author of the excellent book, “Heart of Dryness”, James Workman says, “The Kalahari is valuable to the government for 3 reasons: ecotourism, cattle ranching (selling beef to Europe), and diamond reserves. 90% of Botswana’s wealth comes from high grade diamonds. Is water more valuable for people or for diamonds? Botswana chose diamonds.”

Professor Robert Hitchcock considers another reason: “Some would argue that (the motivation for the forced removals) is partly commercial, and there are plenty of places in Botswana and elsewhere in the world where people can live in tourist areas and benefit greatly from tourism. The government policies only give rights to wildlife, not to other products and don’t give right of land – which is one of the issues that they’re facing. But, the argument that diamonds were the cause doesn’t hold water. I don’t think most people believe diamonds were the reason for the relocation, and the decision to relocate them was made independently of any consideration of minerals. Those mineral strikes had been known long prior to the time the decision was made. Those kinds of mining activities were taking place across Botswana and other parts of southern Africa without removing people.

“Certainly there are organizations that argue that diamonds were the reason, but all evidence suggests that pressure came mainly from conservationists. In some cases, there are organizations that are pro-indigenous people and work with them and support them. But there are others that take a harder line and say people and game reserves are essentially incompatible.”

However, as Workman explains: “What the Bushmen don’t eat, they barter. There is an element of trade which turns scarcity into abundance. They never waste a single drop.”

Marshall Thomas: “Their interpretation of the earth is 100% accurate. They knew more than anybody else, they know everything about their environment and every plant, every insect. They knew the properties of the plants, where they grew, what circumstances made them bloom or bear fruit, and they were never wrong.”

In a moment of surely unintended irony, current President Ian Khama, hailed internationally as a staunch environmentalist who claims to seek ways to avoid exploiting the country’s natural resources, reflects the old colonial way of seeing the Bushmen, “They have to be moved into the modern way of doing things. Give them livelihoods which will allow them and their children to live better lives and not do what Survival International expects, to continue living a very extinct form of life, a very backward form of life, denying them – and especially their children – opportunities to grow with the mainstream of our citizens.” 

It began as a casual quip at a border post. A woman spotted a portrait of Botswana's President and remarked that he "looks like a Bushman."
Security officers sprang into action. The woman was detained, interrogated at a police station, kept in custody for a night and a day and forced to pay a fine before being freed.
The reason: Her innocent comment about the leader's resemblance to the original people of Southern Africa was deemed "insulting" to the country.
As reported by Geoffrey York, Johannesburg — From Globe and Mail, Published Thursday, Nov. 12, 2009

A spokesman for the Botswana government said, “It has been and remains Government’s view that the establishment of New Xade has increased both immediate and long-term opportunities for economic and social development of its residents, as is reflected in the village’s ongoing growth.” Among the Bushmen, however, these camps to which they have been relocated are commonly called “places of death” as they are forced to adapt to a sedentary lifestyle, homelessness, and high levels of alcoholism and illness (with HIV/Aids being rampant). The encouragement to accept paying work has resulted in almost chronic exploitation.

New Xade (Anglo-Saxon tongues find it easier to pronounce it “Ka-Day”, without the click) was established in 1997 when 1,239 Bushmen and other residents were forcibly relocated there from the CKGR in the largest resettlement ever undertaken in Botswana.  Possibly in an effort to ease their conscience, the government compensated the residents for huts, livestock and infrastructure left behind, although no compensation was given for land or entitlement. They received new plots of land in New Xade, thereby forcing them to comply with the government’s view that all people should be sedentary, settled, and dependent on paid labor to survive, that being the way of the civilized world.

In his report undertaken between 2000 and 2001, Japanese anthropologist Junko Maruyama was able to determine some fascinating results of the settlement as they transition from the traditional hunter-gatherer way of life to a more sedentary, pastoral economy. His report, “The Impacts of Resettlement on Livelihood and Social Relationships among the Central Kalahari San” concludes: “In spite of the drastic changes caused by the resettlement program, the San are coping with the changes through converting the settlement into a multi-faceted environment that they can live with. The most important way is to utilize diverse methods for earning a livelihood, and to maintain frequent shift from one residence to another, or one type of livelihood strategy to another….The solidarity based on co-membership of a camp has enabled the San to flexibly adapt to social changes. When it comes to the matter of land utilization, food sharing, and cooperation in livelihood activities, the crucial factor for the !Gui and !Gana people is that they belong to a group that previously shared camps frequently….”

While Maruyama’s report is generally positive, different opinions have been reported in the media. A BBC reporter interviewed Goiotseone, who had been relocated from the CKGR: "I miss my home and the way we lived. Life was easy, there were lots of fruits, animals and there were no bars and no beer. Now we are lost.”

"We are getting Aids and other diseases we didn't know about; young people are drinking alcohol; young girls are having babies. Everything is wrong here," Boitumelo says.

Unemployment is high, and there is no shortage of customers at the village’s liquor store, with young men stumbling into the street, or simply passed out wherever they are, a not-uncommon sight. While the alarmingly high rate of HIV/Aids in Botswana, once putting it second highest in the world, is now slowly reversing, it is still a very real issue among the relocated Bushmen. The most obvious co-factor of HIV/Aids is displacement, with those still living in the CKGR at far less risk at contracting HIV than those in settlements like New Xade. In those ancestral areas, the encyclopedic knowledge of the groups is slowly being recorded, there is almost no alcohol problem, no prostitution, minimal domestic violence, and new partnerships are being formed between the generations.

In 2006, former House of Lords peer Jenny Tonge spoke passionately about the success of Botswana, having spent half a day with a group as part of a British Parliamentary delegation visiting a resettlement camp – a first class trip funded by Debswana, a joint diamond mining venture between De Beers and the government of Botswana, saying that Bushmen "were hunter-gatherers, with ancient tracking and water detection skills, killing animals with primitive bows and arrows; on our visit we saw some of them in action. It is very romantic stuff and sounds absolutely wonderful...Great if you are a successful Bushman, maybe, but not so great for the Bushwomen(sic) and Bushchildren (sic), who have a right to healthcare and education and who may not want to stay in the stone age with their families; they may want an opportunity for another life." Her ignorance of the Bushmen men, women, and children, can hardly be excused by the length of time she spent in the area, and her views of their lack of sophistication, perhaps compared to her own noble status, were not greeted warmly.

The Botswana minister for local government, Margaret Nasha echoed those views, saying in 2002: “You know the issue of the Basarwa? Sometimes I equate it to the elephants. We once had the same problem when we wanted to cull the elephants and people said no.”

These characterizations of the Bushmen as animals, or primitive, gives many in the governments of the region the excuse to devalue their contribution to the world, most especially in terms of their extensive understanding of the environment.

Say it with a click…
The click of a rifle.
The click of a tongue.
One never silenced; one forever on the run.

"We are used to feeding ourselves - now dependent on government hand-outs, we are being made lazy and stupid," says Roy Sesana, a Bushmen leader and activist living in New Xade. Sesana co-founded the group, First People of the Kalahari, which has won major court battles against the Botswana government.

In an effort to confirm his eco bona fides, President Khama banned all hunting outside of game farms or ranches, effectively ending a lifestyle that has lasted tens of thousands of years. While wealthy tourists are able to skin and behead an animal to hang on a wall, the local people are unable to kill one animal that would feed them and their family for a month.

The argument for ending all hunting is not without some basis: wildlife species populations have declined in the CKGR over recent years: ostrich population is down by 95%, 90% of wildebeest, 84% antelope tsessebe, 81% warthogs and kudus, 75% of giraffes have been wiped out, and lion hunting was suspended in 2007. The loss of wildlife is due to excessive hunting and poaching, and it is to Botswana’s credit that they have realized there is more money in eco-tourism than in big game hunting. During his successful re-election bid in 2014, Khama was met with protests at a Bushmen eviction camp, where his government had made efforts to starve the people off their land. They demanded the right to hunt to feed their families – something they had been doing within every considered and acceptable understanding of best conservation methods: taking what they need, using everything they take – and while the High Court overturned the government in a 2006 ruling maintaining the Bushmen’s right to hunt for food, the government continued to arrest them and charge them with poaching, while at the same time, accepting tens of thousands of foreign currency from big game hunters who take little more than a head or a skin after the animal has been killed, leaving the meat to rot in the sun. However, what they fail to grasp is the Bushmen’s method of hunting for food, is not anti-conservation; it is self-regulatory and maintains a natural balance. It is not the First People who are decimating the animals.

"This life hasn't improved any of their lives. We still get a lot of people going inside the park to hunt and they get arrested. Some of us here are facing court penalties for hunting. It just proves that you can't force change on people," says Mr Galekebone.

In 2012, as the President flew over the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in his plane, he spotted four Bushmen hunting. The police were called and the men were arrested, their spears, bows and arrows, and domestic animals confiscated. The Botswana court threw out their case, recognizing the High Court ruling of 2006 that Bushmen have the right to live and hunt in the Reserve. Despite this order, no hunting licenses have been issued, and arrests for poaching are commonplace, leaving the hunter-gatherers to find legal assistance, with its accompanying, often prohibitive costs. The government has employed a “shoot-to-kill” policy against those suspected of poaching.

Photo: Clarke Wheeler

Photo: Clarke Wheeler

The balance of life is a precious thing, and what has been done to the Bushmen in the Central Kalahari is to disturb that balance. Interfering in nature has never been well-advised, and the long-term effects of Botswana’s actions have forever disturbed that natural order, with the Bushmen paying the immediate price.

The Plutocrat hoards up his treasures of gold
And smiles in his power and pride;
While he seals up his coffers, withholds his great store
From the paupers who wail at his side.
He has laid his foundation, and built it on “Wealth” -
A tower that never will fall.
Then he scribbles a will and he passes away,
And the lawyer, he gathereth all- The Song of the Gatherer, by Paul Laurence Dunbar

“There’ve been a number of (court) cases,” Professor Hitchcock explains. The Bushmen have been fighting the law for many years - a costly endeavor for people without a home. Each case creates the push-and-pull between a modernizing Botswana government, and this First People nation, struggling daily for survival.

Hitchcock outlines the various efforts, “The first case was settled out of court – the Quamare case in 1998 in the northern part of South Africa. That case was essentially over people being relocated out of Kalahari Gemsbok Park. The consequence of that was the people who’d been relocated in the 1930’s brought lawsuit against the government. They got rights to some land around the park and they got co-management rights to gate receipts inside the park.

“The second one was the Central Kalahari case – it started in 2002, then it was thrown out of court. It went back to court on appeal and began in July 2004, and finally resolved in 2006. There were three major conclusions on that:

-          The three High Court judges determined their right to return because it was their customary, ancestral land.

-          The right to special game hunting licenses for subsistence hunters.

-          They didn’t win the right to services, meaning water and rights to education, health assistance inside the Central Kalahari – and that continues to be an issue.

“They also got the right to represent themselves, and some negotiations began in 2008 as a result of the court’s decisions.

“And then, in 2010/2011, a case that was won by the San again, gave them the right to drill for water and to equip boreholes – and they can do this in all the communities where they reside.  Currently, that is 6 communities, including Gope, a diamond mining community.  The problem is that there are very high mineral salts in the water, so it’s not consumable for humans and the consequence is that there is only one borehole that people can drink from. There are plenty of boreholes animals can go to, but not for people.”

As the next generation of Bushmen move into a modern future, there is a deepening desire to learn the old ways.  Keeping one foot on the land as they navigate a cellphone world, they understand the importance of both a modern education and walking with the elders to learn the values and knowledge of the environment their people have been carrying for so many thousands of years.

!Gube, as featured on the cover of the Pops Mohamed album, 'How Far Have We Come". Music can be heard on the podcasts

!Gube, as featured on the cover of the Pops Mohamed album, 'How Far Have We Come". Music can be heard on the podcasts

The last word must go !Gube, the lion shaman featured so poignantly in Lianne Cox’s film:

“As I am here, my name is !Gube.  Our god that made creation, made one blood, one person – it is only language that separates us.
We are all the same – like the grain of the sand.”


Hear more about the Bushmen on the special 2-episode podcasts produced and presented by Leigh Barrett, featuring interviews with Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, James Workman, Robert Hitchcock, and Clark Wheeler and including excerpts from “!Gube-Lion Shaman”, a film independently produced by Lianne Cox.


Leigh Barrett is the Producer/Host of MIPJ Podcasts and contributor to MIPJ multimedia journals. She is Executive Editor of “Perspective: Africa”, a quarterly print and digital publication focusing on all issues African. To submit content, email