Botswana is the African darling of the international community, praised for its success as a progressive society with a multi-party democracy. This thriving economy is also an environmentally-responsible tourism destination. In fact, Lonely Planet named Botswana its top travel destination in 2016, giving the country one more reason to celebrate its 50 years of independence.
There is no denying Botswana’s impressive rags-to-riches story. The tale centers around its achievement in building an industry that appeals to tourists’ desires for uninhibited encounters with wildlife, environmental preservation and unparalleled luxury. Sadly, many who call this land home have not shared in the country’s success. Paradoxically, it is those who have lived here for millennia who now seem cursed by the bountiful blessings reaped in their homeland.
The San – who are locally referred to as Basarwa but prefer the term Bushmen — are widely believed to be the world’s oldest people. They are direct decedents of the first homo sapiens, having inhabited the Kalahari desert as hunters and gatherers for more than 30,000 years. You might think that a people and culture who attract such foreign intrigue would fit perfectly into a nation renowned for its leadership in ecotourism.
Instead, despite their long-held claim to the land, the San’s recent history is full of displacement and tragedy. Over the past several centuries, they’ve been kicked around Southern Africa, first by the Bantu tribes of the north, then European colonists, and finally their own government — into ever shrinking plots of land in the name of wildlife conservation and mineral excavation.
In Botswana’s quest to preserve its wildlife and environment as the focal point of its tourism industry, the government forcibly removed San communities from its richest wildlife reserves and mining territories. More recently, in the early 1980s, diamonds were discovered in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, resulting in further displacements of more than 5,000 San from their ancestral lands. Losing their homes, schools, traditional health posts, water supply and access to game hunting, they were relegated to resettlement camps outside of the reserve and left to depend on meager government handouts.
The plight of the San has been described with terms such as ethnocide. What once numbered the planet’s largest population for tens of thousands of years has been decimated to well under 100,000 today. This tragedy is perhaps best summed up by one of the most horrific laws ever adopted. As recently as 1936, it was actually legal — and even encouraged — to hunt the San people. That’s right, less than a century ago, the world’s oldest people were dehumanized by their own government to the value of overpopulated wild game!
In 2006, the Bushmen finally tasted a slice of victory when judges ruled that they should reclaim their right to live within their ancestral territories and access the boreholes of which they have been deprived. The court described the plight of the Bushmen as a “harrowing story of human suffering and despair.”
In response, the government has ramped up their support of San living on the reservations, introducing free education and health care, food-for-work programs, old-age pensions, drought aid, free food for AIDS orphans, and free antiretrovirals for people with HIV/AIDS. However, this very support has fostered a deeply unhealthy dependency. Today, an overwhelming proportion of Botswana’s San are gripped by alcoholism, prostitution, depression, and diseases including HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis. “The government gives but does not empower,” explains Alice Mogwe, head of Ditshwanelo, the Botswana Centre for Human Rights. “Its progress is based on dependency.”
While Botswana still issues permits for big game hunting, the San have recently been denied the right to hunt – a devastating blow to their central livelihood.
The plight of the San raises the question: Is there a place for an ancient people and culture in today’s world? Despite their incredible resourcefulness, recent history’s answer seems to be no. Yet, is there not an opportunity for Botswana’s people to preserve their culture and lifestyle through tourism? A number of responsible tour operators are determined to find an answer to this question.
Adventure travel leader G Adventures is working to improve the relationship between the tourism industry and local communities through partnerships with impact-driven local organizations. “As G Africa unfolds, we are working toward ensuring that every stop is locally owned and supports the community,” explains CEO (chief experience officer), Farai Chigwada.
Most Botswana tour itineraries have not ventured far beyond its game parks, but G Adventures guides its small groups on weeklong overland treks that make multiple stops. It aims to facilitate opportunities for authentic engagement with local communities across the region, from guides of Chobe National Park to the poler captains who sail mokoro canoes through the Okavango Delta.
The Lando, G Adventures’ new bright purple all-terrain, WiFi-enabled overland vehicle, also stops in Ghanzi, a town in Western Botswana, which boasts one of the region’s largest communities of Bushmen. There, they introduce travelers to San culture through authentic interaction in the form of campfire dances and survival skills training, offered by partners like Ghanzi Trailblazers Camp. “We help youngsters learn about their own culture so they can pass it to their children,” explains Robert Camm.
G Adventures (and others) also direct travelers to the nearby Kuru Cultural Center. This Dutch-supported initiative boasts an adult language and vocational training center, a preschool, and various cultural programs serving Bushmen communities in D’Kar, Botswana. In addition to operating a museum and library, Kuru hosts an annual cultural festival, well known across Botswana. The Kuru Art Project supports local Bushman artists to revive the role of art as an expressive outlet for their traditions and recent life experiences, as their ancestors had done in the rock paintings all over Southern Africa. Finally, Kuru has incubated Dqae Qare, the region’s only lodge owned by the San themselves.
Still, as G Adventures and others have found, organizations that are in fact owned and operated by Bushmen are virtually nonexistent outside of foreign-backed Kuru. Many local tour operators offer cultural tours, yet their impacts on the San are at best limited. “They are almost always designed and imposed by foreign owners who reap the majority of the benefits,” explains Mogwe of the human rights center. A prime example is the wildly popular Bushmen painting tours in the caves of Tsodilo and elsewhere across Southern Africa, hardly any of which are guided by today’s decedents of the original Bushmen artists.
Incidentally, interest in interacting with the San and other local communities has never been more palpable. As Botswana enjoys a tourist boom, an increasing percentage of travelers crave a more educational, authentic and impactful experience. “The past couple of decades, people spent huge amounts of money to come to Africa to see wildlife,” explains Chigwada of G Adventures. But today, travelers are increasingly asking for opportunities to engage with local people and culture.
Time ticks by as the rapidly dwindling community of San await an answer to the question that will determine their future: Will Botswana finally embrace its rich history as it seeks to build one of the world’s great tourist destinations? Or will this nation’s history be forever tainted by the haunting ghosts of the world’s first people as they slip into extinction just like many of the wild beasts that once inhabited this land?
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