- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 17, 2007

KAUDWANE, Botswana

Keratwaemang Kekailwe spent his childhood collecting wild fruits and eating the meat of animals killed by his father. Now he cuts a desolate figure, wearing bluejeans, a T-shirt and an unkempt beard, dependent on government handouts.

A court has said that Mr. Kekailwe and other Bushmen have the right to resume their ancient hunter-gatherer ways in a vast game reserve that the Botswana government had argued was threatened by their presence. The verdict last month was hailed as a victory for indigenous peoples around the world.

But the government has made it difficult for the tribesmen to return. It says they can’t take along cows, goats or items that have become necessary to supplement hunting and gathering.

“They also said they would determine amounts of water we take in,” said Mr. Kekailwe, one of the 189 Basarwa, or Bushmen, who filed suit in 2002.

President Festus Mogae has asked the Bushmen to stay out of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve until he speaks with them today about their future. His spokesman said he has promised to “listen to what people have to say.”

Mr. Kekailwe’s people, who speak a variety of distinctive “click” languages, were the original inhabitants of an area stretching from the tip of South Africa to the Zambezi valley in Zambia and Zimbabwe. Their rock paintings, wildlife knowledge and ability to survive for more than 20,000 years in one of the harshest environments on Earth have fascinated scholars.

Only an estimated 100,000 are left today, most living in poverty on society’s fringes.

Mr. Kekailwe lives in an isolated resettlement camp of 1,500 inhabitants called Kaudwane, southeast of the reserve. The camp has drinking water, schools and medical facilities, but Bushmen say their traditional ways of life have been disrupted and they have fallen victim to alcoholism and AIDS.

The Botswana High Court ruled that the government’s eviction of the Bushmen was “unlawful and unconstitutional,” saying they have the right to hunt and gather in the reserve and should not have to apply for permits to enter.

But the government said only the 189 persons who filed the lawsuit would be given automatic right of return with their children — short of the 2,000 the Basarwa say want to go home.

The government also has imposed restrictions on domestic animals, which it says could infect wildlife with diseases. The Bushmen will not be allowed to build permanent structures in the reserve, and hunters will have to apply for permits.

The government argues that the Bushmen’s presence in the reserve is not compatible with preserving wildlife and that living in such harsh conditions offers few prospects. It shut down the main well in 2002, making water resources scarce. Local administrators have complained about the cost of providing services such as water to remote settlements.

British colonial authorities established the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in 1961 to protect an area rich in wildlife. Botswana supported traditional communities after independence in 1966, providing water, food and mobile clinics to people in the reserve.

With time, however, once-nomadic families began building permanent settlements, raising goats and planting crops. Instead of hunting on foot, their bows and arrows tipped with poison, they started using horses and four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Between 1997 and 2002, about 3,000 people were moved to two settlements outside the reserve, most persuaded by the offer of livestock and financial compensation. As resistance mounted among the holdouts, the government stopped providing food and water, withdrew hunting licenses and seized livestock.

Life is bleak for the 30 or so Basarwa who remain on the reserve. It takes about five hours to reach their village, Metsiamenong, over rough roads and bush. Through sign language and broken English, residents ask visitors for water and food. They say they are waiting for other Basarwa to return, hoping they will bring supplies.

Robert Thornton, a cultural anthropologist at South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand, said the court victory established “that indigenous cultural rights and land access should be protected.”

“But the next step is the political commitment and the actual effort to create the conditions under which that lifestyle is sustainable, and that is lacking,” he said.

• Associated Press Writer Jerome Delay contributed to this report from Metsiamenong.

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