Saturday, November 06, 2010

The Ancient War between States and Non-state Peoples, Modern Botswana Edition

The NY Times has a really nice piece on the conflict between the San Bushmen and the Botswanan state that illustrates pretty well some of the things that Scott writes about in The Art of Not Being Governed. The Bushmen are a group of foraging peoples living in dry areas in and around the Kalahari desert. Much of their territory seems to have been pretty marginal for agriculture, and hence effectively stateless before the 20th century. For decades, they had moved back and forth between "civilization" and traditional hunter-gathering, depending on trade opportunities and the like, but in the 1960s the state decided they were "poor" and needed to be helped; and they could not be helped unless they were settled and legible. At first, the state tried carrots, drilling boreholes that freed them from the constant search for water in the desert; and many took the deal, taking up a more settled existence:
Botswana became independent in 1966, and the government’s eventual view was that the Bushmen were an impoverished minority living in rugged terrain that made them hard to help. Already, many were moving to Xade, a settlement within the reserve where a borehole had been drilled years before.
The Bushmen were pragmatists. Liberated from the strenuous pursuit of water, people began keeping goats and chickens while also scratching away at the sandy soil to grow gardens. The government provided a mobile health clinic, occasional food rations, a school.
Since the 1980s, however, the Botswanan state has tried harsher tactics in its quest to evict them from the areas they live in, which were designated a "game reserve" in 1961. Indeed, it used the fact that some Bushmen had voluntarily taken up agriculture against them:
Later on, these activities were commonly mentioned as reasons for removing the Bushmen. They “were abandoning their traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle,” and even hunting with guns and horses, the government argued in a written explanation of its rationale.
So the state began to push harder to sedentarize the Bushment, with predictable consequences:
Since the 1980s, Botswana, a landlocked nation of two million people, has both coaxed and hounded the Bushmen to leave the game reserve, intending to restrict the area to what its name implies, a wildlife refuge empty of human residents. Withholding water is one tactic, and in July a High Court ruled that the government had every right to deny use of that modern oasis, the borehole. An appeal was filed in September.
These days, only a few hundred Bushmen live within the reserve, and a few, like Mr. Taoxaga, still survive largely through their inherited knowledge, the hunters pursuing antelope and spring hares, the gatherers collecting tubers and wild melons, tapping into the water concealed in buried plants.
But most of the Bushmen have moved to dreary resettlement areas on the outskirts, where they wait in line for water, wait on benches at the clinic, wait around for something to do, wait for the taverns to open so they can douse their troubles with sorghum beer. Once among the most self-sufficient people on earth, many of them now live on the dole, waiting for handouts.
“If there was only some magic to free me into the past, that’s where I would go,” said Pihelo Phetlhadipuo, an elderly Bushman living in a resettlement area called Kaudwane. “I once was a free man, and now I am not.”
 “I once was a free man, and now I am not." Yet the story has another side. Just as Scott says, the culture of the "valleys" (here, the core areas of the Botswanan state, as opposed to the "bush") has some allure for at least some of the Bushmen:
Families have come apart, most often with grandparents or a father staying in the reserve and a mother and children living in a resettlement area, near a school and a reliable supply of water. Gana Taoxaga, the old man who was among the last holdouts, the one completing his two-day walk, has six children and seven grandchildren in Kaudwane. “I miss them and they miss me,” he said.

Mr. Taoxaga did not know his own age. His brown coat was missing half its fabric. His leather shoes had no laces. Beside him on the journey, a younger man, Matsipane Mosethlanyane, led some donkeys with empty water jugs strapped across their backs. He said he was proud to be a Bushman and, boasting of his resourcefulness, he described how he had sometimes squeezed the moisture from animal dung to slake his thirst. Animals eat the flowers off the small trees, he said. The moisture from the dung was nutritious.

“But I don’t want to drink the dirty water any more,” he said. “That’s why we are walking today. I am used now to the new water, the modern water.”
As they say, read the whole thing.

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