Tuesday, May 21, 2024

City men fighting over “Bushmen”

If there is any one lesson from the blood-diamonds campaign it is that Survival International is a formidable foe that is not in the habit of leaving even the tiniest pebble unthrown. And so, when government spokesman, Dr. Jeff Ramsay, imputed improper tribal labelling to the London pressure group, its operatives immediately sprang into action.

SI itself has never had any compunction about using the term “Bushmen” to refer to communities in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR). In its latest campaign against Botswana’s tourism, it is asking the international community to “boycott Botswana over its treatment of Bushmen.” In response, Ramsay wrote a letter directed at the same audience in which he makes reference to an SI communication that “calls for a blanket boycott of our tourist industry on the basis of the alleged persecution of a part of our population whom they label as “Bushmen.”

The problem with the latter assertion is that despite the fact that official use of “Bushmen” was banned during President Festus Mogae’s administration, the Botswana Tourism Organisation has been using it on its website to advertise Botswana. SI pointed this out in its rebuttal to Ramsay’s letter, screen-munching a BTO picture captioned “Welcome to Botswana’s Official Tourism website… Bushmen Kgalagadi Central” to drive its point home.

SI’s press statements typically end with “Stephen Corry said today …” paragraph which is an editorial summary of what issue is being tackled. What he said in the today of that statement being released was that “Ramsay’s letter is a real own goal ÔÇô here we have absolute proof that the president’s spokesman is fabricating information for tour operators. It’s an absolute scandal that the government uses the Bushmen’s ‘exotic’ culture to promote tourism, at the same time as it is actively pursuing a vicious campaign to wipe them out.”

The explanation that SI gives for its own use of the term is that “members of the tribe generally prefer the term to other widely used terms such as ‘Basarwa’ or ‘San’, and because it is the most readily understood term by readers of English.”

The fact of the matter though is that none of the terms that are used to refer people in the CKGR are self-chosen and just like Batswana, these people don’t belong to the same tribe. Kuela Kiema deals with this subject in “Tears for My Land”, a book about the CKGR and the forcible resettlement of its communities in 1997 that was published in 1997. He writes: “We are known by many names, most of them imposed upon us by our oppressors. We are called San, Bushmen, Khoisan and/or Basarwa.” He adds in another part: “If I meet a Tswana or Bantu, I say I am a Mosarwa but if I meet a Naro or any other of my people, I refer to myself as a Dcuikhoe. When speaking Setswana, I call myself a Mosarwa but when speaking English, I use the term “Bushman” or “San.” In that book he calls the CKGR by its Kua name, Tc’amnqoo.

Elsewhere Kiema has told a story about learning that he was a “Mosarwa” from his teachers when he started school in Xade. In the book he says that students who did well were called “bo-ngwanake” (my children) “but lower achievers were referred to as “Masarwana ke lona (worthless Basarwa) if their teachers were angry. We loathed being called Basarwa. The name had negative connotations. It lowered the dignity and pride we had held before the arrival of formal education.”

According to Kiema, “San” and “Basarwa” mean about the same thing. He traces the etymology of the latter term to the Setswana phrase “ba sa rua” which means people who don’t keep livestock. As regards, “San” he says that it comes from “saang”, Sekgothu for foraging. Like “Basarwa”, Kiema says that “San” was originally used on them to convey the message that the Kua are worthless foragers who don’t own livestock.

He asserted in an interview some years back that term “Mosarwa” is as offensive to the Kua as “kaffir” is to black South Africans.

“The difference between us is that over the years black South Africans have gained sufficient political and economic power to criminalise use of “kaffir” but we have not been as fortunate. The only people who can defend the use of “Basarwa” on us are Batswana ÔÇô we can’t,” Kiema said.

Evidently, the latter have not learned enough about people it has lived with for centuries. Organisers of the 2009 World Telecommunication and Information Society Day (WTISD) in Kaudwane neglected to do one very important thing ÔÇô get the culture of the host community right. The result was that they unwittingly committed a series of faux pas.

Now and again the youthful emcee would implore the predominantly Dcuikhoe audience to clap hands with continual exhortations of “legofi! legofi!” Without such prompting, the audience seemed less willing to do so. Kaudwane is a settlement that was established 17 years ago by a community that the government controversially removed from the CKGR.
There was a very good reason why the clapping did not come as spontaneously as the emcee would have wanted.
Two days after the event, Kiema said that the Kua don’t clap hands to show appreciation. “When we do, it’s only because other tribes expect us to,” he said. He explained that his people verbalise show of appreciation with expressions such as “mm”, “ehee!”, “aiyoo!” and “iya-iya!” which may be accompanied by head-nodding. Not that the Kua do not ever clap hands. They do but only when singing or accompanying dancers.

Reporting live from a computer laboratory rigged up for the occasion, a Btv reporter chose to use a Shekgalagari word when Dcui actually is the dominant language in Kaudwane. Prior to doing an interview with a pupil playing with a computer, the reporter announced that he wanted to hear from a “mohantjana”, a Shekhalagari (not Dcui) word for “boy.” Dcui does not have the equivalent of “boy”, “mosimane” in Setswana or “mohantjana.” The closest Dcui has to “boy” is “kg’aokocoa” which means “little man” or “monna yo monnye” in Setswana.

On account of their powerlessness, Kiema’s people have come to accept labels they are not happy with and actually use them on themselves. First People of the Kalahari leader, Roy Sesana, blames the woes of his now defunct lobby group on the administrative ineptitude of “a certain Mosarwa” who is now a headman of records in Mababe, a small village in Ngamiland.

SI seems to have won this first round and characteristically will be putting out a press statement anytime soon to gloat about it. According to its latest statement, “two travel companies have suspended their tours to the country and several others have expressed concern about the Botswana government’s continued persecution of the Bushmen.” The companies are identified as Travelpickr and Horizonte Paralelo. The latter, which is based in Spain, has released a statement that reads: “We have joined Survival’s boycott of tourism to Botswana. We think it’s the appropriate measure in the face of the victimisation of Bushmen. We are deeply troubled to read Survival’s letter and learn about the degrading treatment of the Bushmen at the hands of the government.”

At press time, the Bushmen picture on the BTO website had apparently been taken down. The indigenous-rights group also seems to be planning to use Ramsay’s unfortunate choice of words to disingenuously discredit the entire case that he presents in his letter. In his “today” statement, Corry anchors his argument on Ramsay’s “own goal” and chooses not to deal substantively with all the other issues raised in the government’s letter. One is that the people on whose behalf this boycott is being waged would themselves be “direct victims of any tourist boycott.”


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