Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Is it derogatory to refer to the Khwe as ‘Bushmen’?

Stephen Corry’s reference to the Khwe communities as “Bushmen” has ruffled feathers of some Batswana who believe that the word is derogatory. That viewpoint is expressed on the comment board of a Sunday Standard article that has been posted to its Facebook page but is that word really derogatory? Yes and no.

Yes, judging by the actions of former president, Festus Mogae, who banned official use of “Bushmen” during his administration in favour of “Basarwa.” At that point in time, his government was waging a war against a London-based pressure group, Survival International, that Corry is leader of. From when it first made contact with leaders of the First Peoples of the Kalahari (FPK), a Khwe lobby group, to date, SI has always used “Bushmen.” Some, including Mogae, consider that word derogatory.

No, according to Keikabile Mogodu of the Botswana Khwedom Council, who has told Sunday Standard that “Basarwa” is actually offensive while “Bushmen” is not. This clarification followed a press conference at which the Council’s leaders announced that they no longer wanted the cultural community they represent to be called Basarwa – a term the government now uses officially. In his book, Tears for My Land, Kuela Kiema, explains that “Basarwa” comes from “Ba sa rua” to mean that the people so-called are non-pastoralists. While the term has evolved, it retains the offence it was coined to convey. Mogodu said that “Bushmen” is actually more palatable compared to “Basarwa” because of its nearness in meaning to the tribal naming system of the Khwe. Tribal names in Khwe languages denote abode in a particular type of bush thus Mogodu’s tribe – the Qhanikhwe, are found in a mokgomphatha (wild fruit) bush. “

There is a non-problematic umbrella term which most are unfamiliar with – Khwe. In much the same way that Batswana is an umbrella term for different Tswana tribes, “Khwe” is an umbrella term for different Khwe tribes. Contrary to popular belief, the Khwe are not ethnically homogenous and some of their languages don’t have mutual intelligibility. For example, a Handakhwe person in the Okavango Delta who speaks Tciga, would be completely at sea if a fellow Khwe from Gantsi speaks to him or her in Naro. Another example, provided by Kiema, is that unlike the Dcuikhwe and Qhanikhwe, the Naro and Kaukau don’t allow the use of drugs during trance dance performances because of belief that the smoke interferes with the flow of spiritual energy.

What complicates the matter farther is that within the Khwe community itself, there is no consensus about which word is acceptable. This being the digital age, you are more than likely to encounter #ProudMosarwa on social media – which label Khwedom Council has publicly campaigned against and which some within the Khwe community also object to. The former FPK Coordinator, Jumanda Gakelebone, says that he recently attended a meeting in Gantsi where this issue was discussed and an entirely new label (“Bakhwe”) was auditioned. Bakhwe was itself not acceptable with some arguing that the Khwe tribes should retain their individual names as well as those they use inter-tribally. With regard to the latter, Gakelebone, who is Kua, says that a Naro refers to him as “Nxwakhwe.”

On the whole, the New Xade councillor says that there is no difference between “Basarwa”, “Bushmen” and “San”, which were given to them by cultural outsiders.

“Personally, I have no problem with being called a Mosarwa, Bushman or San as long as that is not meant to denigrate me,” he says.

Important as the right label may be, it distracts from the real issue: residency rights of the Gwi and Gana communities living in theCentral Kgalagadi Game Reserve(CKGR). Corry was commenting on a rather unusual development in which the government told these communities that in terms of the law, they can’t plant crops in an area reserved for wildlife. While some Batswana might feel the need to excoriate Corry for using “Bushmen”, no one among them can hold a candle to him with regard to the fight for residency rights of the CKGR’s Gwi and Gana communities.

Truth be told, much of cultural interest in the Khwe doesn’t extend beyond seeing them dance themselves into a trance – as a matter of fact, companies that are ever too willing to sponsor the popular Kuru Dance Festival are reluctant to sponsor research programmes that deal with non-entertainment culture from which these dancers come. There is more interest in the clicks of the Khwe languages than in how societies from which those clicks come from function culturally. At the 2009 commemoration of the World Telecommunication and Information Society Day in Kaudwane, organisers unwittingly committed a series of faux pas. Kaudwane is a settlement that was established 19 years ago by a Khwe community which was forcibly removed from the CKGR by the government. Now and again the youthful emcee would implore the predominantly Khwe audience to give a round of applause with continual exhortations of “legofi! legofi!” Without such prompting, the audience seemed unwilling to do so. This is the problem: the Khwe verbalise appreciation with expressions such as “mm”, “ehee!”, “aiyoo!” and “iya-iya!” which may also be accompanied by head-nodding.
Kiema says that the word “legofi” (clapping of hands) does not even exist in the Dcui, Pshila and Dxana dialects of the Kua people in Kaudwane.

It is reasonable to suppose that Corry enjoys trance dance performances but he has a three-dimensional appreciation of Khwe culture. When the Gwi and Gana communities were being kicked out of the CKGR (“relocated” according to the government), Corry mobilised a highly effective international campaign whose one failing was that it lumped Botswana’s diamonds together with those from conflict zones when that was far from being the case. That aside, Corry’s SI was able to lobby very powerful people in the west (like Prince Charles and Julianne Moore, a Hollywood actress) to rally behind the cause of people he referred to and still refers to as “Bushmen.”

Those people need comprehensive ethnic justice – which would automatically yield an acceptable name.


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