Botswana: Fishermen of the Two Way River

Habitat changes resulting from climatic shifts or overexploitation by human populations have often had negative effects on indigenous peoples. Deforestation in the Amazon Basin, desertification in the Sahel zone of Africa and overhunting in many regions have resulted in a decline in the socioeconomic and nutritional well-being of hunter-gatherers, pastoralists and agriculturists. These processes have been precipitated and compounded by changes in land ownership and use patterns, with large areas being taken over for private use by governments, companies or individuals.

The Republic of Botswana in southern Africa bears evidence of environmental degradation as a result of overgrazing, declining numbers of animals due to hunting pressure and drought, and increasing competition for resources between foraging and food-producing populations. The foragers, food-producing and wage-earning populations each claim that the other group is responsible for declining environmental productivity.

Fishing as an Adaptive Strategy

Fishing is a subject that has been investigated relatively little in the detailed studies done of Basarwa (San, Bushman) populations of the Kalahari Desert that focus on what might be termed "desert San" populations such as the -Kung, G/wi and G//ana. Whereas the popular view of Basarwa is as a people who are mobile foragers, an increasing number of studies show that some groups were and are relatively sedentary and that they engage not only in hunting and gathering but also in food production and fishing. Fishing as an adaptive strategy among Basarwa was noted by early observers. As populations increase and environmental and political economic changes occur in the Kalahari, fishing has sometimes represented a significant means of obtaining subsistence and income.

The Basarwa, like other indigenous populations, are characterized by flexibility and opportunism. They move into and out of adaptive strategies, depending on selective pressures and options. In some cases, the introduction of new technologies has enabled the Basarwa to exploit previously untapped resources. Competition with other groups has also played a major role in determining the ways in which Basarwa groups have made their living. The lack of access to land, labor and capital in recent years has resulted in major changes in lifestyle.

Historically, fishing has represented a buffer strategy, particularly in the northern parts of Botswana. Archeological evidence indicates long-standing occupation of riverine areas, with Basarwa and other groups exploiting aquatic resources in addition to game and wild plant foods. Some of these groups depended so heavily on fishing that they were termed "River Basarwa" or "people of the swamps."

At present, numerous Basarwa groups occupy the riverine and Okavango Delta areas of northern Botswana. For purposes of analysis these populations may be divided into two groups: those occupying the Makgadikgadi Pans region and those in the Okavango Delta and along the Botletle River. Judging from serogenetic and linguistic data, many of these groups derive from similar backgrounds. Some of these groups fall in to the category of "Black Basarwa" and the distinct from the smaller, desert-dwelling San of the Kalahari. The speak many dialects and engage in a wide variety of subsistence pursuits.

Tyua of Nata River

In the period between 1975 and 1982, ethnographic investigations were undertaken in a set of villages along the Nata River in northeastern Botswana occupied primarily by relatively sedentary Basarwa known as Tyua (Chwa, Shua).

The Nata River is a sandy-bedded seasonal river that flows off the Zimbabwe Plateau into the low-lying depression comprising the Makgadikgadi Pans. In some years the river flows for as long as two months, depending on the amount of rainfall in the catchment area; at other times it may not flow at all during the year. People obtain relatively fresh water by digging in the sandy bed of the river, and bush-enclosed wells can be seen in the Nata in dry seasons. The river gradient is so low that sometimes the floods collect in the Nata Delta as a result of heavy rains in Zimbabwe; then the river actually flows backward, giving it the image of being a "two-way river."

The Tyua reside in nuclear or extended family compounds which are linked by kinship, marital and friendship ties. There are an average of eight compounds in villages with a population range of 22 to 129 people. Fewer than 600 people occupy this area along the middle third of the Nata River in Botswana, and the population density is less than two persons per km².

There are some major differences between the riverine Basarwa groups and those occupying the undulating savannas of the Kalahari Desert. The riverine groups tend to be less mobile, often moving only once or twice each year. When foraging trips do occur, the distances tend to be much greater from residential locations along the rivers to hunting or gathering grounds. Groups located directly on the river tend to have much smaller range sizes and higher population densities than do those groups living among the pans in the savanna areas north of the river.

As competition for resources has increased in the Nata River region, there have been some major changes in the adaptive strategies of resident populations. Over half of the households in the region have at least one cow, and in 1975-76 over 90 percent of the households grew their own crops. Long-distance trading of local goods such as salt, meat, baskets and palm leaves has provided many of the Nata people with non local goods such as grain, pots and ammunition for hunting.

People have begun to exploit new kinds of resources in the face of constraints on mobility and resource access. A wider number of plant and animal resources are being utilized and new methods are employed, with special emphasis on traps and other labor-saving devices.

Adaptation in Fishing Traditions and Technology

Traditionally, fishing is done in pools in the sandy bed of the Nata River during the dry season or in the river itself when it flows during the rainy season. As hunting laws came into effect and resource depletion rates increased, fishing became increasingly important as a source of food for many Nata villages.

In the past, fishing was done by men and older boys using two major methods. In one, conical fish traps known as dumbu were held with both hands and set down vertically into the mud underneath the water. Fish caught in the dumbu were then taken out by hand through a hole in the side of the trap. The other method involved the use of two spears, one a think stick, with a piece of sharpened wire on the end-and the other a regular hunting spear. The thin spear was used as a searching device; it was thrown downward into the water and if a fish was struck, the spear would quiver. The larger spear was then used to impale the prey and carry it to the river bank. In some cases, as pools dried up, people also caught fish by hand.

The ensure high yields, sometimes communal fishing methods were employed. Lines of a dozen or more fishermen would form across a pool and sweep forward, throwing the small searching spears down in front of them. Sometimes small boys would form groups to the side and use the dumbu method. The adult fishermen would make repeated sweeps back and forth across the pool; women and children would carry their catch to the bank and deposit it in individually marked holes scooped out of the sand. The fish were not divided equally among the participants in the communal activity but instead were given to those who actually caught them.

When fish was caught in substantial amounts, as was the case during the communal activities that we observed, it was usually processed for storage. The fish were split open with knives and laid out on the ground or on skins to dry in the sun. Sometimes the fish were preserved with a mixture of salt and ground chili peppers. We did not observe fish being smoked, but were told that it was a common practice. Once the fish was processed, it was placed in bags and kept in people's houses or storage facilities.

There have been a number of shifts over time in aquatic resource exploitation among Nata Tyua and other Basarwa groups in northern Botswana, in part as a result of environmental changes. For example, increased erosion as a result of overgrazing has caused pools to silt up. In addition, many people along the Nata River blame the government for reduced fish productivity, saying that construction of the causeway at Nata Village resulted in silting and salinization and yields. The introduction of hooks and fishing line in the Nata area led to women and children becoming more involved in fishing, especially during the rainy season when the river is flowing. When gill nets were introduced by fisheries department officers from the Ministry of Agriculture in the Okavango Delta, catch sizes increased substantially. Some of the methods used by River Basarwa groups, such as spearing fish from canoes or making stone or reed fish traps, are not common in the Nata area, but informants note that they are familiar with these techniques even though they do not use them.

There are social reasons for a decline in fishing in recent years. People who herd cattle often fight with those who fish in the pools because the fishing supposedly stirs up mud, thereby making it unfit for the livestock to drink. Households with large fields and several head of livestock generally do not engage in fishing, often seen as a poor person's way of making a living.

The increase cattle populations has had both direct and indirect effects on fishing in northern Botswana. On the one hand, overgrazing has caused an increase in soil erosion and contributed to the siltation problem. On the other hand, the presence of cattle may actually increase fish productivity in lagoons and pools through added nutrients to the water. Thus, whereas the presence of cattle has often meant a reduction in foraging success for desert-dwelling hunter-gathers, it may actually increase yields for those groups engaged in aquatic resource exploitation. This fact may contribute to the higher numbers of people and larger family sizes among riverine Basarwa groups in Botswana.

As groups have become more sedentary, changes in the social system and the structure of the labor force have occurred. In some cases labor has intensified, with children being brought in to assist in domestic tasks such as collecting firewood and watching over goats. As labor has become increasingly complex, there has been a trend toward occupation specialization, two examples being the dzimba, specialized hunt leader, and the cho k'ao, traditional healer. As men go to the mines or to herd livestock in exchange for wages. Basarwa groups have had fewer laborers available for foraging and fishing. In those areas affected by labor migration, women and children began to participate much more frequently in fishing activities. Unfortunately, the average yields of hook and line fishing have been much lower than those for the traditional spear fishing and trapping carried out by men. The small catch is usually boiled and consumed immediately and thus does to serve as a means of buffering against scarcity in the dry season. Because women and children also have to devote more of their time to agriculture and income-generation activities, even rainy season fishing is not as common now as it was in the late 1960s and the 1970s. Nonetheless, it is still possible to see groups of people fishing, as occurred in the mid-1980s at Tsebanana Pan on the Botswana-Zimbabwe border. This area had been off limits in the 1970s, as a result of the war in Zimbabwe. Now people are moving back into areas where they can obtain relatively high fish yields.

Diminishing Land Access May Promote Increased Reliance on Fishing

It is only a matter of time before Basarwa groups will be faced with even more severe constraints on land resource availability. New ranches were planned and implemented in the Nata region in the late 1970s and early 1980s. pressure is building to allow individuals and small groups, most of whom are not Basarwa, the right to have restricted access to pools for watering large herds of cattle. Once again cattle people and foragers are competing with one another, but this time the cattle people may predominate.

Since 1975, the government of Botswana has been engaged in a land reform effort which has divided into categories the tribal land in the country (71 percent of the surface area). Commercial areas are those where leasehold rights will be granted. Leasehold farms have also been obtained on state land (formerly crown land) in Botswana. Less than 40 percent of the land will be left to villagers such as those along the Nata, who pursue a mixed strategy of foraging, food production, fishing and wage labor.

Many Basarwa realize the situation they are facing and are going to district land boards to apply for land. In the Nata area, however, group applications for land have not met with success. Some people have obtained rights to small blocks of land in what are known as "communal service centers" in or adjacent to the commercial zones, but these areas are not large enough to support many people engaged in foraging. It is clear that the Basarwa and other groups in Botswana may have to rely on alternative methods of gaining their livelihood. Given that fishing has been successful in the past, it is likely that at least some individuals and groups will engage in aquatic resource exploitation. There is also a chance that some groups may turn to the development of small-scale commercial fishing enterprises. If this is the case, then the government of Botswana will have to consider providing extension advice and inputs so that Basarwa can compete in an increasingly complex subsistence and market environment.

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