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Rendering the Land Visible

I am standing alone by my tent in West Caprivi, Namibia. I am several weeks into fieldwork for my master’s thesis, the first step in what will become long-term work with the San. The evening sky is strange, blanketed with haze, yet still full of light. It is very quiet; even the birds are silent. The trans-Caprivi “highway” cuts through the bush just 40 yards away, flanked by white-yellow grass that looks soft enough to sleep on. Dawie’s homestead appears deserted (some individuals’ names have been changed to protect their identities). I’ve just paid him his day’s translating fee and he’s walked off towards the shebeen where I’ve seen uniformed Namibian soldiers completely drunk on a weekday morning. I fear he will drink it all away tonight and that my research is only fuelling the alcoholism that is already rampant in these deprived communities. I’m waiting for time to pass, waiting for it to get dark enough to have a wash in the bush with a liter of water and cook a modest meal under the cover of darkness—to hide my awkwardness about eating while others don’t.

I work with Khwe people, a San group whose former territory is now divided by the international boundaries of Namibia, Botswana, and Angola. Although most of my time has been spent in several settlements here in West Caprivi, I have also made short visits across the border to Ngamiland, in northern Botswana. Like San groups elsewhere, Khwe reality is deeply etched with marginalization, hunger, alcoholism, domestic violence, and HIV/AIDS. For me, the settlement of Omega epitomizes these legacies. This former well-provisioned South African military base is now a run-down, half-inhabited place from which the planned neatness has long since faded. Wooden barracks stand row after row, many of them deserted, with broken windows, dead boiler systems, and no sanitation. This is where the South Africans operated an enlisted-men’s club in the 1970s and 1980s to siphon off cash from the salaries of Bushman soldiers—referred to by some South African officials as “little Stone Age men.” As the consequences of emerging alcoholism correlated with the military’s occupation became apparent, the South African response was that these people “simply did not know how to handle liquor.”

Despite the many colonial and postcolonial interventions in Khwe society, Khwe people still retain much of their traditional knowledge, including an extraordinary wealth of understanding about the environment and its myriad natural resources. In recent years, NGOs in Namibia and Botswana have encouraged Khwe to map this knowledge as a means to record their cultural heritage and historical land-use patterns, and for the purposes of environmental management.

During the daytime we talk about such mapping, and people in both Namibia and Botswana tell me how other in-migrating ethnic groups have re-named Khwe lands in other languages, how Khwe history is slipping through people’s fingers, how they have been separated from the animals that are a central part of their cultural identity, and how young people no longer know the names of the dom-oro, the fossil river beds that are important sources of water and plants. The Khwe with whom I speak see maps as tools that will assert Khwe knowledge about the landscape and its natural resources and grant them the power and visibility that they lack in this world: the power to prove to outsiders that this place is theirs. “The name Khwe came as we didn’t meet any other people on the land, just ourselves,” said Moronga Ntemang, a Khwe member of the Teemacane and ‡Heku1 Trusts. “We lived on our own and we didn’t know where these other people came from, but they took our land. Now we are just there without our land. So we have started working with these maps and names, as we are forced to do this to try and keep our land. Maybe the government will recognize us as a people when they see this information in the maps.”

As I lie in my tent, I reflect on my time in West Caprivi, and the challenges that make me question the very idea of academic research. Yesterday I saw an acquaintance, Kasene, for the first time in 14 months. She is dying of the illness that no one talks about, no longer able to stand and lying on a dirty mattress on the floor of her hut, with the nearest water pump half a mile away. Her skin had shrunken to fit her bones. I tried to be cheerful to cover my horror and gave her some maize meal, though I knew it would not do anything for her. Kasene is dying, just a few hundred meters from the road where people from the Other World speed past in four-by-fours with their fancy camping gear. Lilac-grey clouds above, the smell of bush fires on the air, I listen to the sound of wood chopping and Dawie’s old father singing and playing ndingo (thumb piano) music late into the night by the glowing embers of the fire. He sings about how the Khwe people suffer, about the wild animals, the past life, Jesus Christ, and President Sam Nujoma.

His songs remind me of a quote from Maruta Diyonga in The Khwe of the Okavango Panhandle, a book produced by a San organization called the Teemacane Trust. “We Khwe are the last invisible nation alive in the world today,” he said. “We are last, the last ones in a bad life.”

The sense of marginalization in Maruta’s words is echoed by Khwe interviewees in West Caprivi. “In the past, we were living on hunting and gathering fruits,” they tell me. “When we were unhealthy we used to look for plants and dig their roots and cure that disease. But now our power has been taken by the strong people who are educated. We can try to give you researchers what you need, but then nothing happens. After we try to give our difficulties to the government, to the NGOs, things go forever, and then tomorrow another tribe is coming [to settle on our land]. Nothing happens.”

Weeks later I am in Mashambo, one of the smaller villages, where I first stayed with Khwe women to collect and document medicinal plants and other botanicals with special properties. Like many other places, Mashambo has lost its Khwedam name, Tuvu//gana, which referred to the hand-dug well on which people depended for water before the installation of the village’s manual-pump borehole. “Outsiders call our place the way they like,” says one of the village residents. “They changed the old names. So we are just flying, there’s nothing to show where the Khwe are.”

It’s evening, and I’ve just come back from a jog along the main road. It’s the only time when I can get some privacy and leave the intensity of the fieldwork behind; the only human sound for miles is my own breathing and the bouncing of my feet on gravel. I am sitting with Andre, my other interpreter, under the stars, by the dusty two-room primary school with the corrugated iron walls that were supposed to be temporary. He tells me the Khwedam names for the Milky Way and the other bright beacons in the winter sky, and I tell him the English ones. He asks me if it’s true that people really landed on the moon, and we talk about how it could be possible for stars to sometimes fall out of their sky-places. “In the past we didn’t have a map,” he says, “but our minds had maps. In the daytime we used the sun, and by nighttime, the stars.”

Not far from West Caprivi’s settlements, at least as the crow flies, Khwe communities across the border in northern Botswana share similar concerns about land, history, and identity. “We are all family,” they tell me, “despite these borders.” Throughout 2006, Botswana’s news was dominated by the landmark court case in which San successfully fought their eviction from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR). While the San of the CKGR have attracted extensive international media attention, the difficult situation of less politicized San communities in other parts of Botswana, including remote Ngamiland, has remained largely ignored by the international community. But these people, too, find themselves squeezed out by the burgeoning cattle frontier and dispossessed of land and water. And like the Khwe in Namibia, Ngamiland’s Khwe are also turning to oral history projects and mapping as a means of reclaiming identity and history and securing land tenure. “The government gave our places numbers rather than the Khwe names,” says a woman in Shaikarawe village. “Outsiders, other tribes, come here and do whatever they want. We don’t have power. We are making a map to show other people that we know the different places in the area and all the resources that we have.”

Now, in late 2006, I listen to stories about slow-motion sequences of land dispossession that have taken place over decades. To some extent, the San have resisted their marginalization and subjugation, but they have sometimes also acquiesced to it, depending on non-San patron households for access to economic and social benefits by which they survive. I sit down to hear the tale of a tall and wiry Khwe man called Nantama, who was once a highly paid soldier with the South African military. Those days of relative wealth are long over; today Nantama liaises with NGOs on behalf of his extended family in a bid to secure some land of their own. His astute face and animated smile conceal life’s hardships and complexities, which are the essence of the story that he and others now patiently explain to me: Nantama’s group originally came from a place called ‡’Ooca (“leadwood water”), in the northern Kalahari near the Okavango panhandle. “It is a place our fathers once called home,” he says. “The problem is all about finding a place, a piece of land. My people are scattered. We would like to have water and to live together in one place. Currently we are living in 11 different settlements.” Nantama’s people left ‡’Ooca around 1957, after several years of low rainfall dried up their sipwells, and they moved to a place called /Gaica (“velvet-raisin water”). In about 1982, a man of a different ethnicity arrived there. “What other ethnic groups have mastered is that where there are Bushmen, there is always water,” Nantama says. “The man said, ‘This water’s not enough. Let’s work together and dig a well to get more water.’” The Khwe agreed to this idea, which struck them as sensible, and they dug a well together. “Then the man just tricked us [in order] to stay there,” Nantama says, “because he wanted to take over the land. We Khwe don’t know how to apply [within the legal system] for land. This man went to the Land Board and applied for land. At that time he was working as a secretary at the Land Board. When this man received the certificate for the land, his wife said, ‘Hey you people, this land is ours: we have the authority.’” The weighty implications of this series of events became apparent when the settler said that Nantama’s family now had to pay to drink water from the well.

Nantama’s voice is still calm and patient, even as I register disbelief. From there, he describes in a matter-of-fact way how the Khwe group began to move away from /Gaica, at different times, “one by one, two by two.” They did not confront the settlers; they did not argue. “They didn’t say anything, they just moved away from the place, because of the certificate.” A few Khwe remained for a time, but they, too eventually moved away, with the last family departing in 2003. When the last Khwe left, only the settler and his household remained. He’d say, “Why have you moved away from your place and left me alone?” Nantama’s family replied, “It’s because we have to pay for [our own] water.” The settler and his family even asked the Khwe to come back and stay with them. From their point of view, they saw themselves as having come to the aid of the helpless, poverty-stricken Bushmen, employing Khwe to look after their cattle for a salary of one cow per year, which was seen as a good deal.

NGOs such as the Kuru Family of Organizations are currently working with San to locate land that they can legally acquire, partly through projects to map water locations. The local Land Board system, however, is complex and bureaucratic. “The reason we’re doing this”, explains a Kuru representative, “is that we want to help people who don’t know the system learn how to go about it. They aren’t aware of the government regulations. Nantama’s uncle doesn’t understand why there’s all this fuss; he just believes the land is his.” Nantama’s group has already made three different applications to the relevant Land Board for legal rights to a piece of land on which to settle; all three have been rejected. But the determined Nantama, along with other Khwe, emphasize that they have not given up hope. Together with KFO and its mapping team, they are currently revising their applications.
While the mapping of land and natural resources is not a panacea for the problems faced by San, it remains a valuable tool for Khwe consciousness-raising: a way to affirm Khwe identity and history, to record their rich cultural heritage, and to combat marginalization. Furthermore, such mapping can potentially be carried out with the support of government environment ministries for the purposes of environmental management in and around conservation areas, as has been the case in West Caprivi.

The next day I cross the border back into Namibia, camping at the N//goavaca rapids on the Kavango River. I wake at dawn in time to see the winter sun rise over the surging, misty waters, and I think about Nantama and his family and the well where they had to pay for their water. The abuse they suffered, and their reaction to it, strikes me as emblematic of the San who are fighting to claim their own land. An NGO worker told me that one of Nantama’s relatives worked for the settler for 15 years but received nothing, despite the settler’s promises of a cow per year. “I asked him, ‘Why [on earth] are you [still] working here?’ He said, ‘I’m not working here. This is my place.’”

Julie J. Taylor is a doctoral candidate and Beit Fellow at the Department of International Development, Oxford University.

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