BOTSWANA: Bukakhwe San surviving in a changing world

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Visiting the Gudigwa project, an eco-tourism camp ran by Bukakwe San Bushmen community in the Okavango Delta area in Botswana’s northwest dispels all preconceptions of an indigenous group stranded in the
Stone Age.

While other Bushmen elsewhere in the country are locked in a court battle with the Botswana government over allegations of forced relocation from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, an area they have long considered their ancestral home for over 20 000 years, the Bukakhwe San community is attempting to preserve its tradition through tourism before it vanishes.

Another aim of the project is to provide funds for the
development of the Bukakhwe San community, numbering
700, whose majority lives in poverty.

The initiative also aims to reduce pressure on
wildlife in Botswana’s Okavango Delta by providing
alternative sources of income that respect the
Bukakhwe’s cultural heritage.

A US-based non-government organisation, Conservation
International (CI), which has offices in Maun a tourism village in northwestern Botswana, helped assembly the project. The camp was opened in 2003 with CI providing ongoing technical assistance.

It is a far cry from the lifestyle of most San, who live on government handouts or work for a pittance as farm labourers. The project is owned by them and employs almost its entire 50-member team from the community.

The eco-tourism camp consists of eight grass huts
built according to the San tradition, but with welcome
modern additions: electric lighting, showers and flush

It is sold as a one-night experience that can be
accessed by air from Maun. An airstrip taking small
airplanes has been constructed thanks to a South
African travel company, Okavango Wilderness Safaris,
that also operates a number of other camps in the

CI-Botswana’s biodiversity manager, Lovemore Sola says
the Gudigwa project goes beyond the standard approach
of most budget travel companies to indigenous
cultures. He says it is a genuine attempt at cultural
interaction and has partially reconstructed a way of
life that has almost vanished.

“The Gudigwa camp experience highlights the intimate
connection between Bukakhwe San’s cultural heritage
and their natural environment,” said Sola.

His organisation deals with conversation and
biodiversity issues.

“By sharing their culture and knowledge of the bush
they should be able to revive a dying culture and pass
on their intricate and intimate knowledge of their
environment to future generations,” Sola added.

Hunting, increased human settlement and livestock
encroachment have had a negative impact on some of the
region’s most endangered species like the African
elephant (Loxodonta Africana) and African wild dog
(Lycaon pictus).

Gudigwa’s cheetahs, Wattled cranes, lions and leopards
are also under pressure. This new project gives the
700 members of the Gudigwa community sustainable
alternatives to livestock grazing and incentives to
protect local fauna.

The eco-tourism camp is in a tourism area like the
rest of the Okavango Delta wetland area and is not
suitable for pastoral activities, said Sola.

Sola says the Bukakhwe San community has been able to
adjust to the changing world because “they are worried
about what will happen to their children as the way
and life and culture faces extinction in the eye”.

“They know they are no longer hunters and gatherers
any more and they have never accused the government of
trying to deprive them of their heritage,” Sola said.

The Bukakhwe San community was resettled in Gudigwa in
1985 following the combination of several scattered
settlements into one, thereby turning southern
Africa’s most indigenous people into pastoralists who
no longer had the rights to hunt.

They trace their roots to Namibia and southern Angola.

San Bushmen guides ensure the visitors information on
their way of life.

“It is important to pass on the culture from the
elders,” said Letsedi Tlau, one of the guides.

Tlau knows that his grandparents used to hunt with
bows and arrows but is vague with the details.

“I did not know how they managed to kill big animals
like giraffes until I discovered that the arrows were
poisoned,” Tlau said.

In the cool dawn morning, San women take out visitors
to the camp into the bush. Traditionally, gathering
vegetables and herbal medicine was women’s
responsibility. It is here that visitors learn that
elephant dung when placed on charcoal produces smoke
that can be used as a mosquito repellent.

There is also the purple vermin plant that Bushmen
used to treat skin cancer lesions. Visitors are also
taught to make bird traps using willow branch and
thorns, with a piece of fruit as bait.

There does not appear to be the same dissatisfaction
among the Bukakhwe San community that exists in the
Kalahari to the south, where 243 Bushmen accuse the
government of seizing land to make way for diamond
mining, a lifeline to the Botswana economy.

“Some of the older men were not happy about the game
hunting licences being removed,” said Theora Bengu,
another guide.

Chillie Motshusi, CI’s Community Development Officer,
said, “That loss was the death knot for keeping their
traditional culture truly alive yet it would be
misleading to say that the majority of the Bukakhwe
San wish to re-adopt their forefathers’ arduous

Deviro Ndando, the traditional chief of the Bukakhwe
San says the eco-tourism camp has removed the old age
belief of the Bushmen being threats to wild animals.

“It is like that we have turned from poachers to game
protectors,” Ndando said. “But the priority remains on
conserving wildlife and preserving our culture.”

The Gudigwa eco-tourism camp was officially opened by
the then Minister of Environment, Wildlife and
Tourism, Pelonomi Venson, in March 2003. A veld fire
that ravaged the area in November resulted in the camp
being destroyed to the ground resulting in massive
reconstruction that saw it being reopened last

“The fire united the community,” said CI’s Sola. “They have now learnt to view the project as their own.”