Kalahari, the nostalgia of the San Desert

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All the deserts of the world are not made of hot sands and apricot-colored dunes. In southern Africa, on both sides of the Tropic of Capricorn, there is one closer to the sandy plain, covered with rough grass and stunted shrubs: the Kalahari. Few men know how to find their way in this infinite undergrowth with virtually nonexistent relief. The San (or Bushmen, Bushmen in English) are among them.

The first inhabitants of southern Africa, these hunter-gatherers have inhabited the Kalahari for about 40,000 years. There are still 100,000 today, half of them in Botswana, where this semi-desert covers 80% of the land.

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The "Land of Thirst"

"I know my environment very well and know what animals and plants I can find at this or that place. When we still had the right to hunt, it helped me well! " In his widely torn jeans, his brown skin as prematurely crumpled, Motswakgakala Gaoberekurep has old wiser ways out of a children's tale when he delivers the building secrets of his little round hut and tells of his victories over the lions that came threaten with fire some nights.

Like most San (which some explorers have brought closer to the Pygmies because of their small size), Motswakgakala ignores his birthday. His identity card, which he brandished with pride, only indicates: XX / XX / 1957. He expresses himself in one of those "click languages" of southern Africa, where articulated sounds and slight tongue-clicks coexist. But to spell out his complicated name, this father of four prefers to draw with his fine finger the letters in the sand.

While he is talking, his wife does the dishes for breakfast: with her sponge, she taps the ashes of the wood fire before using it to rub the cups, which she then hangs on the branches of a tree. They will dry quickly: the air is dry during the austral winter (from June to August), which enjoys mild temperatures during the day (the nights are freezing), around 15 ° C. At the antipodes of the rains and the heat of January …

The San then make rainwater reserves, anticipating the dry season where they can also rely on watermelons to drink – in Tswana, language of the majority ethnic Botswana, Kgalagadi (district where the Kalahari desert) means "land of thirst". Well drilling has been the subject of years of standoff with the Botswana authorities.

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A park where elephants are kings

Motswakgakala and his wife live part of the year in their home village of Metsiamanong, in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR). The largest protected area on the continent, this large park, like Croatia (52 800 km²), is the heart of the Kalahari, whose basin extends from South Africa to the Democratic Republic of Congo, covering 1.2 million km². (twice France).

In the CKGR, you can only go on foot or in 4 × 4, on endless tracks where carcasses of abandoned vehicles remind you that it is better to predict its gasoline and prepare to push in case of silting. As for the long iron fence, it is broken down in places: herds of elephants are not rare in this reserve where we come from all over the world to go on safaris.

Antelopes, mongooses, hyenas and leopards would they have become priority on the humans evolving in this desert since the Paleolithic? This is what the San and the NGOs responsible for defending them provide. In 1961, however, it was to protect these populations that the British colonial authorities created CKGR.

But in 1997 and again in 2002, the San were expelled from the park by a Botswana government anxious to preserve the fauna and flora and bring these men into "modernity". Some argue that it is rather the discovery of diamond deposits that caused their ousting (read opposite). This expulsion was in any case judged "Illegal and unconstitutional" by the Botswana justice in 2006, and some San were able to return to their lands.

The idle life of the displaced

But since then, life has changed in Kalahari. In 2014, hunting was banned throughout Botswana, which was experienced as an injustice by the San, previously allowed to live and hunt in the CKGR. Over the last fifty years, however, these tribes have gradually settled down, cultivating sorghum, raising chickens and goats. Animals that followed the San in the three camps created for them off the reserve during the relocation of the 2000s.

But when the San were allowed to return to live in the park after 2006, this was not the case for their livestock, which forced many families to stay there, at the gate of the desert. Others were unable to return to the reserve because of their children's schooling in the camps.

Whether inside or outside the CKGR, idleness now seems to be the norm for the San, quick to evoke the past with melancholy. "When we were hunting again, we did not have to buy anything. Money, we did not even know what it was! ", ensures one. "I do not do anything of my days," sighs another, referring to the food rations distributed to them each month by the government. Among the displaced, in particular, depression and alcoholism are rampant.

The benefits of ostrich and eland

It is still San to "do something with their days": the preparation of wood for fire takes a lot of time, as well as the digging of the tubers of the claw of the devil, medicinal plant that is dried in the sun before selling it. Others are employed in the luxury lodges of the CKGR as gardeners or guides to introduce tourists to their traditional way of life. "We are pushed to make dummy productions that are not faithful to our practices! " insists Onthusitse Tshotlego, a thirty-year-old who has already held this position. He has the same dream as his father: open his own lodge. It would be, he says, the first of all the Kalahari to be held by a San.

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In his village of Gugamma, in the CKGR, Onthusitse spends most of his time ensuring that the forty or so family goats do not get eaten by jackals. Apart from them, the young man boasts the merits of wild animals, elands and ostriches in particular. "Our ancestors made tools with the bones of the ostrich legs and used the shells of their eggs as containers. The elands were precious because of the fat that surrounds their hearts: mixed with crushed roots, it became a lotion whose body was covered so as not to be cold. These animals allowed my ancestors to survive here. "

Today, some young people of the generation of Onthusitse dream of a more urban life, "With shops and light at night", while the most distant city they have ever visited is only 55 km away. It's true that in the Kalahari, in the middle of winter, it's dark at 6:30 pm … "I was born without electricity so I do not miss her, slice for its part Onthusitse. Between the wood fire and the stars, there are other ways to have light. " Above his head, the astonishing light of the starry sky seems to prove him right.

"The gods have fallen on their heads"

Neglected from a plane, a bottle of Coca-Cola lands in the Kalahari. Bushmen seize it, fascinated by this gift of the gods that allows them to crush their food, work their skins of snakes and make music. But this one, become object of lust, does not wait to sow discord in the tribe. When one of the Bushmen decides to win at the end of the world to get rid of it, he crosses the road of modern civilization … It is rare that an African film – its director is Jamie Uys, South African – attracts 6 million spectators in the French cinemas. A popular success deserved for this comedy released in 1980, even if the description of the Bushmen as primitive men cut off from all modernity is now obsolete.

Diamonds, wealth of the country

In the early 2000s, the monthly The Ecologist and the NGO Survival International denounce the increase in the number of diamond concessions in the Central Kalahari Nature Reserve, according to them at the origin of the expulsion of the San. In 2007, as a result of this campaign, Debswana (the leader in the De Beers rough diamond market, owned by the Gaborone government) ceased exploration at Gope. The company says it does not want to move local communities, but to offer them jobs. The Gope deposit is then transferred to another company, Gem Diamonds, which obtains a license and opens the mine in 2014. Botswana, which has experienced a record growth rate since the discovery of the diamond in the 1960s, extracts a quarter of the diamonds sold in the world.

(tagsToTranslate) Namibia (t) South Africa (t) World (s) nostalgia (t) Kalahari (t) desert

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