Changing Misconceptions About African Bushmen

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SEATTLE — The Bushmen are an indigenous people in the southern part of Africa. There are more than 100,000 living in the countries of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Angola. They have been living on this land for tens of thousands of years, where they continue to practice their hunter-gatherer lifestyle. They are known to have genetic ties to the earliest humans. However, because of misconceptions about African bushmen and their way of life, they have become targets of prejudice and mistreatment throughout the past several decades. Due to these misconceptions, the Bushmen were evicted from their land by the government of Botswana due to the discovery of diamonds in their homeland. Their battle for freedom has been long and arduous, and these misconceptions must be reversed in order for the Bushmen to move out of poverty and into a more free existence.

The Borgen Project spoke to Jonathan Mazower, the communications director at Survival International, an organization that has been working with the Bushmen since the 1970s. When the government of Botswana began to evict the Bushmen from their land in the 1990s, Survival was able to step in and help. Mazower explained how Survival enabled “Bushman spokespeople to travel abroad to speak out about the violation of their rights, launching tourism and diamonds boycotts, lobbying bodies such as the U.N. and the EU.”

Bushmen Win Legal Rights to Their Land in Key Court Decision

The Bushmen’s case was taken to court in 2004. Against all odds, the Bushmen won. Mazower explained, “The judges ruled that the government had illegally and unconstitutionally evicted the Bushmen from their ancestral land and that they had the right to return to their homes and to hunt the game animals on which they rely for a livelihood. It was the first time that an African court recognized the concept of ‘native title.’ Since then, and despite government obstacles and intransigence, many Bushmen have returned to their homes in the reserve.”

In 2006, the Bushmen began returning home, a landmark decision in terms of African legal systems that took place after years of campaigning and lobbying. Mazower spoke to this work: “Survival’s campaign has changed minds and attitudes by challenging deep-seated prejudice against the Bushmen and their hunter-gatherer way of life, and enabled their voice to be heard within Botswana and abroad. The media and society generally in Botswana held the Bushmen in contempt, influenced by the government’s racist attitude to hunter-gatherers. There has been a sea change in public opinion in Botswana which is now much more supportive of the Bushmen and critical of the government’s treatment of them.”

After the initial ruling, with the help of Survival, the Bushmen won a second case regarding water rights on their land as well as a successful removal of the De Beers mining company from their land. A final discovery was made by Survival International, revealing that many Bushmen had been tortured and abused by wildlife scouts in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Once this information was out, support for the Bushmen continued to increase in southern Africa.

How Misconceptions About African Bushmen Harm Their Society

Even though the Bushmen have regained much of their freedom, there are still misconceptions surrounding bogging them down. Mazower detailed some of these: “Misconceptions, prejudice and racism led many to believe that the Bushmen and their communal way of life based on hunting, gathering and sharing are ‘backwards’ and ‘primitive.’ The government used this to justify the evictions and to force its ideas of development on them.”

The Botswana government attempted to modernize these people under the misconception that they are primitive and ancient, but this modernization destroyed their spirits and ruined their way of life. Mazower spoke to this cultural destruction: “People who were once free and self-sufficient, living meaningful lives of their choosing on their land, turned to alcohol and became bored and depressed. They are now exposed to diseases like TB and AIDS which were virtually unknown before.”

An article on the Survival International website discusses how progress can kill. The article states, “Forcing ‘development’ or ‘progress’ on tribal people does not make them happier or healthier. In fact, the effects are disastrous. The most important factor by far for tribal peoples’ well-being is whether their land rights are respected.” Common misconceptions about African bushmen and other indigenous peoples are the reason why development or progress is forced.

The question becomes: how can misconceptions about African bushmen be reversed in order to help them be culturally independent? Mazower says, “By showing people what the Bushmen have to teach us. They are extraordinarily resilient, and are the best conservationists. They have looked after the fauna and flora for millennia, and have immense botanical and zoological knowledge which benefits us all… They can also show us how to live together as a community based on sharing and reciprocity–they are a great example of egalitarianism, where wealth is not measured in possessions but rather what you give away and share. They put the community before the individual, share and exchange possessions rather than amass personal wealth and embrace gender equality.”

This is how misconceptions about indigenous people like the Bushmen can change: by showing the world their true nature and how it can learn from them rather than the other way around. Mazower closed the interview on this thought: “Survival’s work is rooted in showing that the Bushmen, like all tribal peoples, are contemporary peoples and are a vital part of human diversity. Tribal peoples who control their own land are healthier with a far better quality of life than tribes who’ve been evicted from their lands and had ‘development’ forced on them.” 

– Zachary Farrin
Photo: Flickr

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