In Botswana, a vast semi-desert territory shelters an abundant fauna but also one of the oldest peoples of the globe. Despised by some, cherished by others, the Bushmen of Kalahari form the salt of the land of Southern Africa and one of the best reasons to go to this corner of the world. After spotting an isolated strand of grass emerging from the ground, the venerable man sits down and starts digging with his spear. About fifteen minutes later, he extracted a tube as large as a knee, which he began to grate to obtain a white and soft paste. He soon presses it with his palm above his mouth, in order to drink of the milky water which flows from it.
“Even at the worst of the dry season, there is always water for anyone who knows how to find it in the desert” says my guide and interpreter.
I have been walking with her for about an hour and a dozen Bushmen (also called Bushmen, or San), proud representatives of the oldest people in Africa, as part of an outing organized by the camp where I stay. And I am amazed in astonishment by discovering how these seemingly frail and graceful beings evolve in total symbiosis with their harsh environment. One thing is certain, they have no equal to flush out porcupines, tamanoirs and other snacks on all fours, which they track down to their burrows thanks to their filiform bodies and their long lances. Even scorpions do not escape their flair, and they can extirpate them from their nest buried 50 centimeters from the surface of the ground. The Bushmen themselves have antediluvian origins: in 2012, tools identical to those they use today, found in South Africa, date back 44,000 years. There would be only a few tens of thousands living in southern Africa – perhaps 100,000 – of which here in Makgadikgadi, northeastern Botswana.
It was the eve of this amazing journey that I arrived in this whitish extension of the Kalahari desert.Along the way, nothing, or almost, compared to the rich vegetation of the Okavango, in the heart of which I had just spent a week of animal voyeurism. The impression of distance from this desert on horseback over several countries in southern Africa was all the stronger, especially when the first white spots tapped the horizon, from the air: the pans.
Despite the hostility of the surroundings, there are no beasts missing: contingents of pink flamingos and thousands of wildebeests looking for grasses during the wet season (November to April); Springboks, aardvark, cheetahs, brown hyenas and zebras in general … And above all, the Makgadikgadi sections are frequented by a large population of Kalahari lions. More massive than their northern cousins and with an impressive black mane, they are also more characteristic of the region. “It’s because of the friction with the breeders” explains Eric Muzebelt, Dutch guide born in Rwanda. They have long hunted them to protect their cattle, but now they have no right to do so. “Last year, Botswana banned hunting all over its territory, thus becoming a wildlife haven unparalleled in Africa. But while we are still allowing rich foreign hunters to shoot down large game to bring trophies to private reserves, the banning of hunting is an indiscriminate target for all Botswana, including the Bushmen. Now a man who has not killed an animal with a bow and arrow remains a child, says the Bushmen. To continue hunting as they have since the dawn of time, they now have to get a license – though in fact many continue to indiscriminately hunt for subsistence hunting on small prey.
“It should be borne in mind, however, that no license has ever been issued to a Bushman: for the Botswana government, it is another way to bother these people, after having prevented them from occupying their ancestral lands, rich in Mining deposits in the central Kalahari” said Alice Bayer, spokesman for Survival International, an NGO that even calls for boycotting tourism in Botswana to urge the government to respect its most illustrious minority.
But if more and more young Bushmen agree to be settled and want to access modern life, others want to perpetuate the traditions of their venerable ancestors. And in the present state of affairs, few avenues other than those of tourism present themselves to them to get there. This is what Xushe Xwii, 21, who came back to live in his village of Xai Xai after high school to act as a guide-interpreter at Jack’s Camp, which employs some 30 Bushmen living in the vicinity of Of Makgadikgadi. “Walking with you allows me to share my culture and help keep her alive,” she says, dressed in antelope skin clothes – which no more Bushmen, or almost anything, wears on a daily basis – as always That it leaves to walk at the borders of the folklore and the cultural survival.
Despite their extraordinary contribution to the culture of this country, the Bushmen remain opprobrious by a majority of Botswana, who regard them as a primitive and inferior people. Yet they are among those with the greatest genetic diversity in Africa, they are part of one of the ancestral peoples of which a majority of humans live, and they continue to evolve in a More hostile. This is enough to justify a stay in the Kalahari: playing the animal voyeur is fine, but touching an essential fragment of humanity is infinitely better.