Botswana's Fertile Desert

At that early morning hour before the cock’s crow rents the air, Xana cries. No one sees his tears but when the sun rises, everyone sees the resigned look in his brown eyes. Since the late 90s, he lives in a government resettlement camp on the edge of Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve.

He hates the camp so much that… Xana clenches his fists and breathes heavily. His eyes are bloodshot, the result of daily alcohol binges. Back in his ancestral home deep in the Game Reserve, there were no pubs and no alcohol. And no drunkenness.

If you see him from behind, you might think that his lanky frame is the body of an eighteen year old. But when he turns around, the age and pain on his face become instantly evident. Not physical pain. Emotional pain. It trickles out of those bloodshot eyes even as he smiles and grasps your outstretched hand.

One sad morning in the late 90s, (Xana doesn’t remember the exact year), the then twenty year old father of two found himself in the cold and rusty back of a police truck. Sitting all around him were fellow San. Some were protesting loudly while others like him were already lost in an empty distant stare. The cops were not arresting them, but were instead evicting them from their ancestral homeland.

Wait a minute! Who gets evicted from their very own ancestral homeland? You may wonder.

Well, the San people, also referred to as bushmen. Because their homeland, where they have lived for centuries, is in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Although a major reason why this reserve was created in 1961 was to protect the traditional way of life of the San people, the tables have since turned big time. 

At 52,800 square km, Central Kalahari Game Reserve is twice the size of Rwanda and is the second largest game reserve in the world. Now, that’s HUGE. That’s multiplied trillions of square inches. Despite its sheer size, every inch on this mammoth reserve counts. Before they were evicted, the San interacted intimately with this land daily and consequently knew it like the backs of their calloused hands. If you looked at the reserve through the practiced eyes and keen senses of the San, you would see the wonders of pristine nature.

On some of the reserve’s acres, waist length grass grows happily. Its greenish-yellow color gives it an identity crisis – should it pay homage to the rainy season that has just ended or embrace the summer sun that is out in full force?

If you open your eyes wide, concentrate and look really, really carefully, you will see the golden yellow skin of a lioness that is lurking in the grass, ignoring the two giraffes that are barely fifty metres away and waiting for any small herbivore that it’s sure will pass by in the course of the day. Madam lioness is particularly eager for kudus or springboks to fall into its ambush as the two antelopes have tender, sweet meet that would be perfect for its cubs. This particular lioness is a daughter of Kalahari, born and bred in the vast game reserve.

Other inches of the reserve are bereft of grass and replete with dry sand that is interspersed with tiny rocks and occasional boulders. Two steps away from one such boulder, a tiny bird known as ant eating chat stands alert on the hot ground. In the Tswana language that is widespread in Botswana, the dark-brown bird is known as leping. It’s also a daughter of Kalahari and has flown over the fertile desert for ages. As a boy, Xana would wave at the birds as they flew merrily above their hut. From time to time, he would also catch glimpses of the shy lioness and flash at it a boyish grin.

On other acres of the reserve, close to twenty thousand zebras can be seen migrating to greener pastures. What a sight! Their black and white stripes fill the desert floor as they follow their instincts and gallop purposefully to those elusive greener pastures.

The wildebeest too can be seen grazing, playing, galloping and napping. About four decades earlier, the wildebeest had been almost ten times the current population. They didn’t die from a poacher’s bullet or from a lethal disease. Rather, they died when a long sturdy fence was erected to prevent them from coming into contact with domestic animals, particularly cattle. It was deemed that such interaction would spread fatal diseases like foot and mouth disease. Because they couldn’t migrate to greener pastures, the wildebeest died in their hundreds of thousands.

Before diamond was discovered, beef was Botswana’s leading foreign exchange earner. Adjacent to the reserve is Ghanzi, Botswana’s beef capital. At least 75 percent of the beef exported by Botswana Meat Commission comes from this area. Most of these beef exports end up in the European Union, whose stringent health rules prompted Botswana’s government to erect the fences, commonly referred to as veterinary fences. These fences separated wild animals from cattle and thus ensured that cattle would not catch diseases from the wild animals. 

Away from the fence, deep in the reserve, the hot atmosphere is now shining bright like diamonds – literally. A $4.9 billion diamond mine opened in September within the reserve although diamonds were discovered much earlier in the eighties.

While this diamond mining has significant benefits to Botswana’s economy, the social and environmental costs are not as rosy. Although the government denies it, many link the diamond discovery with the eviction of the San people.

In addition, extractive industries like diamond mining have not always had happy endings in Africa.

While Botswana’s diamond mining cannot be compared with the horrors depicted in the movie ‘blood diamonds,’ the diamonds’ potential to breed inequality and corruption cannot be ignored. Botswana is of course a sterling example of a country that is rechanneling its mineral earnings to development. But as a Swahili proverb warns, ‘praising a chef too much can cause him to add too much water into the soup.’

As for environmental impacts, only time will tell if the diamonds will be good or bad for the reserve’s overall ecosystem. If the veterinary fence had disastrous consequences for the reserve’s biodiversity, there is no telling if the glittering diamonds will follow a similar disastrous path or not.

Diamonds, with their million-dollar sparkle, are shining and smiling all the way from the reserve to the bank. What can easily be lost in the drumbeats of the new found prosperity is the fact that the reserve is the bedrock the diamonds – without it, there could have been no mining of diamonds. Since sustainability is about giving back as much as, or more than you have taken out, Central Kalahari Game Reserve must be the key beneficiary of diamond proceeds. In other words, the diamonds must leave the reserve better than they found it.

Given that you cannot talk about the reserve without making reference to the San people, they must similarly be key beneficiaries of the diamonds that lurk in the belly of their ancestral homeland. 

Xana knows about the diamonds but he has never seen them. He doesn’t really care.

‘They have taken away our bush and taken away our manhood,’ Xana says as he sips the warm beer, ‘now we are not even bushmen.’

Note: Xana is a composite charachter based on real people in Central Kalahari Game Reserve

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