Tosodilo Hills, Botswana
Bushmen in Paradise?
The issues regarding the sacred sites in the Tosidillo hills of Botswana are revealing. By examining the conflict between the San “bushmen”, who are indigenous to the area, and the Government of Botswana we gain insight into how indigenous and non-indigenous worldviews and understandings clash in relation to sacred space. This “clash” illustrates the complexities that arise when indigenous people try to reclaim their land. Although some governments have made recent efforts to make up for past failures regarding human rights, this sort of “post- colonialist” consciousness is a relatively new phenomenon; when we examine the current legal relations between indigenous peoples and “their” governments, we see that the conversation is never so simple as “oh gosh we’re sorry we took all your lands, here have them back!”. Restitution will not undo wrongs that occurred centuries ago. In the intervening years both cultures have evolved organically – themselves and in relation to each other. The current conversation between representatives of both groups must take the present into account. Yet, the question of what to do now is scary; it is extremely complex and involves many issues. These issues range from environmental to conceptual to political, and examining them is both interesting and maddening.
Speaking of indigenous, the Sans people, of the Kalahari Desert are considered to be one of the oldest ethnic groups on earth. Evidence from rock art and other artifacts suggests that the ancestors of today’s San have lived as nomads around Botswana for thousands of years. It is easy then, to picture a romanticized image of content tribal dudes in mud huts playing with sticks in the dirt and frolicking with antelope. This is not the reality; 350 years of colonization has paid its course. The policies of national governments, corporate interests, and the trends of globalization have contributed to unrest in the Sans community. Today, the San are a marginalized minority in modern Botswana and Namibia.
The Lu Hoansi are a subgroup Sans that have confronted numerous challenges in their search to maintain their ethnic position. The onset of government run conservation, tourism and mining programs have resulted in displacement from their sacred homeland. In 1995, when the Tsodilo Hills National Monument was created in northeastern Botswana, a small community of Lu or Ju/’Hoansi San were relocated from their the base of the Tsodilo Hills.
These hills hold incredible importance to the Lu Hoansi people. Their significance goes beyond that of historical or aesthetic value, they are central and essential to their mythology and spiritual soul. The hills themselves are sacred. The Sans’ identify them with human attributes. The tallest hill is referred to as “male”, the second tallest as “female”, the third as the “child” and the fouth as “first wife”. Their beliefs about the hills transcend human attribution. The top of the male hill is the most sacred spot for the San, it is where they believe the First Spirit knelt and prayed after creating the world. The “Female” hill is regarded as the home of the deceased and various gods who rule the earth from there. Many San sacred rituals depend upon the geography itself. An underground lake in the female female hill is considered to be holy water that confers good luck on those that wash their faces with it. Various shamanic healing ceremonies take place on the mountain.
The hills don’t merely represent creation; they encompass the literal site where creation took place and where the dead reside! Eliade’s discusses sacred sites as places that reenact the cosmogony representing unification of heaven and earth. To the Sans, these hills are literal thresholds. The underworld, earthly world, and sacred coexist, and they believe it is their duty to protect and maintain these linkages. Hence the problem of relocation or shared space is monumental.
In December 2006 Botswona’s high court ruled that the government’s eviction practices were “unlawful and unconstitutional”. However, the Sans have since encountered numerous government imposed obstacles upon their return to the hills; “The government has banned them from using their water boreholes, refused to issue them hunting permits, banned them from taking animal herds onto the reserve, and even arrested more 50 individuals for hunting”. “ We have been evicted from our land and our government refuses to respect orders of the court,” said Roy Sesane, the leader of the First People of Kalahari. The government justified its actions against the Sans, by stating that it wished to ensure the park’s integrity as a nature reserve, and that it wished to integrate the San into the country’s social and economic life. Being returned to the land has not resulted in the restoration of the Sans’ traditional practices In addition, tensions within the community continue to emerge, concerning the group’s contemporary identity and the question of whether or how to integrate/co-exist with the dominant culture.
(Roy Sesane (center), the leader of the First People of Kalahari, celebrates after the final hearing and judgment of the Bushmen’s case against the government of Botswana at the High Court in Lobatse on Dec. 13, 2006. (Photo: Gianluigi Guercia / AFP-Getty Images)
In the conflict over sacred land, we see how clearly problematic the relations tend to be between the dominant non-indigenous group and the indigenous one. One of the most apparent obstacles that exist in this “troubled relationship” is a lack of a shared vocabulary when it comes to the issues at hand (in our case, space). To the indigenous peoples, spaces embody a history, but also a way of life, a worldview in itself. The mountain is sacred, it is literally spirit, and tribal ways are seen as harmonious or congruous with that notion of that spirit. The value of the land does not exist in what it represents, but in the land itself. To the government land is a commodity. So historical importance, environmental concerns, human rights, and land use issues are divided and dissected as laws are made. Both internal tribal tensions and external government obstacles that continue to stymie the Sans in returning to their land illustrate that there are no simple solutions to indigenous concerns. Until we find a common language, let go of the urge to oversimplify, and see each other as individuals rather that “other”, we may remain unable to truly progress
Henneger, Kristen “Tosodilo Hills.” http://www.sacredland.org, January 30, 2009.
Tsoroti, Stephen. “Kalahari Bushmen Fight Government Instransigence.” Worldpress.org, November 26, 2007.
“The Kalahari Bushmen”. Wikipedia.com 2010.