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Afrikaners Amid the Bushmen of the Kalahari : Botswana Outpost Blends Black, White

January 10, 1988|GREG MYRE | Associated Press

GHANZI, Botswana — Afrikaner farmers and nomadic Bushmen have little in common, but in this Kalahari Desert town they are bonded by a shared frontier spirit and a willingness to work a hostile, untamed land.

The Afrikaners, descended from the Dutch and German settlers of southern Africa, came to Ghanzi from South Africa a century ago in search of land to raise cattle.

The Bushmen, who have roamed the Kalahari for thousands of years, have begun to form small, semipermanent settlements, often tending cattle or working as hired hands on sprawling ranches.

The two cultures meet in Ghanzi, a sun-baked, slow-motion outpost of 3,000 people on the northwestern edge of the Kalahari, near Botswana's border with Namibia( South-West Africa).

Here an angry sun burns off the last hint of the night's cool by 8 a.m. and turns the sand to sizzling crystals by noon.

There are no paved roads, private telephones, movie theaters, radio or television. The nearest town is almost 180 miles across a rutted desert track.

"People say there are more millionaires than telephones in Ghanzi, and they're not exaggerating by much," said Marnie van Niekerk, who runs the eight-room Kalahari Arms Hotel, the only lodge in town.

The hotel is encircled by a nine-foot-high barbed-wire fence to keep lions out, covered by a corrugated tin roof and painted in drab brown tones, making it almost indistinguishable from the state prison half a mile away.

The hotel has Ghanzi's only bar and lounge, where mounted impala and buffalo heads stare down at guests. Poker games can last all night, and if your luck is down you can go next door to the hotel's disco, which has a 10-foot-high portrait of American rock star Alice Cooper.

"In the old days, the men would leave their women at home and come here to drink and fight," Van Niekerk said. "There was a wooden partition between the bar and the lobby and it must have been busted down a dozen times during fights. It was a wild, wild place."

But lately orange juice has replaced beer as the first item on the breakfast menu at the Kalahari Arms, and it has been years since the police patrols switched from camels to four-wheel-drive vehicles.

But the good old days have not been forgotten.

Braam de Graaf, 78, came to Ghanzi after World War II and started up a ranch with 200 cattle. Every year he would take 10 Bushmen with him for the three-week, 400-mile cattle drive across the Kalahari to the stockade in Lobatse.

"We'd travel at night since that was the only time it was cool, and also because you want to be awake when the lions are most likely to attack," De Graaf said.

"The Bushmen are a strong people and they're hard workers," said rancher Theun Vickerman, one of Botswana's largest ranchers. "I had a woman who delivered her baby on her lunch break and returned to work on time that afternoon."

Vickerman, who was raised in a South African orphanage, started ranching in Ghanzi in 1953, when land was selling for less than a dollar an acre.

He now owns 5,500 cattle and 150,000 acres. It's a 10-mile drive from his front gate to his front porch, and big-game hunters pay $1,000 a day to shoot at his private stock of 400 eland.

Vickerman's bulls often are among the prize winners at the annual Ghanzi agricultural show, the town's main social event.

Top attractions include rugby played on a field that has never seen grass, horse races with the diminutive Bushmen serving as jockeys and, this year, a bull that guzzled beer from a can.

"It took a while to get used to this place," said the Rev. J. M. Seitlheko of the Dutch Reformed Mission, a Ghanzi resident for five years. He holds services in town, but spends most of his time traveling to tiny Bushmen settlements outside Ghanzi.

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