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Only 600 Left of Centuries-Old Culture : Namibia Bushmen Struggle for Survival

June 25, 1989|JEAN-PIERRE CAMPAGNE | Agence France-Presse

GAUTCHA, Namibia — They call themselves the Ju Wasi , meaning "correct people," and survive in eastern Namibia, descendants of the Bushmen who first inhabited the desert there 40,000 years ago.

"We were the first, we have become the last. We must do something quickly," said Tsanko Toma. He heads a farming cooperative and acts as spokesman for about 600 Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert.

Since 1981, they have gathered in 14 villages like this one south of Tsumkwe, one of the n'lore , their term for "the place we belong to," the land around the ancestral watering hole.

The South African administration gave them everything they had never had and never desired: a school, a clinic, a church and a prison. But they also discovered what they were not expecting: malnutrition, alcoholism, despair, early death.

Now they call Tsumkwe "the place of death," said Megam Biesele of the Bushman Development Foundation, a private body aiding the 600 Bushmen.

At the end of the 1950s, several thousand were still hunting and gathering in the Kalahari. But in 1960 the South Africans allocated territory on ethnic lines, and the Bushmen lost 70% of their land.

Living traditionally in groups of 40 to 50, with no practice of central organization and leadership to state their case, they were unsuited to competitive society, Megam Biesele explained.

Tsumkwe lies at the end of a sandy 125 miles of arrow-straight road, and the sight of humans along the isolated road is like an apparition.

There are a few houses for whites, while the Bushmen live in huts, many around the military base of the South African army's 203rd Battalion.

The soldiers have been using more than 500 Bushmen as trackers, but by next November the troops will have left under the U.N. independence plan for Namibia. There will be no more wages for the trackers.

"They are all going to starve," warned American anthropologist John Marshall, the creator of the Bushman Foundation.

Tsanko Toma, who said he was born "somewhere around 1940," is emerging as a leader in a society that has no hierarchy of its own.

He started the week in Windhoek, the territorial capital, meeting South African Administrator-General Louis Pienaar to "set out all the problems of the land."

A particular concern was to voice fears that neighboring Herero tribesmen have designs on Bushman lands.

Then he did the rounds of the villages, where the once nomadic Bushmen are trying to settle down as farmers and stock raisers, to tell them all he had heard.

He made a similar tour after talks with Daniel Tjongarero, head of the internal branch of the main black nationalist grouping the South West Africa People's Organization.

SWAPO, whose guerrilla armed wing took up arms against Pretoria's presence in the territory nearly a quarter of a century ago, is widely expected to win the general election scheduled for November.

Tsanko did not know which party he will vote for. It will be "a new day" after independence, but the Ju Wasi does not yet know how to take part in government, he said.

Fellow tribesman Gaishay, from the cooperative in Naru Na village, said he felt that none of the political parties was ready to give any thought to the future of the Bushmen.

Children and old people watched in the village square as he spoke with the foreigners.

As evening drew near, some men and women--the sexes have always been on an equal footing among the Bushmen--went off to do some hunting.

As they have for thousands of years, they used bows and poisoned arrows.

They are not allowed to have rifles. That is a privilege reserved for white tourists who come to shoot elephants and lions in Bushmanland.

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