San’s hunter-gatherer lifestyle not romantic

There is a tendency, usually among well-heeled urbanites in the West, to put hunter-gatherers and dirt-poor peasant farmers on a pedestal, regarding them as living some sort of ideal life in their nomadic journeys or abject poverty. What these romaticists do not see are the appaling child mortality rates, the trapping of whole generations into perpetual poverty since children are not educated for the modern world, and the despair that can be faced by whole communities left behind in development. These neo-liberals have attitudes that were seen among the most dogmatic Afrikaner politicians in the heyday of apartheid. African governments are largely immune to this nonsense. They battle, with ever increasing success, to grow their economies, to provide universal schooling and primary health care, and to manage one of the fastest urbanisation rates in history. As any traveller can testify, more and more of those Africans who choose to farm are doing so in more commercial ways and modern permanent housing is fast becoming the norm. The mud hut will soon be little more than a museum exhibit, showing “how our ancestors lived”. But while most families manage the transition to the modern developing world with reasonable ease, regardless of whether they become urbanised or whether they stay on the land as business-like farmers, there seem to be special problems with hunter-gatherer communities around the world. And in Southern Africa these communities were almost entirely San. Such families and communities need access to education, decent health care, and the same chance as everyone else of a better life for themselves and their children. But, if this is done without sensitivity, the result seems to be widespread alcoholism and despair. The desirable outcome, of course, is to see these families enter the mainstream society as equals, able to cope with the modern world but also knowing a lot about their own cultural traditions and being able to speak, read and write their mother tongue as well as the language or languages they need to interact with others. But the jump from the old to the new is immense and very difficult to manage in a generation, especially where there is strong resistance from senior members of the community who see, unfortunately correctly, that they are too old for the transition and basically just become charity cases. The problem was most acute in Botswana, where the old British protecting authority did absolutely nothing for the San except stop others interfering with them. Botswana had to start from this base, and it did so with some sensitivity, allowing San to live and hunt in Kalahari game parks for example. Unfortunately some San who have managed the transition to the modern world are now quite happy to hunt with high-powered rifles from the back of 4×4 pick-ups, which was not what was intended. Botswana is now trying to settle San, so they can be given the advantages of health and education. Namibia offers an example. Admittedly the settlement earlier on was brutal and forced, both by the German colonists and the South African occupiers. But the independent Government of Namibia has done as well as anybody in the world, and far better than most, in managing the very difficult task of bringing San communities into the mainstream while still encouraging them to keep languages and being proud of their inherited culture. Botswana probably needs to do more on language and culture preservation, while continuing its excellent efforts to provide the sort of basic services all people, and especially children, have the right to enjoy. There will be objections, but there really is no other choice.

June 2006
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