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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”


Botswana, the Bushmen/San, and HIV/Aids
 Hugh Brody
7 - 8 - 2003

The catastrophic HIV/Aids pandemic in southern Africa threatens even
its most vigorous economy, Botswana. But it is displacement and
dispossession that create the greatest vulnerability to HIV. And it
may be that rights to land and a people's level of confidence in
their own identity are a central means of protection against ravaging
illness. Is this what we can learn from the Botswana margins? 

In July, in much of Botswana, there is no real heat in the sun. The
nights close in at 6pm, the air fills with sudden and surprising
dankness that clutches a little at the heart - all too reminiscent of
England in November. Long cold evenings are bad for the mood. Maybe
this is why it was the right time for George W. Bush and his
entourage to make a quick and triumphal visit to Gabarone, the
sprawling capital of this political and economic success story of the
southern African region.


Since the Bush team left Botswana, some of the local media have been
picking away at the reasons and results of the visit. The Americans
are not able to recruit any real, popular endorsement for the
invasion of Iraq. I am hearing ever more scepticism - no, not so much
scepticism as a mixture of something more forthright: indignation and

The Bush visit did not focus on Iraq, so much as possible campaigns
in two other possible American interventions - one in a nation:
Liberia, the other in an issue: HIV/Aids. Botswana eyes are not so
much on the Liberian civil war as the threat to themselves from HIV.
Botswana is now thought to have the highest HIV rate in the world,
with an epidemic that threatens to reduce the working population by
as much as 20% within a decade. An economic forecast that evokes
catastrophe for a burgeoning economy.

Bush announced tens of millions of dollars to come from the US to
fight the pandemic in Africa. Analysts of the new US contributions,
however, have been noting that these large new numbers may be
something of a sleight of hand. Too much is tied up in US research
and drug development, they say. No real attempts are being made to
reduce the high-cost retroviral remedies. There is really little more
here than is already on offer. At least one columnist has argued that
the new US response to a terrible, anguished crisis is twisted and
obscured by Bush's political spin - aid to the US image and
pharmaceutical interests; not an authentic response to real and
urgent needs.

Cycles of loss

What has this got to do with peoples who live on the margins of
Botswana? There are many of them - Kweh, !Xoo, !Kung, Jo'//uan and
Naro. They are part of a mosaic of San or Bushman societies that have
long and complex links to the greater part of Botswana, and who have
had long and difficult relationships with other peoples in the area.
They are known collectively by others in Botswana as Basarwa, a
Tswana word that seems to mean "inanimate (not quite human) original

Many of these peoples have lost, or are losing, their rights to their
own land. Many have been relocated, by a mixture of force and
bribery, to settlements outside their territories. A very few hold
onto their way of life (a blend of hunter-gatherer with borrowings
from pastoralist neighbours) on their own land by living in remote
areas or in the recesses of wildlife reserves and national parks.
Even the most remote, the most hidden, are at risk - not of modernity
so much as dispossession and displacement.

Those who live at the margins of Botswanan society are poor. The
communities that have been relocated to places where they can neither
find the plants and animals they know or tread the paths of their
ancestors, are in disarray. At many of these margins there is little
to do and not much to hope for. So the evils take root - feelings of
uselessness and powerlessness become endemic, alcohol and soft drugs
begin to have an irresistible appeal, anger and petty violence make
home life a struggle between the feelings of demoralised parents and
the vulnerabilities of children.


Thabo Mbeki made the defiant, some would say embarrassing, claim that
poverty, not HIV/Aids, was the problem in Africa. He seemed to imply -
 before indignant outbursts caused some rethink and political fog -
that HIV/Aids was a European or colonial myth of some sort. Perhaps
Mbeki's view was more complex than it appeared: the rapid and
unchecked spread of HIV is caused by a failure to resist - not lack
of nutrition (though the body's capacity to avoid infection and delay
the progress of the disease is indeed linked to nutrition), but lack
of family and social cohesion. The co-factors of HIV are drunkenness,
chaotic drug use, and the marketing and seeking of casual sex.

Resistances of hope

These co-factors are to be found, in their most desperate and extreme
forms at the margins of society, and the peoples whose lands,
livelihoods and heritage have been aggressively denied to them. The
San of Botswana are prominent in any calculation of fatal risk. But
not all of them: those who continue to live on their own lands, at
some distance - of everyday life or mind - from the majority
population are less vulnerable. The most obvious co-factor for HIV
infection rates is displacement. Government seeking to keep rates in
check must do what they can to prevent a development process that
causes dispossession and relocation.

The San groups that have reduced their vulnerability are the peoples
who have been campaigning for recognition and restitution of their
rights. At least one region, on the edges of Botswana, has mapped in
detail family territories and the encyclopaedic knowledge that goes
with them. By building new partnerships between elders and youth,
between holders of knowledge and those able to record and negotiate
for it, these San communities are alive and well. Here there is
almost no alcohol problem, no casual prostitution, minimal family
violence; and reversal of any trend to despair and disarray.

HIV/Aids threatens everyone, of course; no community can feel secure
because of a cultural revitalisation or a new community politics. The
sexual walls around every society are porous. But those with hope and
energy are more likely to understand the risks and minimise them than
those who slide, again and again, into pessimistic, self-destructive

For the San who search and argue for their own rights, despite the
mismatch between their ways of owning resources and the ways of the
dominant society around them, there is at least a thin prophylactic
guard against the disaster of HIV infection. They do not take the
same risks, and have sobriety and sense to look at the ways to meet
those risks.

Governments could look at this defense and consider how much it is in
their wider, national interests to encourage it. Health at the
margins - or a means to defend health being explored at the margins -
may have powerful, relevant and deeply moving things to say to those
who do battle with the problems at the centre. Some of Bush's money
should perhaps be assigned to indigenous peoples' wish to secure
their place on their own lands - not to endorse land rights but to
widen and deepen the war on HIV/Aids. Botswana would be a very good
place to begin.