Megan Biesele shares a light moment with San “Bushman” elder !U'u, mother of Tsamkxao, the first Ju|'hoan Traditional Authority recognized by the Namibian Government after Independence (Photo credit: Catherine Collett for Kalahari Peoples Fund)
Megan Biesele is a Harvard University-trained, American anthropologist, an expert of the Ju|'hoansi San “Bushmen” of the Kalahari and development worker. She is a co-founder, along with Canadian anthropologist Richard B. Lee and the late Irven DeVore, and a former Director of the Kalahari People’s Fund (KPF), which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2023. She has taught at several universities including the University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University, the University of Cape Town, South Africa and Rice University. Her forthcoming book ONCE UPON A TIME IS NOW: A Kalahari Memoir recounts her decades long field research and life with the Ju|'hoansi in Namibia.
How did you become interested in the Kalahari San as an area of study?
Because hunting and gathering characterized human societies for approximately 99% of human history, anthropologists have thought it highly important to understand the social and ecological adaptations of the relatively few remaining hunting and gathering peoples of the world. The Kalahari San were seen as a prime example of such societies, one from whom anthropology had immense amounts to learn.
As a grad student at Harvard in the 1960's, a university that at that time encouraged interdisciplinary work for some PhD's, I wanted to combine the studies of social anthropology and oral literature. I felt strongly that important parts of a people's social organization and how they made their living would be misunderstood unless the words of their actual expressive culture were documented and researched.
In Cambridge I met Lorna Marshall, whose family had made several expeditions starting in 1950 to study the Ju|'hoan and other San peoples of the countries that became Botswana and Namibia. I was entranced by Lorna's powerful, evocative anthropological writing about the Ju|'hoansi, in which folklore and oral literature, ritual and belief played central roles.
I also learned that Harvard's department of anthropology had a research program with the Ju|'hoan San of the Kalahari (then called !Kung Bushmen), who up to that point spoke and told stories in a completely oral language, a click language that had been little studied by linguists. Few San people of the time in Southern Africa had access to literacy in any language, and a professional orthography (written form of their language) was not available until the 1990's. So working with these non-literate people to record their own words about their own ideas and practices seemed a perfect choice for my field work.
I was accepted into the Harvard Kalahari Research Group (HKRG) research program started by professors Irven DeVore and Richard Lee, with my work to be focused on the recording of a large body of oral lore in which environmental and social information about living as hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari Desert was codified and passed on to younger people.
Megan Biesele with the Ju|'hoansi San, early 1970s
You are a co-founder of the Kalahari People’s Fund. How did that come about?
That same HKRG included, beyond DeVore and Lee, other scholars and fellow-students whose specific areas of interest ranged from ecology and demography, across medicine, nutrition, ethno-archaeology, and child development to studies of the Ju|'hoan cognitive world. During my first fieldwork, from 1970 to 1972, I had a life-changing experience of learning things from the Ju|'hoansi. I became convinced that it was vitally important that anthropologists do what they could to give back to the people they worked with, and from whom they had learned so much. Speaking to my fellow-students when I went back to Harvard, I found that most of them felt exactly that same obligation, especially in light of the economic, educational, and human rights marginalization being experienced by the Ju|'hoansi and other indigenous peoples.
Along with our professors and members of Lorna Marshall's family, we decided to start an activist/advocacy group on behalf of the San of the Kalahari, hoping to use our fieldwork experiences and our general knowledge of anthropology to respond to needs expressed to us by various Kalahari communities. At the time we were among the very first such anthropology-based organizations in the world. What we have learned since we began in 1973, fifty years ago this year, has made for an adventure of the highest order, allowing the Kalahari People's Fund (KPF) to become an internationally respected nonprofit advocating for, and carrying out substantial practical projects with, the San and other indigenous peoples.
The Late Irven DeVore (L) with Prof. Richard B. Lee, co-founders of the Kalahari Peoples Fund
What do you consider some of the achievements of the KPF under your tenure as its Director?
First, I consider it important that we made our experience, our science and social science, and our connections to Western finance and technology available to the indigenous peoples from whom we learned so much. Next, we have kept to a policy made early on, that of giving priority to bottom-up, grassroots, community-initiated projects. Rather than pursue top-down, overgeneralized, or outsider-initiated projects, we have focused on specific situations with which we were familiar and where we were confident that we could make a difference. We have also worked closely with local peoples' organizations, and with sister NGOs in the areas of our projects with whom we had personal relationships. These long-term personal relationships with individuals, communities, and NGOs have been, in my opinion, the key to KPF's success and longevity.
Following the expressed concerns of various San communities, our projects have fallen into general areas of land rights protection, environmental resource protection, community development, mother-tongue education, health guidance, and cultural heritage management.
Some outstanding examples of KPF activities in these areas include our facilitation of San communities' participation in the independence processes of Botswana and Namibia. We undertook, at the request of communities, their new governments, and, in the Namibian case, the United Nations, improvements in communications among these entities that led to lasting presences of San people in the political lives of the two new nations.
We have supported, where necessary and possible, land rights awareness and legal cases assuring San communities the most favorable access to land and resource rights available in their countries and situations. KPF was instrumental, for instance, in fostering the first people's organization in Namibia to become an internationally recognized Conservancy after Independence. Along with promoting legal access to land and resources, KPF has supported environmental research and community-based protection for the wildlife and wild resources on which Kalahari peoples depend.
One of the issues which KPF was concerned with was the involuntary resettlement of San people out of protected areas. This process occurred in various parts of Namibia and Botswana, including the Khaudum National Park in Namibia and the Central Kalahari Game reserve in Botswana. KPF provided pro bono (free) advice to the people who were relocated as to how to use legal and other strategies aimed at re-acquiring their rights to their ancestral land. Some of this work involved supporting surveys of the protected areas and mapping of ancestral territories and land use and mobility patterns, information to be used in legal cases..
Recognizing that literate education in one's mother tongue in the first few grades of school is key to eventual educational success in the national language, KPF has focused since the 1980s, and continues to focus, on the comprehensive, linguistics-based, environmentally appropriate educational program called the Nyae Nyae Village Schools Project (VSP). This is a project, sustained now for more than thirty years, that has become a model for community educational efforts throughout the Kalahari area. At project start in the late 1980s, we hired a linguist to work with local Ju|'hoan people to create a professional, user-friendly orthography, grammar, and dictionary of their language, from which age-appropriate literacy materials were written.
Next we were able, at the request of the Nyae Nyae community, to build a series of Village Schools in their remote area, to train local teachers who eventually became part of the national educational system, and to involve students and parents in choices of materials from their own culture--songs, stories, oral history, and contemporary creative writing by students--that they wanted to become part of the written curriculum.
Spin-offs from the original Village Schools Project have included the Ju|'hoan Transcription Group, consisting now of young adults and middle-aged people trained in the use of computers and transcription technology for the production of heritage language texts for community archives, educational materials, and research translations for scholars of their culture. Another spin-off is the Nyae Nyae Preschool Playgroup Project that prepares the youngest children, within their own village environments, for eventual comfort and success in literacy and numeracy within the multiethnic government schools of their area.
KPF's community development projects have included the drilling of boreholes and the provision of solar pumps for clean water in remote areas, along with protection of these and other water sources from elephants. We have facilitated drought-relief food and old-age pensions delivery and offered health guidance, particularly where imported infectious diseases like tuberculosis, AIDS, and Covid are concerned.
Our Covid-19 guidance program during the first two years of the pandemic was particularly outstanding, making use of a powerful internet service KPF had previously installed in Tsumkwe, Nyae Nyae, Namibia. With this internet in place, not only Ju|'hoansi but other click-speaking and non-click-speaking peoples of the Kalahari were able to access up to date information about the world spread of Covid, how best to protect their communities, and how to access vaccines, masks, and cleaning supplies. By the end of that project, in 2021, fully twelve language groups in Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa had been served by KPF's program. I believe the low mortality rates from Covid in the Kalahari area are at least partly attributable to the increased communication capacity and information we provided.
Our modus operandi has prominently included providing consultation and guidance to communities, along with trying to help them financially. We have helped communities think through contemplated projects, develop proposals and implementation plans, and respond to evaluation and reporting requests. Knowing the perils of jealousy within and among communities, we have attempted to be as fair-handed as possible with the projects we choose for support, and are always trying to expand our scope to other areas of the Kalahari where we can make new contacts and start new, long-term relationships.
Over the years we have developed a wide network of anthropologists, archaeologists, linguists, educators, wildlife biologists, and other specialists on whom we call for advice, consultation, and participation. We are proud to say that the greatest portion of our work has been carried out on a volunteer basis, not only by our KPF officers and board, but by this international network of scholars who willingly offer to help.
What feedback have you received over the years from the San (and other communities in the Kalahari) about what the KPF has set out to do and has achieved over the years?
Perhaps the most positive feedback has come in the areas of support to the development of peoples' organizations and to mother-tongue education using cultural heritage materials. A book I co-authored with Robert K. Hitchcock, The Ju|'hoan San of Nyae Nyae and Namibian Independence, tells the story of the history of the people's organization Nyae Nyae Farmers' Cooperative (NNFC) in Namibia, and how it was related to KPF efforts at the time. That the Ju|'hoansi, assisted by KPF and a sister organization founded by John Marshall and Claire Ritchie, had this local people's organization already up and running, helped bring them through the 1990 Namibian independence process and the 1991 First National Land Conference into enfranchisement within the political life of the new Namibia.
Today the remote area of Nyae Nyae has a Ju|'hoan representative in the Namibian Parliament, a Traditional Authority representing the area to the Namibian Government, and the Nyae Nyae Conservancy that grew out of the NNFC and now reaps an immense yearly income from wildlife hunting and tourism that is distributed to all members of the Nyae Nyae community. KPF has been thanked repeatedly and in many ways by Ju|'hoansi for its longterm investment of care, time, and funding in support of community political strength and voice.
The KPF's Ju|'hoan Transcription Group (JTG) and its antecedent, the Village Schools Project, based on professional linguistic work done with Ju|'hoan language community members, have been recognized by many other San language groups. The !Xun of Namibia and the Khwe of Botswana, for example, see these projects as the prime examples to follow in constructing their own such projects.
Have nature conservation efforts both by governments in southern Africa and international conservation bodies been kind to the San?
Though results of conservation efforts have been somewhat uneven, to some extent the answer to this question is yes. The conservation activities, particularly community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) have allowed local communities to gain some benefits from conservation. They have also helped to promote wildlife increases in some areas, which is useful to those individuals who still have the right to hunt for subsistence.
What is your overall assessment of the Nature Conservancies, which by law gives conservancies the rights over wildlife in their areas? I hear it’s a mixed bag with some successes?
Some of them have worked reasonably well. As mentioned above, the first communal conservancy to be created was the Nyae Nyae Conservancy, an area of 8,092 sq km, in 1998. The conservancies have the right, if they wish, to lease out some of the wild animals to safari hunting companies. This has been done in Nyae Nyae, resulting in an increase in employment of community game guards, an expansion in incomes, which are paid out to conservancy members, generally at Christmas-time, meaning that totals of as much as N$7 million (US $470,000) is made available, and the safari companies supply meat to the communities along with goods such as blankets, maize meal, and medicines.
Did the Ju|'hoan San in Namibia have any kind of indigenous nature conservation strategies?
Absolutely. They have long used controlled burning as a conservation measure to bring down woody brush encroachment and encourage new growth and spread of nutritious vegetable food species. They have taught children to leave some of the wild vegetable foods, like bush fruit, tubers, and mushrooms, in each patch they forage from, to provide for future harvests in the same area. They have divided themselves into so-called n!ore groups (traditional territorial groups) headed by core groups of siblings with long ties to, and knowledge of, each n!ore area. These core sibling groups act not as owners but as stewards to the lands, sharing their bounties with groups whose areas have received less rainfall in times of drought, and being shared with in turn when the always-patchy rainfall has detoured around their own areas. The core groups of siblings also act as knowledge-conservators about the state of water availability in their n!oresi, allowing people from other n!oresi access to some of their water when needed, but only to the extent that extra is truly available at the time.
What are some of the remaining challenges that face these indigenous communities in the Kalahari and what future role will KPF play in helping to tackle these challenges?
Creating, recreating, and maintaining effective political voices in their various situations will always, we think, remain challenging for the San and other indigenous communities. There is huge pressure on all types of resources in Africa, particularly those of arid and semi-arid areas like the Kalahari. Entrenched ethnic hierarchies there have long cemented people like the San into the bottom position on the socioeconomic ladder, and the indigenous position is growing even lower now that outsider extractive industries like mining are sitting even above the top positions on the ethnic ladder. Increasingly, also, with loss of land and resource rights in many areas, San and other Kalahari peoples face a choice between abject indigency and becoming low-paid and ill-esteemed members of service industries to the upper echelons of southern African societies.
KPF can play its most useful role, I think, in continuing to raise national and international awareness of the gifts people like the San have to offer to world society. These gifts range from providing examples of the communal, egalitarian decision-making and sharing processes that have made their societies some of the most long-tenured in human history, to the beautiful music, stories, and visual art of their heritage.
KPF can also play a vital role in supporting and helping increase the public confidence of San individuals and groups, through education, job training, access to communications and social media, and, above all, by LISTENING to their concerns and thinking with them about solutions.
You’ve written a memoir, ONCE UPON A TIME IS NOW, about your experiences in the field. What was the happiest time you have had while with the Kalahari San?
The happiest time I remember was my first 18 months of fieldwork, in 1970 -72, when I was living closely with Ju|'hoan people, participating in daily experiences of hunting and gathering, learning the language, learning about the environment, and recording the hundreds of stories I and the JTG are still transcribing and translating today. The people of Dobe, /Kae/kae, Kauri, and other communities of western Ngamiland shared a great deal with me that has been transformative for my own life, not to mention for my career as an anthropologist. Those first 18 months, especially the time when I was completely on my own with the hospitable Ju|'hoansi of Kauri, with no one to speak English to, sharing meals and music and dancing and storytelling, were a kind of "time out of time" for me that I would have given anything to participate in--and actually had the chance to!
I had never heard of the TRANCE DANCE, but you’ve called it “one of the great intellectual achievements of humankind.” What is it and why do you call it as such?
The trance dance of the Ju|'hoansi and other San is a matter of communally-created beauty fostering the altered states of mind necessary to spiritual healing. Ju|'hoansi say their dances awaken a spiritual substance called n/om, described as healing power. It is energy, a kind of supernatural potency whose activation paves the way for curing. Associated with it are special powers shared with many other shamanic traditions of the world, like clairvoyance, out-of-body travel, x-ray vision, and prophecy. N/om, residing in the belly, is activated through strenuous, artful dancing, beautiful polyphonic singing, and the heat of the fire. It is said to ascend or "boil up" the spinal column and into the head, at which time it can be used to pull out any sickness or unrest afflicting the people in the group. Over half the men in Ju|'hoan society when I was there had experience as healers, as well as a large number of women.
The intricate dance steps and the beautiful polyphonic singing combine, in a group art form that usually lasts all night, to include all who are there in the possibility of transformation. Transformations may range from the healing of actual sickness to solutions to social malaise, such as arguments or envy. The dance makes these changes in individuals and groups possible through shared artistry created over whole lifetimes and through interpersonal synchrony that comes from industrious singing and dancing repeated many times in varying, always coordinated forms. I think of this dance, clearly an art with great longevity, as one of the great intellectual and cultural achievements of mankind: individual art can be powerful, but it is even more powerful to be a participant in making shared healing, through delight, possible for all the people one holds dear. Was there a time in the field when you felt your life was in danger or you felt threatened somehow?
Once I got lost in the bush and the Ju|'hoansi I was living with noticed the direction I had taken and the fact that I had not reappeared in a reasonable amount of time, and tracked me and brought me back to safety. Twice my Land Rover broke down in a desolate area, we ran out of food and water, and the Ju|'hoansi I was traveling with strolled out into the bush, found food and water-containing tubers, and came back and fashioned work-around repairs so the Land Rover could carry us to where we were going and could get help. Many times I got far too close to extremely poisonous snakes for comfort, and was alerted and whisked out of danger by attentive Ju|'hoansi friends. I never in the whole time I was in the Kalahari, which eventually amounted to almost 10 years spread over the course of 50 years,
felt threatened by a single Ju|'hoan person. Instead, I feel they saved my life on multiple occasions, and I am very grateful.
When I hear the term “forced resettlement”, I think of WWII and Stalin. It’s appalling to hear these words in the Twentieth Century but some San groups have been victims of forced resettlement. Why?
Three reasons; the governments want to remove people from national parks and game reserves and allow tourists to have access to these areas without having to deal with local communities. Second, governments and private companies want to relocate people out of areas where the companies are engaged in extractive resource activities, including diamond mining, oil prospecting, and development of copper and silver and uranium mining. Third, governments want to create what they see as ‘wilderness’ areas where there are no people, but at the same time allowing recreational use of those areas by non-local people (which is definitely a contradiction). Governments get some returns from lease fees by private companies, which they want, even if those lease fees are relatively minimal.
Are there still some notable court cases that involve the San and in which KPF is also involved dealing with loss of ancestral land, natural resource issues or intellectual property rights that could have a wider impact on other indigenous communities in Africa and elsewhere?
Yes. In the case of the Central Kalahari in Botswana, the legal case brought against the government of Botswana in 2002 was won by the San and Bakgalagadi in 2006, allowing them the right to return to their ancestral land. A second legal case in the CKGR, involving the right to water, was won on appeal by the San and Bakgalagadi in 2011, setting a legal precedent which allows communities to have the legal right to palatable (drinkable) water. This precedent would also apply to places like Flint, Michigan, Jackson, Mississippi, and Newark, New Jersey.
In Namibia, KPF has assisted in legal cases in N=a Jaqna (Western Bushmanland) which gave the conservancy there the right to remove immigrant groups who had taken over their land. Other legal cases, such as that involving illegal grazing in Nyae Nyae by external groups, have yet to be decided upon. KPF has also assisted in legal cases involving the Hai//om in Etosha National Park and the Khwe in Bwabwata National Park. One difficulty is the cost of bringing legal action against the government, institutions like land boards, and private companies. Obtaining funds for such efforts has been an objective of the Kalahari Peoples Fund.