Blog Post

Tumelo and the Central Kalahari Game Reserve

Sorry for the shortage of posts for the past month and a half. I have been living in New Xade without internet access and even made a trip to Metsiamanong in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR), where there are no amenities – not even a borehole for water. It has been an interesting time, full of new experiences, fun times, and its fair share of challenges.

While I have a lot to say about living in New Xade, this post will focus on my journey into the CKGR, where many San lived before the controversial relocation policy starting in 1997. Getting a permit to enter the CKGR was a challenge unto its own. I made several visits to the local wildlife office in Ghanzi, which had to coordinate with the Department of Wildlife and National Parks in the capital Gaborone before issuing a permit.

The process took several weeks and became even more complicated when we experienced mechanical problems with two separate vehicles. Initially, I had planned to leave in mid-December but ended up postponing the trip until the beginning of January. Flexibility, I have learned, is key to living in Botswana. Plans have a knack for changing.

A day before we were supposed to leave for the CKGR, my friend Kebabonye and I traveled to the wildlife office in Ghanzi to wait for a faxed copy of the permit to arrive from Gaborone. We had been waiting there since morning and were still empty-handed when we were told to leave the premises since the office was closing.

Kebabonye and I lingered by the gate.

“I still believe that they’re going to send it,” I told him. “Let’s wait a little longer.”

We stood there in silence, both of us feeling a little defeated. Suddenly, Chief, the wildlife officer in charge of managing the CKGR, ran out of his office, waving a sheet of paper and calling our names. He held the permit. Kebabonye slapped me on the back and grinned.

“Tumelo is a good name for you,” he declared. It means faith.

A sincere thanks to everyone who made that entry permit possible.

My time in the CKGR was amazing. I spent most of it embedded with one family in Metsiamanong, a small village where a handful of San families still live. While most of the San were relocated from such villages to settlements like New Xade, a few families were allowed to return to the reserve after filing and winning a court case against the relocation policy.

Before going to the CKGR, I thought the hunting and gathering lifestyle of the San was a thing of the past, a practice without use in New Xade, where livelihoods such as pastoralism and agriculture encouraged a modern economic system. The availability of money gave rise to a local food co-op and more than a dozen tuck shops (corner stores) where people can purchase groceries. Monthly food baskets handed out by the government further discouraged a need to search for food.

Metsiamanong, though, doesn’t have cattle or tuck shops or food baskets. People there keep small livestock such as goats, but that food source must be supplemented with others in order to survive. People rely on rainwater for drinking, so when the pond goes dry – as it often does – they must gather wild melons, which can be cut open and mashed for a semi-sweet drink.

A behind-the-scenes shot while Kitsiso collects wild melons.

I’m not painting an essentialist portrait of the San living in the CKGR. They, too, have had a taste of modernity. They don’t dress in animal leather, and they use tools such as flashlights and vehicles. Even techniques of hunting and gathering have changed, fueled by the availability of horses and donkeys to lead expeditions into the bush.

But people in Metsiamanong do feel a strong connection to the land, and they hope to preserve a way of life that they know is fading. They cling to the hope that their children will strike a balance between tradition and modernity and continue to live in the place that their ancestors have called home for thousands of years.

I met a young San man named Kitsiso in Metsiamanong. Four months ago, he moved back to the CKGR to help his father survive the harsh realities of living there. Kitsiso showcases the tug and pull that is classic to a people in transition. He loves the land, but he also wants to improve his life, to find a job and climb the socio-economic ladder of modern Botswana. His father is ready to live out his end days in Metsiamanong, but Kitsiso isn’t sure. Is there something more to life beyond the borders of the CKGR?

In a way, it’s a struggle we all feel. What does it mean to be satisfied?

For Kitsiso’s father, the answer is clear:

“I want my children to live here,” he told me. “Every time Kitsiso leaves, I feel a pain. Every time, I wonder if he’s going to come back.”

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