Displaced for decades, Bushmen return home in Namibia

An elderly woman slowly looks around her new farmland, her wrinkled face lighting up with a shy little smile as suddenly she claps her hands.

“Our ancestors are happy that we are closer to home now, I can feel it, our dream will come true,” Hira Khamuxas says.

She is among the 9 000 members of the Haikom ethnic group, among the San “Bushmen” people who were the first occupants of Southern Africa, who have only now been allowed to return the region where their ancestors lived.

Although their communities have lived in the region for millennia, the Haikom were evicted from their lands about 50 years ago, when Namibia was ruled by South Africa’s apartheid regime.

Last week, 300 Haikom took up residence on the Seringkop farm, which was bought by the government for their resettlement on the fringes of the world-famous Etosha national park, the traditional home of their people.

“I am now only some 60km away from my birth place, where I spent a free and happy childhood until I was 14,” Khamuxas says.

“Then the South Africans put up a veterinary control fence nearby and told us to get out.”

The apartheid regime began forcing the San out of Etosha in the early 1960s, and later chopped up the park to create ethnic homelands for the region’s tribes, but the Haikom were left out of the scheme.

Like many Haikom, 65-year-old Khamuxas spent her working life wandering from farm to farm, labouring for small wages, until she moved a few years ago into a tiny township house in Otjiwarongo, about 250km north of Windhoek, where she survived on a state pension.

Her birthplace inside the park, at Ombika water hole, is now a popular destination for rich foreign tourists.

First made a game preserve in 1907 by colonial Germany, Etosha—whose name translates as “the great void”—is one of the oldest and largest in Africa.

Its unique landscape derives from a shallow depression of about 5 000 square kilometres) , which fills up with water only during a good rainy season, providing a haven for thousands of migratory pink flamingos.

Urgent settlement
The German colonial powers allowed the Haikom to remain in Etosha, where they continued their ancient tradition of hunting wild animals and gathering plants for food and medicinal use.

The park is about half the size of Switzerland, but originally was twice as big, until the 1970s when South Africa sliced it into ethnic homelands.

Once confined to their homelands, people were allowed to move freely when Namibia won independence in 1990.

Many people drifted to informal settlements at towns, trying to eke out a living. Some Haikom were lucky to be employed in the park as trackers and game guards.

Namibia’s government hopes the Haikom will now be able to cash in on the park’s tourism industry, by buying land for them on Etosha’s southern boundary.

“Government views the Haikom resettlement project as urgent,” deputy prime minister Libertine Amathila said at a welcoming ceremony on Saturday.

“We have a management plan in place for the 78 families who agreed to come here,” she said.

“Parts of the land will be used for agriculture, another for wild animals we will bring here to start tourism activities so they can earn a diversified income,” she added.

“The main aim is to restore their dignity so they have a place they can call home.”

Namibia is home to 30 000 San people of different tribes, who are the most marginalised groups in the country.

Deputy tourism minister Leon Jooste said the government has bought more farms along Etosha’s border for the Haikom, in hopes of bringing them into the lucrative—but white-dominated—tourism sector.

“They will receive tourism licences and can take in joint venture partners to construct tourism accommodation in close collaboration with our ministry, so that they are not taken advantage off,” he said..

“Government plans to eventually remove the boundary fences of these farms to Etosha so that the wild animals can roam more freely, and the Haikom are part of this tourism project.”

Hira Khamuxas will now teach her grandchildren the traditional use of trees and plants guided by the spirits of her ancestors, who she says are now happy.—AFP

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