Almost 30 years ago the enchanting film, The Gods Must Be Crazy, introduced many of us to the Bushmen of the Kalahari in southern
Now, in 2009, James G. Workman introduces us to the Kalahari Bushmen again through his book, Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought. This time around, the tale is not amusing, but downright dismal. Workman describes in excruciating detail the campaign waged by Botswana against its Bushmen
Now, in 2009, James G. Workman introduces us to the Kalahari Bushmen again through his book, Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought. This time around, the tale is not amusing, but downright dismal. Workman describes in excruciating detail the campaign waged by Botswana against its Bushmenin an effort to drive them from their land onto reservations. It’s not the Bushmen’s water they are after, but their land – De Beers, the diamond conglomerate, wants to mine the area.
[Shill alert: I met James at the 5WWF in
This nonfiction narrative set in the Kalahari dramatizes the timeless struggle over water, the fulcrum of political power. Facing drought, scarcity and climate change the besieged indigenous Bushmen use voluntary survival strategies while
The WWW site has a number of features, such as an interview with the author, Q&A, etc.
I found the book compelling; Workman is a talented writer and the saga of oppression left me numb. Anyone who can describe the autopsy of someone I didn’t know in such a fashion so as to leave me tear-streaked can certainly write.
He did a superb job of distilling the voluminous material he must have had into a 247-page book, without leaving the impression that the reader was missing something.
I really enjoyed Workman's tendency to add various tidbits throughout the text: history, culture, anthropology, linguistics, etc. Some might find this device distracting, but I found that it added to my understanding and appreciation. He also is very thorough; those of you who lust for notes and a detailed bibliography will not be disappointed.
Much of the book focuses on Qoxorloo Duxee, the noble matriarch of a band of Bushmen who resists the government’s efforts to force them onto reservations by terminating their access to water and hunting and engaging in the kind of all-around harassment that governments do so adroitly. She struggles to find food and water, using her knowledge of the environment. All the while, she maintains her dignity and purpose. She truly is heroic. Workman describes her in such a way that we come to know her. And, as you will see, the first three words of the book's title have a strong connection to Qoxorloo.
Water does play a significant role in the story. To force the Bushmen to abandon their homeland, the government cuts off their water. Later, in their suit against the government, the Bushmen claim they have a human right to water. In finding for the Bushmen, the three-judge court does not rule in favor of that right.
Workman exposes Botswana, often cited as a model of African democracy and development, as a brutal oppressor. The country is left with a well-deserved ostrich-sized egg on its face, and I’m being very kind. Workman notes that Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe copied some of the techniques used by President Festus Mogae in his oppression of the Bushmen. What an endorsement! Workman is now banned from
The book occasionally lapses into hyperbole. Some exapmples follow.
I took issue with the term “coming age of permanent drought” in the book’s title. Are we to infer a worldwide permanent drought is imminent? Workman does cite evidence for drought in the following regions: the USA Southwest,
The word “permanent” is also an extreme descriptor; I’ve been a student of earth science long enough to realize that there are very few permanent things on the face of the Earth. I don't see any evidence that we'll have 'permanent' droughts. Long? Yes.
Workman also believes that government/private water utilities have done a poor job in the
I would also argue his premise that utilities impose “involuntary and uncompetitive rates and quality” on us. By “uncompetitive” does Workman mean that rates are too high? If a water provider is a government-run utility, there are a number of hurdles that must be navigated before rates can be raised. Some utilities have citizens’ commissions to advise them. In my limited experience, rates are too competitive (see above paragraph) – we need to pay more.
So What Should We Do?
Can the insights of the Bushmen help us with our water problems?
Workman notes that the Bushmen have no indigenous word for rival; they have survived in one of the Earth’s harshest, driest environments by cooperating. But as Workman himself notes, there have been instances outside their reserve where Bushmen have not cooperated over water. So he does not harbor any romantic notions that the Bushmen are inherently ‘better’ than the rest of us when it comes to cooperation over water. Put them outside their element, and they can bicker and fuss just like the rest of us do.
Workman speculates that if the Bushmen were living in our society, they would likely establish political units based upon surface watershed or aquifer boundaries; I suspect Workman’s right. In the late 1800s John Wesley Powell suggested that the West be politically organized around surface watersheds. Had we followed his advice we might be in better shape than we are now. This same advice has been proffered in nation-building exercises (e.g., Bosnia and Herzegovina) but not universally adopted.
He suggests that, like Qoxorloo’s band, we reclaim our water rights and responsibilities, and barter among ourselves. We would each be allocated a certain amount of water, say 100 gallons per person per day, which we could use completely, save and trade excess capacity, etc. “Water trading” is already occurring in the USA, although not quite in the same manner, because all of us don’t have an individual right to water.
Although Workman’s idea is worth considering, I would simply suggest we pay more for water supply and wastewater treatment services, and ensure that there are lifeline rates for those who cannot afford to pay.
One caveat: in attempting to transfer the Bushmen’s practices to our world, keep in mind the scalability issue: what works in a small, relatively homogeneous group may not work as well in a large, heterogeneous society.
The book is less about water and more about land. The Bushmen don’t have water, they have land, and “there’s diamonds in them thar hills.” The book acknowledges this aspect, but it struck me as far more significant than the water aspect. As far as I’m concerned this does not lessen the impact of the book.
Do I recommend the book? Yes. It’s a spellbinding tale, and it may have implications for us all.
I'll be reading this again soon for some more insight. I look forward to more from James G. Workman.
One last item: will the Bushmen "help us endure the coming age of permanent drought"? I don't see how. We know what we should be doing; we just don't have the political will to do it. Even the Bushmen can't help us with that.