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An ancient culture in peril

George Silberbauer is the kind of anthropologist who can tell you everything about rainbows. In a recent email, my Botswana-based cousin Dave, whose wife Ginny is a Tswana chief’s granddaughter, wondered just what a rainbow actually was: the rains had come and the country was full of them.

Silberbauer’s reply was typical. Here’s an extract, edited perforce to remove some lovely forays into the science of rainbows and their faint sisters, moonbows, together with remarks on rainbows in Greek mythology and the Talmud:

Big nostalgia pang there. Bots stole my heart long ago, but it’s a wicked thief when it rains. All that dust and yellow-brown dry turns into lush green and flowers of astonishing variety and the thunderstorms are monumental.

Rainbows are to be respected. As you good convent girls all know, after the Flood, God said to Noah, ‘This is the token of the covenant I made between me and you and every living creature that is with you.’

Ginny will remind him that the Tswana name is ‘pestle-of-the-gods’ (a pestle is a big deal—every good wife spends a large part of her day grinding maize to make pap, or sorghum to make beer), or ‘space/place-of-the-gods’, depending on which part of the country you come from. In Zulu rainbows are less substantial, only ‘withies-of-the-queen/goddess’, but also translatable as ‘fragrance of the queen, or goddess’.

Ask a bloody academic a question and he goes on forever but, as a fellow-teacher, David will appreciate that it would all have been so much simpler were there a blackboard and chalk available. Just as well he didn’t ask about other refractive phenomena like haloes around the sun and moon. They’re really tricky and we would be here until the crack of doom.

Please pass on my warmest Dumel-Ditumelo-ka-thato (greetings with love) to them.

Silberbauer’s love of all Botswana is patent: when his eldest daughter was christened in Melbourne, her middle name was a Kalahari Bushman one: /xade. (The slash indicates one of the many click-sounds in Bushman languages.) The vicar received careful coaching in click-pronunciation, but on the day his false teeth were unequal to the task and shot into the font. But it would be hard to match Silberbauer’s linguistic abilities: watching him talk to Ginny (who was visiting us in Melbourne in January with Dave) in perfect, courtly Setswana was a revelation.

Silberbauer’s CV includes several degrees, many publications and many community involvements. There is an abrupt gap in the section dealing with his conference papers, with nothing before 1983: he lost everything when the family home in Upper Beaconsfield burned down in the Ash Wednesday bushfires.

Conference papers tended to be fragile, one-off things in pre-internet days. Being an anthropologist probably helped him weather the losses; he was able to use the experience as firsthand research into the effects of catastrophe and loss on communities. Years later, he was asked to help traumatised survivors of January 1997’s fires in Victoria’s Dandenongs: together they resurrected, with improvements, the bushfire-alert siren system that bureaucrats had scrapped. It was healing to achieve something together out of disaster. He now lives in Gippsland, writing, running some dairy cows and sharing his home with Shima, a huge, gentle Akita, and Poikie, a vocal, pug-faced British Shorthair cat that his daughter rescued from neglectful owners and confidently gave to him.

Lately Silberbauer has been drawn back into his links with the Bushmen—their ancient culture and heritage are in peril. In the last year he has been testifying as an expert on their behalf in a legal action brought against the Botswana government by 243 Bushmen who seek restoration of the essential educational and medical services and water supply that the government withdrew from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR). Stakes are high—the reserve has the misfortune to be in part of a vast desert that is as full of diamonds and oil as wildlife.

The still-running case is the longest in Botswana’s history: in September 2005 Silberbauer went there for a long, delicate wrangle to establish just what could be preserved for the Bushmen. Things had been better for them until relatively recently: Botswana’s first president, Sir Seretse Khama, was benign in his attitudes towards the Bushmen, as was his successor, Sir Ketumule Masire. But under the current leadership of President Festus Mogae, the government maintains that Bushmen and the reserve’s wildlife do not mix, and that it is too expensive to maintain water supplies and services there.

Silberbauer returned to Australia two months later with much still to do, but is not alone in his desire to help. In March of this year, the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in Geneva had some unusually tough words for the Botswanan government’s treatment of Africa’s oldest people and their culture, expressing concern at ‘persistent allegations that [Bushmen] were forcibly removed, through, in particular, such measures as the termination of basic and essential services inside the Reserve, the dismantling of existing infrastructures, the confiscation of livestock, harassment and ill-treatment of some residents by police and wildlife officers, as well as the prohibition of hunting and restrictions on freedom of movement inside the Reserve’.

The committee urged Botswana’s government to ‘pay particular attention to the close cultural ties that bind the [Bushmen] to their ancestral land’ and condemned the government’s removal of some indigenous rights from the constitution.

This has particular relevance to the case in which Silberbauer was called to give evidence. The UN committee noted that the removal of these rights ‘may impact on the ongoing court case brought by some residents of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve against the Government to challenge their relocation from the Reserve’.

Silberbauer knows the task is difficult, but his understanding of dislocated communities will be invaluable. Sitting and listening are indispensable, he says.

‘You can’t jump from hunter-gatherer to Collins Street in a single bound; the intermediate changes should be coherent, with none causing damage or dislocation. I advocated that each community should have its ‘Listener’ (preferably a culturally relativistic anthropologist) to give them an interpretation and understanding of other people’s modes of thought in the rest of the nation. Sit with them and listen; explain feasible courses of action and their consequences, then wait for their decision and set to work facilitating it.’

He says it may be a slow way of doing things and certainly costly. But, he adds, it’s more effective, and ‘in the not-very-long run, cheaper and more humanitarian than bureaucratic impositions from afar’.

Silberbauer says that forcing views on any culture only produces the opposite of what one wants to achieve. His links with Botswana go back a long way. Before the then British Protectorate of Bechuanaland became independent in 1966, he wrote the CKGR’s policy to assist the new incoming government, aiming to empower Bushmen to take their place in modern Botswana without losing the integrity of their culture and social organisation. The haven he recommended was enshrined in legislation in 1961, forming what was then the world’s largest game reserve: 52,800 square kilometres—almost the size of Tasmania. Botswana is about the size of Texas, now with a population of 1.3 million, about 50,000 of whom are Bushmen.

Silberbauer was born in Pretoria, South Africa, in 1931. He served as an SAAF pilot and navigator and fought for Britain in the Korean War. Afterwards, in 1952, he joined the British Colonial Service. After cadetship and a spell as District Commissioner of Ngamiland, followed by further study, he was put in charge of the Bushman Survey. It was 1958 and he was 27—an unimaginable responsibility for the next ten years.

‘My main feeling at the start was unrelenting terror that I would screw up,’ he recalls. ‘I was the weakest link on which their fate depended.’

In 1967, with the CKGR established, Silberbauer wanted to do his PhD. The question of where to do it was solved suddenly when Monash University offered him a senior lectureship in anthropology and sociology. He stayed in the job for 30 years and became an Australian citizen.

In Australia he has worked and studied with remote Western Desert Aboriginal communities. He is active in the CFA as a firefighter. He has an instinct for what can be salvaged from catastrophe and dislocation and hopes to be able to help the Bushmen in that way. Official estimates place them in the Kalahari for 20,000 years, but Silberbauer thinks they have been there far longer. They once inhabited the whole of the southern third of Africa.

‘When I was in the Seacow Valley in the Northern Cape, I was standing on ground that was as thickly strewn with artefacts as the pile of this carpet,’ he says, pointing down. He looks up. His eyes are steady, full of knowledge. ‘And they went back half a million years.’ 

Juliette Hughes is a freelance writer.


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