The word “Kalahari” comes from a Tswana word meaning “the great thirst.” The desert, itself, covers 70% of Botswana and extends south into South Africa, west into Namibia, and north into Angola and Zambia.
More a semi—arid zone than a true desert, one of the essential features of this region is a geological formation known as a "pan," a round mostly hard, gray clay formation. Pans are hollow shallows which gleam in the sunlight from the salt in them; these salt deposits are important to the animals in the area. During the rainy season in March and April, large migrating herds of animals come for the water that collects in the pans. During this rainy season, the Okavango delta, a significant wetland system north of the Kahalari, attracts an incredible number of birds; including cranes, egrets, herons, and a variety of raptors. The wildlife and the land's scenic beauty make this part of Africa a popular wilderness destination for tourists.
In this region also live the San Bushmen, who comprise an endangered tribe of people, protected by the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, founded in 1961. The Reserve is meant to provide a homeland for these people in their natural environment, the only place they seem able to survive.
Early African tribes that moved south into the Kalahari over a thousand years ago discovered a group of unusually small people whose average height was under five feet, and whose skin had a yellowish tinge. Archaeologists believe that these Bushmen have been living in this area for 20,000 to 30,000 years, based on the rock art found. As successful hunter—gathers, the Bushmen taught the newcomers their practices, and it is felt that they successfully co-existed until the arrival of Europeans into southern Africa in the 17th century.
The tribe first encountered Europeans when Dutch explorers and travelers to east Asia stopped near the Cape of Good Hope, where the bushmen lived at that time. The threat of being taken as slaves drove central and east coast tribes farther southward. Hostilities grew, and the remaining former herders and farmers moved into the Kalahari Desert.
Early Boer settlers in the area killed about 200,000 people in 200 years. The Europeans shot and drove away the wild game on which the Bushmen depended, and they retaliated by stealing and killing the imported livestock. Consequently, this was a war the Bushmen could never win. In 1802, a famine also weakened the tribes in southern Africa, and there was increased warring among tribes. In 1869, the last band of Bushmen was attacked and decimated. By the beginning of the 20th century, very few Bushmen remained.
In the 1800's, a Botswana leader named Khama appealed to England for help. On March 31, 1885, Great Britain put “Bechuanaland” under its protection but, in 1910, when the Union of South Africa was formed, the protectorate was not included. In spite of British authority expanding with advisory councils and standardization of tribal rules from 1920 through 1960, it was not until June 1964 that Britain accepted Botswana’s proposal for democratic self-government. A 1965 Constitution led to the first elections and to independence in September 1966.
Approximately 33,000 San Bushmen live in the Kalahari Reserve, with some 19,000 living in Namibia, and others scattered throughout southern Africa.
For those living in the Reserve, their life style is that of the nomadic hunter—gatherers. They camp in one place for as long as the area will sustain them and, then, move to another area. They plan their moves so as to arrive when the wild plants are ready to harvest. Using digging sticks, the women gather the available melons, bulbs, roots, tubers, nuts, fruits, and leafy vegetables.
Water is obtained in resourceful ways: from the plants, from the stomach contents of animals they have killed, and from depressions in logs. When possible, the Bushmen store water in ostrich eggshells, which they bury in the ground for use during droughts.
The men hunt giraffes, wildebeest, antelope, and other animals using bows with poison—tipped arrows and spears. Clothing is made from animal skins. They wear short leather aprons, skin sandals, and beads. Shelters are usually structures made of branches covered with grasses or caves.
The San Bushmen are skilled at rock engraving. Scholars continue to study the petroglyphs on the walls of some of their caves. The San have become experts at mixing berries and plants to make paints, poisons, and medicinal remedies. They know how to innoculate themselves against snake bites, and they have a substance they put into their campfires to ward off lions.
Very little is known about the religious beliefs of the San. Their religion seems complex, with several gods. There is a large oral mythology of fabled beasts and legends of transformation.
In summary, the San Bushmen of the Kalahari have survived the extremes of their environment through hundreds of years of resourceful adaptation. It is hoped that their skills will allow them to continue to survive in an ever-changing world.