Monday, June 1, 2009

Heart of Dryness, by James Workman

This is a long and very detailed account of how a band of Kalahari Bushmen defied their government--the government of Botswana--and won the right to continue living in their desert home. The author, an American, spent seven years in Botswana, and he made many visits into the Kalahari to visit with and interview this extended family, headed by an elderly woman. She is a central figure in the narrative.

I thought that this book would tell more specifically about how the Bushmen survive in such a dry climate. But really, it's mostly about the legal wranglings in the courts of Botswana about whether the Bushmen should be allowed to continue living in the Kalahari. The government felt that their presence interfered with tourism, for some reason, and also with diamond mining, although it's never clear why the Kalahari was not big enough for all three--wildlife for tourists, diamond mines, and Bushmen--to coexist together.

Eventually it came down to a struggle over the right to water, because the government, which had been providing water for Bushmen inside the game preserve, cut that water off. The Bushmen began trucking water in, but that too was prohibited. There was an international outcry over the apparent attempt at genocide directed at the Bushmen. In the end the Bushmen were successful at getting the right to truck water in, and many of them returned to the preserve.

The small band of die-hards continued to live in the Kalahari throughout the water cut-off, finding water as they always had traditionally, by foraging for moist food and game. I thought it was interesting that in the desert, food is water, and water is food.

Workman extends the "lessons" of this Botswana story to the rest of the world and to the future, but there his argument seems a bit weak. First, it's not clear what the lesson is: don't leave your land, no matter what? Find ways to survive without piped-in water? Second, even if the lessons were clear, it's not obvious that this particular situation will be very much like future water shortages in other parts of the world. We had a bad drought in the Southeastern US two summers ago, but the tap water continued flowing. We didn't even have any rationing. In desert cities of the West, sometimes water is rationed, but I doubt that any municipalities in the US will just cut off water to people living in a desert. I could be wrong.

One useful lesson I gleaned from the book was: separate urine and feces when handling human waste. The Bushmen do that: they use the urine for tanning hides, and feces are buried in sand, where they dry up. That makes sense and could be applied in the States when water gets really short and the ten gallon flush comes to be seen as the luxury it really is.

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