Graduate-student anthropologists in the Harvard Kalahari Research Group learned so much from the Ju/’hoansi that they developed the Kalahari Peoples Fund as a way of reciprocating. “We all felt that somehow we must try to equalize our exchanges with the Ju/’hoansi, that somehow we must give back some compensation for the knowledge of their culture they had so freely given us,” writes Megan Biesele (p.132). She describes the purposes and work of the Kalahari Peoples Fund (KPF) in an article published in a recent anthology of essays, most of which deal in some way with the Ju/’hoansi society.
Biesele indicates that the members of the Harvard group founded the KPF at a meeting in New Hampshire in 1973. It grew out of their work preparing a book-length manuscript which would publish essays by various members of the group. The book subsequently came out as Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers, one essay from which (Draper 1976) is reprinted in this website in PDF form.
With initial start-up funding from Lorna Marshall, the KPF finally began operations in 1978. Before beginning, it adopted three commitments: to only work on projects in the Kalahari that were initiated by the people who live there; to respond to proposals rather than make work to keep things going; and to use only volunteers so that all funding would go to the Kalahari to support projects on location. Professional anthropologists have continued their close involvement with the work of the fund ever since.
Biesele’s overview of KPF projects gives a hopeful perspective on the growing rights and controls gained by the Ju/’hoansi over the decades. They have been making progress, she writes, in the preservation of their language, in land rights, and in their political representation in Namibia and Botswana.
They have gained both tenure rights to their lands and the right to manage their resources by organizations in their communities. Their political leaders are being recognized at the national and the international levels, gains which, though not easy, are really hopeful.
The author describes the ways the Ju/’hoansi have slowly been taking control over their economic lives in the steadily changing conditions of Namibia and Botswana over the past 30 years. In the early 1980s they began moving out of Tjum!kui, a settlement established in the northeastern section of Southwest Africa (now Namibia). They formed a farmers’ cooperative union in Namibia, now called the Nyae Nyae Conservancy, to assist people with farming and development activities in the 37 dispersed communities they had established across the desert.
The people initially held consensus-style meetings with hundreds of participants, but they soon accepted the need to elect delegates who would make the decisions. They subsequently felt that participation by Ju/’hoansi women was essential, so they decided that one of the two delegates elected from each community should be a woman. They agreed that maintaining the health of the earth was of critical importance, so they have been watchful that they not allow overgrazing to harm their lands.
Biesele feels that the Conservancy has been generally successful in listening to the needs of the Ju/’hoansi in their far-flung communities before implementing plans or projects. It has worked to convince outsiders, non-Ju/’hoansi who have moved into their territory with their cattle, to respect their rights to the land and water and move away. It has established rules that promote sustainable development and the conservation of resources. It is an independent body but it listens to its constituency, provides them information, and generally receives their full support.
The author reports similar success from Botswana, where the Ju/’hoansi have gained greater control over their land and formed a community-based trust to handle their rights to natural resources. Biesele sees the Ju/’hoansi making progress in promoting their culture, in representing themselves politically, and in gaining rights to their lands. Their children are attending schools in their communities and learning about their culture from Ju/’hoan teachers who are teaching in their own language. She points out that these developments, assisted in Namibia with KPF support, have spread to other Ju/’hoansi communities in Botswana as well.
After surveying the hopeful developments among the Ju/’hoansi communities, Biesele focuses on the development work of the KPF itself. It has assisted, for instance, in the drilling of new wells for communities in the Kalahari. It has promoted the local, Ju/’hoansi, control over the land and its resources. It has assisted with mapping and land use planning. It has organized and published information about projects in order to share the results widely.
Perhaps most critically, it has encouraged the Ju/’hoansi to take over the control of their projects. The KPF has prompted outside experts to involve Ju/’hoansi as co-authors of reports, documents, and articles. The fund has, Biesele feels, inspired a number of other projects on both sides of the border to develop the land sustainably in conjunction with the Ju/’hoansi themselves.
She lists a range of KPF projects that have been accomplished over the years, and describes in some detail the current activities of the fund. The mission of the KPF, she says, “is to benefit the San and other peoples of the Kalahari region” (p.143). Some of its projects can be quite far-reaching. For instance, one initiative is to foster the preservation and growth of the Ju/’hoansi culture, an effort that grows out of the work of anthropologists in the Kalahari starting nearly 50 years ago.
The KPF funds preschools which it hopes will promote the growth of literacy in Ju/’hoan culture. It supports the development of curriculum materials in the schools. It works with other groups to support these developments, and it has built a website that serves as a source of communication and information. It is evident that Biesele, and other anthropologists, have reciprocated quite effectively the wisdom and assistance that the Ju/’hoansi have shared with them over the years.
Biesele, Megan. 2006. “The Kalahari Peoples Fund: The Activist Legacy of the Harvard Kalahari Research Group.” In The Politics of Egalitarianism: Theory and Practice, edited by Jacqueline Solway, p.131-148. New York: Berghahn Books