The San help themselves out of poverty

Grinding poverty has condemned Zimbabwe's tiny San population, also known as Bushmen, to the fringes of society, but the remaining few are taking it upon themselves to improve their lives.

Alleged discrimination at the hands of other ethnic communities and lack of government support made the San in Mgodimasili, a poverty-ravaged hamlet 200km northwest of Zimbabwe's second city, Bulawayo, where about 200 of the 1,200 San left in Zimbabwe live, team up.

Desperation made them decide to pool their resources to start an income-generating communal vegetable farm, established with financial assistance from members of the San community working in South Africa and Botswana.

"We are generally poor, as a community, and our requests for help from government and other well-wishers to help us empower ourselves have failed ... Last year, we had a few boys - our children [in neighbouring countries] - donating some money for us to buy inputs that we used to set up a project to cultivate vegetables. We managed to do that as a community and now, as you can see, the tomatoes and spinach are ready for harvesting," said village elder Vule Ndlovu.

"We have harvested some that we have shared amongst ourselves for family consumption, and some we have sold and also shared the proceeds. Meanwhile, we are continuing with the cultivation of more vegetables," he said, pointing to the flourishing vegetables.

The project has now become the envy of Tjitatjawa and Makhulela, two other San villages situated in drought-prone southern Zimbabwe, who have not been able to raise the money to initiate similar projects.

Mgodimasili is located near a dam, which is used as a source of water for irrigation. But this has the put the San on a collision course with members of other ethnic communities in the village. Although the San use watering cans for their vegetables, the other villagers accuse them of draining the precious resource.

"They [the San] are deliberately wasting water, so that when the dam dries up we will have nowhere to water our animals," complained Bukamu Dube, a villager from the Kalanga community. "This will mean the death of our livestock and we will be like them: they don't have animals, because even if somebody gave them goats or cattle to breed, they will just slaughter them all in a short period. They like meat too much."

The San are unfazed. Nothabo Mafu, one of the farmers who has benefited from the project, said she wished they could get generators to pump water. "This will make work much easier for us and also it will help us grow more vegetables. Increased production certainly will mean an increase in the money that we get from selling our produce."

Pleased with the success of their venture, the San wished they could raise more money to expand their project to include commercial cash crops, like maize, or just simply to buy pesticides. "Now we are looking forward to getting chemicals to kill pests that routinely damage our vegetables. On our own we cannot afford them because they are too expensive, and besides, we don't know which chemicals to use," said Mafu.

Although the San still practice their ancient traditions, an increasing number of laws banning hunting have forced them to abandon their nomadic life as hunter-gatherers and turn to subsistence farming to eke out a living.

Most have survived on handouts from neighbouring ethnic groups, such as the Kalanga and the Ndebele, while others, especially young people, have sought work herding cattle and brick-making for a small wage.

The San have battled to send their children to school, resulting in low literacy levels that prevent most of them from getting jobs with decent salaries, and the crippling economic hardships besetting once prosperous Zimbabwe have left the San worse off than other ethnic communities.

With inflation hovering at around 1,200 percent, the cost of living for a family of six has reached more than US$1,400 a month, a sum beyond the reach of ordinary people, most of whom earn around US$100 a month, while the San barely make US$1 a day.

The government has consistently denied discriminating against the San, saying it has a national policy to support all Zimbabweans, regardless of their ethnic group.

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