For the last month and a half, I was living in New Xade, one of the San resettlement villages in the Ghanzi District of Botswana. As I mentioned in a previous post, New Xade is home to a convergence of traditional and modern means of living. When I returned to the village in December, I was excited to explore this concept further. I embedded myself in the community and started to build a strong rapport with the people, especially the youth.
Opaletswe is one of the many young men I befriended at New Xade. With a big smile and good sense of humor, he is easy to get along with, and I learned a lot from him during my stay. Opaletswe works for the local police as a community liaison. He is one of the few people his age to hold a steady job, and, while he is thankful for the opportunity, the pay is little and the work unfulfilling. Nevertheless, he counts himself lucky.
Unemployment is a huge challenge in New Xade. Jobs are scarce and most people lack the qualifications necessary to secure the few positions that are available. How are people living in New Xade supposed to generate an income to support their modernizing lifestyles? How are they to buy petrol to travel into town, food to sustain a balanced diet, or electricity if they are fortunate enough to have power lines hooked up to their homes?
According to Opaletswe, culture holds untapped potential. Before working with the police, Opaletswe worked with the Ghanzi Trail Blazers, an ethno-ecotourism lodge where tourists go to experience a recreation of “pristine” San culture.
“Why shouldn’t we run a cultural village of our own?” Opaletswe asked me.
His question signals a growing transition from lived culture to culture as a source of economic livelihood. Opaletswe isn’t the only one thinking along those lines. I received many requests from musicians who wanted to play their traditional instruments for money. Several people approached me about being hired as a G//ana or G/ui tutor. Others said they sell crafts such as animal leather products, ostrich eggshell jewelry, and bow and arrow kits to a shop in Ghanzi for resale.
Opaletswe specializes in traditional dancing.
“Even though you are poor, when you dance, you feel like you are very rich.” He told me. “You feel like an angel. When you know what that’s like, your life will never be the same.”
Opaletswe loves dancing. Even when we walked around the village, he would hum to himself and break into a dance step or two. But the dances he performs used to have deep spiritual meaning. Now, they are more often sources of entertainment, if not for fellow community members then for westerners craving a look at the last vestiges of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Do these contrived performances keep culture alive or strip it of meaning? And, if they generate a much-needed income, does it even matter?
Perhaps there is little choice in the matter. Opaletswe’s main goal – shared by many youth in New Xade – is to carve out a better life. To him, that means earning more money to secure a more comfortable lifestyle.
Opaletswe’s reality is a messy collision between tradition and modernity. He is trying to pick up the pieces and fashion together a new concept of home. For some, especially the older members of the community, the loss of traditional norms is too much to bear. For others like Opaletswe, there’s the allure of the unknown and the challenge of charting a path between what used to be and what will become.