June 7, 2011

Lessons from the Kalahari: Roy Sesana at UW

On Friday, we as a group of 26 International Development students, or INDEVOURS as we have been affectionately termed, hosted a most esteemed guest speaker – Roy Sesana. Roy originates from New Xade in the central Kalahari of Botswana and works as a traditional medicine man within his San community. In 1991 he co-founded the First People of the Kalahari (FPK) as a means of promoting and protecting the traditional lifestyle of the San.

Under Roy’s guidance the Bushmen and sympathetic supporters have been involved in protecting the rights of these indigenous populations for more than a decade. After the resettlement of a group of Bushmen living in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) in 1997 to government allocated resettlement camps a legal case unfolded within the courts of Botswana. This landmark case in 2002 saw the First People of the Kalahari taking the Government of Botswana to court to seek the right to return to their ancestral lands on the reserve. Roy was arrested in September 2005 for rioting and attempting to forcibly enter the CKGR but was released within a few days. After years of efforts to persuade the courts to review the case the High Court of Botswana ruled in the Bushmen’s favour on December 13, 2006, stating that the evictions were unlawful and unconstitutional.

Yet the San of the Kalahari have been unable to return to their homes. The government of Botswana claims that they are unable to provide the groups of Bushmen with basic infrastructure and services while they are within the reserve because it will conflict with the preservation of the game reserve itself. Complicating the issue is the way of life the San have been forced to adapt to within the resettlement camps. Unemployment, alcoholism, diseases (especially HIV/AIDS) and other social ills have for the first time in the Bushmen’s history become widespread issues for the San living in these camps.  

Roy Sesana, recipient of the Right Livelihood Award for “resolute resistance against eviction from their ancestral lands, and for upholding the right to their traditional way of life” spoke with the type of passion one could only expect from a man who has travelled a great distance to champion the plight of his people. He congratulated us on our commitment to international development and for being so open and willing to listen and extend our hearts to stories such as those of his people. He further called us to take action in our own communities to make these stories known; to support FPK and to write to our members of parliament expressing outrage over the mistreatment of the San people.

While this story does appear to come from a world away, it draws many parallels to our own experiences here in Canada. It has not been too many years for us to forget about our own treatment of indigenous populations within these borders and the many social and political issues which persist to this day. While it is important to recognize what is going on within the international community, and inviting people like Roy Sesana to engage us in a dialogue, is an important way to go about doing this I do think it is just as important for us to continue that dialogue once his plan touches down in Maun once again. If there is one thing we can take away from Roy’s talk it is the importance in not becoming apathetic to issues which may not directly impact our daily lives. The Bushmen are a proud, however small, minority within Botswana. Yet Roy Sesana has made it his life’s work to make sure the world knows their story. What would our world look like if more people like Roy made such sacrifices for the betterment of their neighbours? How would our own cultural landscape here in Canada be altered if we made similar efforts to champion those peoples who make up our past, present, and hopefully our future? Roy has opened our eyes, now it’s our turn to decide how we will respond – in typical apathetic Canadian fashion, or with a renewed sense of ownership?
INDEVOURS 2012 with Roy Sesana


  1. This talk was truly inspiring Sarah! I really enjoyed your blog post, especially how you were able to localize the issue. For someone who may not fully understand the situation in Botswana (or many places) you made the connection to our own indigenous land issues.
    Roy is a very inspiring person, someone who really makes me believe that one person can truly make a difference. He has not only inspired the San to fight for what belongs to them but inspired people all over the world to be involved with the cause.
    However, I do find myself wondering why there are so many people in North America who are willing to take up the fight for individuals in Africa when there are so many issues within our own borders (such as indigenous land issues). Maybe it is in our nature to distance ourselves from issues that are close to home or maybe possibly people are unaware that such issues do exist. Whatever the case I think the world definitely needs more individuals like Roy Sesana. :)

  2. Great post Sarah! I wish I could have been there to hear him speak. In a course I took this year about social movements and activism, we discussed the struggles that indigenous populations in Canada faced and continue to deal with as they fight for their land and rights. The further I read into your post about the tragic reality for the San of the Kalahari, the more I could relate it to some of the same challenges our own populations experience. Although when I first began to read it, I saw it as a distant problem to which I would not be able to relate. I think it is very important that we attempt to make these connections in order to further understand international issues, which would ultimately help close the feeling of detachment between us and enable us to work together toward a solution. It would also force us to realize the seriousness of our own situation; something that we often ignore.

  3. I am a little disappointed that this was held while most UW students are away for the summer.

    I like how you mentioned that there are still many problems facing Canada's indigenous populations. And in light of that will disagree with Mr.Sesana's comments about writing your member of parliament. Before Canada can criticize another government on their treatment and policies regarding indigenous populations, it must first solve its own problems, most of which are not so different from Botswana's, including lack of infrastructure, alcoholism, and a lack of education.

    While its great that Mr.Sesana is campaigning for change in his own country, I wish there was more information and campaigning toward fixing Canada problems.