The San people living in the Omaheke Region of Namibia are caught by forces that not only impoverish and marginalize them but that also trivialize their cultures and traditions. A recent article by Renée Sylvain in American Ethnologist describes the very difficult conditions that face the Ju/’hoansi and the other San peoples in that region.

The author explains that the Ju/’hoansi, the Nharo and the !Xum in the Omaheke are intermarrying, so she uses the group name “San” throughout her article. She focuses on their living conditions at the bottom of the Namibian social order. Some of them live on white-owned farms, where they usually endure insecurities, threats of lay-offs, and wages that are poorer than those paid to non-San employees. Frequently their incomes are not enough to support their households, so they may be forced to purchase food on credit and become debt-bonded.

A third of the San in the Omaheke work on the cattle posts run by the Herero or the Tswana, where they receive food (and perhaps beer) for their labor. Their children often enter the households of their employers as servants. Life in these situations is characterized by extreme poverty and alcoholism, even worse than on the white-owned farms.

The white farmers find the San to be notoriously unreliable. They complain that they will leave their jobs suddenly. Some of the farmers attribute their unreliability to their supposedly nomadic tendencies; they do not accept the argument that the causes of work force instability are the conditions that they themselves have established for their employees. Some of the farmers justify their miserly wages with the justification that the San prefer to spend all their money anyway in sudden excesses, and then to live without funds until the next payday.

Many San do drift from job to job, usually hoping to find something better, something that will provide a decent living. Most prefer to work on the white farms, even if their underclass status is still enforced, since the jobs are more steady. But they frequently leave to find better conditions.

One San worker explained to the author: “It’s about money. If you are on a farm and they are not very good and don’t give enough money, then you have to go to anther farm. If that farmer is not very good, he gives enough money, but the rations are not very good, then you leave for a different farm. If there is enough food and money, but he is cruel, then you leave and go to another farm.” (p.360)

The San themselves explain their perceptions of their differences with non-San, and particularly with the whites, in terms of stinginess and generosity. They see the stinginess of the other groups, especially the whites, as their worst vice. In contrast, they believe that generosity is the predominant characteristic of their own society.

Their conception of their moral community is in terms of generalized reciprocity, altruistic assistance, and mutual support. When they struggle with unemployment and a shortage of money, they can count on their networks of friends and kin for assistance. In their minds, their generosity defines their community and enables them to survive the severe discrimination they face from the larger Namibian society.

The author recounts numerous instances of unfair and immoral treatment by the non-San peoples of the Omaheke. She describes how one group of Namibians maneuvered an outside humanitarian group into funding a farm development project which was supposedly for the San people. In the end, they cheated the San out of everything and kept the farm and equipment that had been donated by the aid organization.

Several of the author’s discouraging examples involve the San women. In one incident, they were employed to knit sweaters by Herero women, who provided the supplies but didn’t pay the knitters when they came back some months later to pick up the finished products.

Sylvain describes instances of San women being employed to perform traditional dances for outsiders. To do these dances, the San women are required to remove their clothing before they perform in front of tourist groups. Typically, they are not paid at the end of their performances. A San woman summarized one episode for the author: “They wasted us. They made us dance, and made us naked, and they left us with nothing.” (p.364)

The article explores various angles to the problems the San face in the Omaheke. The NGOs that assist them sometimes expect them to be clearly identifiable as San, “to be recognizably indigenous, according to the terms of global indigenist discourse,” as Sylvain puts it (p.362). These expectations place strains on the San: they try to live up to indigenous agendas that romanticize their past, while at the same time they try to challenge dehumanizing stereotypes and gain fair employment conditions.

One hopeful aspect of the article is that the San have been organizing to seek better conditions for themselves. Recognizing that they will continue to be cheated until they organize, they have started electing leaders who have been trained in leadership techniques by several supportive NGOs. Also, they are beginning to realize that they may gain some economic and social benefits if they can, themselves, effectively capitalize on their traditional culture and take control of its performance and production.

Sylvain, Renée. 2005. “Disorderly Development: Globalization and the Idea of ‘Culture’ in the Kalahari.” American Ethnologist 32(3): 354-370