The Okavango Delta Peoples of Botswana consist of five separate ethnic groups, each with their own language and ethnic identity.
The five ethnic groups are:
Note that for each of these groups, there are many different spellings (and pronunciations). Some of these are names from another language; others are corruptions or misinterpretations. Since many outsiders have contributed to the written history of these groups and people have moved across national boundaries, it is important to recognize this disparate nomenclature to preserve the breadth of each group’s cultural history. Here we are using the spellings which members of these ethnic groups in Botswana use in referring to themselves.
Understanding the historical distribution of people and their patterns of migration and association are key elements to interpreting the present. Members of all of these ethnic groups live outside of Botswana as well. Bugakwe, Dxeriku, and Hambukushu live in northern Namibia and southern Angola. There are also Hambukushu people in southwestern Zambia. Some Xanekwe and Wayeyi people also live in northern Namibia. Due to the Namibian war for independence and the Angolan civil war, communication and travel between Botswana, Namibia, and Angola has been difficult since the 1970s. As a result, the ethnic communities in these countries have grown apart.
Bugakwe and Xanekwe are Bushmen peoples (also called San or Basarwa again we use the term preferred by most members of these groups whom we know). Bushmen are the aboriginal inhabitants of southern Africa and have lived in small groups as nomadic hunter gatherers.
Dxeriku, Hambukushu, and Wayeyi are Bantu peoples who speak distantly related Central Bantu languages. This suggests that the Dxeriku, Hambukushu, and Wayeyi are more recent inhabitants of the area, having separately migrated from central Africa several hundred years ago. Today, people from all five ethnic groups live throughout the Okavango Delta. Historically the Bugakwe, Dxeriku, and Hambukushu lived in the Panhandle and eastern edge of the Delta. The Xanekwe lived in the Panhandle and along the Jao and Boro Rivers in the central and western Delta, and the Wayeyi lived along the Jao River in the northern Delta, on the northwestern side of the Delta, and on the southern edge of the Delta.
The Okavango Delta is a lush tropical wetland surrounded by Kalahari desert savanna. At around 20,000 km2, it is recognized as one of the world’s largest inland deltas, with over 98% of the water evaporating. The water starts its journey in the highlands of southern Angola. There, the Okavango River (called the Cubango in Angola) rises and flows south. It cuts through Namibia’s Caprivi Strip, and then enters northwestern Botswana. This area is extremely flat, and, with such a small gradient, the water fans out.
The northern part of the Delta is called the Panhandle. Here there is still enough of an elevation change that the river fans out for only 14 km. (9 miles) or so. This swampy area has immense stands of densely packed papyrus and reeds. Hippopotami, crocodiles, sitatunga (an aquatic antelope), and otters are plentiful. Elephants and buffalo are seasonal visitors. Fish are plentiful, and there are several hundred species of birds present, including African fish eagle and malachite kingfisher. On either side of the Panhandle, Kalahari desert savanna extends for hundreds of kilometers. These areas are forested with acacia and mopane trees, but standing water is very scarce. African mammals are plentiful in these areas, including many types of antelope, elephants, zebra, giraffe, and predators such as lions, leopards, cheetah, hyena, and African wild dogs.
South of the town of Seronga, the narrow Panhandle gives way to the wide Delta, which spreads out for over one hundred kilometers to the south, east, and west. This area is a patchwork of swampy areas and islands. The swamp is similar to that of the Panhandle. The islands are heavily forested with acacia, palm, and figs. Animal life here consists of mostly the same species as both the Panhandle and the desert savanna, with hippo, crocodile, sitatunga, and lechwe (another aquatic antelope) in the swamps and other types of antelope, elephants, zebra, baboons, giraffe and predators such as lions, leopards, cheetah, hyena, and African wild dogs on the islands.
Central to this ecosystem is the annual flood, which brings water and nourishment to the Delta. The summer rains in Angola bring a flood in the winter months (June through September, since this is the Southern Hemisphere). The flood makes travel for both people and wildlife difficult, and the islands become surrounded by water. Once the flood recedes, the area can become quite dry, the formerly riverine floodplain becoming grassy plains. In many ways, this flood determines the life cycle, not only for the animals and plants, but also for the people of the Delta.
The five different ethnic groups all pursue different traditional subsistence strategies.
Bugakwe men hunted in the desert savanna using poison darts shot from a bow. Using these darts required immense skill to track the animals, get close enough to shoot, and to accurately deliver the dart. Men would be away from their communities for days hunting. If we think about that way of life for a moment, we can imagine that tracking animals in the Delta environment is a challenging task. Footprints may leave clear demarcations in the sand of a floodplain and then the trail seems to end with the start of an open grassland or a wooded island. A successful hunter needs to know enough about the behavior of his prey to anticipate their movement and be so familiar with the environment as to detect the slightest alteration in the soil or vegetation that indicates the distance and direction their prey has traveled. In this environment the stalker also has to guard against becoming the prey of several large carnivores, crocodiles, or an accidental encounter with a territorial hippo or black mamba (a highly poisonous snake). This knowledge acquisition begins with small children tracking each other and builds through a lifetime.
Xanekwe men also hunted using poison darts in the desert savanna, and hunted using spears in the river. Here they would lie in wait for aquatic antelope and even crocodiles and hippo. Balanced in a dugout canoe, a man would harpoon an animal, holding it while his hunting companions attacked the animal with their spears and arrows.
Dxeriku, Hambukushu, and Wayeyi men also used this hunting technique. Beginning in the late 1800s men began using firearms in hunting, but the traditional methods persist to this day.
Men from all of these groups also are expert fisherman, using bow and arrow, spear, hook and line, or nets to catch bream and catfish.
Dxeriku, Hambukushu, and Wayeyi men historically built fences from acacia thorn trees to protect their agricultural fields from elephants, buffalo, hippo, cattle, and rhinoceros.
Men from these ethnic groups also plowed the fields and tended the cattle. Men from all five ethnic groups are expert craftsmen, making axes, weapons, and canoes.
Xanekwe women were adept at collecting foods from the swamps, such as bird eggs, roots, and small animals caught with snares. Women specialized in fishing using conical baskets, called weirs, in shallow water. Fish are herded into the baskets; the mouth of the basket is then lifted out of the water trapping the fish. Women also used poison to catch fish.
Bugakwe women collected some foods from the swamps but also collected foods from the savanna. These included eggs, roots, fruits, birds, and small game in addition to mongongo and marula nuts.
Dxeriku, Hambukushu, and Wayeyi women are also adept at these collecting activities, especially fishing, historically women from these groups also tended the fields and processed grain and other produce. This entailed planting, weeding, harvesting, separating the grain from the chaff, and finally, processing grain into flour. This processing is done using a mortar and pestle, sometimes referred to as a stamping block, to pound the grain. Once the outer husk has been removed, sifting begins using specialized baskets. After several cycles of pounding and sifting, flour is produced and the chaff discarded. Our attempts to perform this task were comparable to the efforts of a four year old child from the community.
Boys and girls are able to contribute to the household economy to varying degrees depending on the subsistence ecology. For instance, Bugakwe and Xanekwe children historically could contribute relatively little. This is because in a hunting and gathering subsistence ecology high levels of skill are required to be a competent producer. These skills take a long time to acquire, and for many types of hunting and gathering activities adults do not become capable until their 20s and expert until their 30s. While young people can catch some fish, collect some plant foods, and do some hunting, they are consuming far more than they can produce. Children and teenagers are still learning and adults, in a sense, are paying for their learning by providing food that children and teenagers are not yet skillful enough to acquire. In the mixed subsistence ecologies of the Dxeriku, Hambukushu, and Wayeyi, children can contribute more to their households since some of the tasks take less time to learn. Boys and young men do the bulk of the labor in herding and taking care of the cattle and goats.
Girls and young women can perform many of the agricultural related tasks at the same level as adult women. For instance, 14 year old girls are as good at grain processing as 35 year old women. Contrast this to foraging related tasks, such as processing mongongo nuts, where 14 year old girls are only one tenth as competent as adult women. Among all the ethnic groups, young people do a great deal of the domestic chores, such as collecting water and firewood. In addition to traditional forms of food collection and production, people from all groups have been involved in the market economy to some extent for nearly one hundred years.
Xanekwe people used their great hunting skill to acquire pelts of leopards, zebras, and other animals to trade for consumer goods such as pots, axes, knives, and clothing. Members of all these groups were heavily involved in elephant hunting for the ivory trade from the late 1800s. Men from all these groups participated in migratory labor to work in the South African mines beginning in the 1930s.
Hambukushu and Wayeyi women are famous all over the world for their skill at basketry, and selling baskets to tourists and collectors has been an important source of income for some women since the 1960s. men from all of these ethnic groups have worked in safari lodges as guides and at other jobs, while women have worked in the lodges as maids, cooks, and other occupations. Today, the distinctions in subsistence ecology between these groups are less clear. Partly due to living in multi ethnic communities and partly as a result of education, government programs, and modernization, members of all these groups are converging on a common mixed subsistence strategy of fishing, farming, collecting wild foods, herding, and hunting.
Government regulation of hunting has greatly diminished the hunting component of all these groups’ subsistence regime. Still, Bugakwe and Xanekwe peoples are substantially more oriented towards foraging, with far fewer cattle and smaller fields than members of the other ethnic groups.
Bugakwe and Xanekwe people historically lived in small groups centered on extended family relationships. These family groups moved periodically in response to local depletion of game animals, and groups would sometimes camp together for several months or even years before going their separate ways. There was no central authority figure.
Dxeriku, Hambukushu, and Wayeyi people all lived in semi permanent, patrilocal extended family settlements. Within a region of several kilometers most families were related, and a hereditary headman was the political focal point. Beginning in the late 1700s, the chief of the Batawana, a Tswana speaking group, began to exert political control over the peoples of the Okavango Delta. This external control resulted in changes to the traditional political structure of these peoples that is ongoing, and many matrilineal oriented customs regarding property and the family were replaced by patrilineal Tswana traditions. In the early 1900s British civil servants also began to exert political control over the Okavango Delta, integrating traditional political institutions into government based ones. It was not until after Botswana became independent in 1966, however, that government political institutions became formalized in much of the Okavango Delta. Today headmen are government employees, and are assisted in their duties by police, court personnel, and citizen committees. The Tswana kgotla style of government has been universally adopted. Political and social relationships with members of these ethnic groups in other countries have been limited. In Namibia and Angola, Dxeriku and Hambukushu people have had paramount chiefs, that is a leader who exercises authority over all others for that people. Since before Botswana’s independence, members of these groups in Botswana have not recognized this authority, and have had no such central authority within or outside Botswana. In recent years, Bugakwe people in Namibia have had a chief. This is an artifact of the period before Namibian independence when South Africa administered the Namibian government. Bugakwe in Botswana do not recognize this authority.
Bugakwe and Xanekwe peoples have historically had religious practices similar to those of many other Bushmen groups. These practices incorporate a strong belief in the supernatural with a deep reverence for the natural world.
Dxeriku and Wayeyi peoples historically practiced religions that placed a great deal of importance on the spiritual connection with ancestors. Hambukushu people also saw these relationships as central to their religion.
Dxeriku and Hambukushu traditionally had matrilineal totem clans related to certain animals such as elephant, crocodile, and lion. Members of a totem clan did not hunt or eat the totem animal. Moreover, people could not marry within their clan, but only married people from specific clans. In this century many Bugakwe, Xanekwe, and Wayeyi peoples also adopted this tradition. The Hambukushu also believed that certain individuals had the power to make rain, a precious commodity in this arid environment. These “rainmakers” exercised great religious and political authority, not only among Hambukushu but also among the other groups and even Batawana and Ovaherero (a nearby group of pastoralists).
To members of all these groups, physical, and emotional health are but facets of spirituality. To varying degrees, shamans and herbalists occupy important positions for their connection to the supernatural world and their healing abilities. Hambukushu and Wayeyi shamans are also expert herbalists and are sought out by people from within all five ethnic groups and also by others. Today, most members of these groups practice their traditional religions. Many people also practice forms of Christianity, ranging from Western denominations or missionary organizations to indigenous forms of Christianity. The largest example of the latter is the South African based Zion Christian Church (ZCC). By the late 1990s, the ZCC had become the largest and dominant denomination in many of the communities around the Okavango Delta, and members in their khaki (men) or white (women) uniforms could be seen marching to and from services. This affiliation has in some cases created a voting block, and in many communities ZCC members exercise substantial political clout.