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(cover picture) Strong, Adrian
2010 Bitter Roots: The Ends of a Kalahari Myth. Watertown, MA: Documentary Educational Resources.

Notes: DVD, 71 minutes
Reviewed 23 Jun 2012 by:
Jack David Eller <>
Community College of Denver, Denver, Colorado, USA
Medium: Film/Video
!Kung (African people) - Namibia - Nyae Nyae - Social conditions
!Kung (African people) - Namibia - Nyae Nyae - Social life and customs
!Kung (African people) - Namibia - Nyae Nyae - Economic conditions
Subsistence farming - Namibia - Nyae Nyae
Nyae Nyae (Namibia) - History
Wildlife conservation - Social aspects - Namibia - Nyae Nyae
World Wildlife Fund Marshall, John, - 1932-2005

ABSTRACT:    Two colleagues of John Marshall return to the Kalahari to examine a development project that they founded together years before, only to find its priorities radically shifted and its previous accomplishments largely undone.

In W. W. Rostow’s controversial modernization model of development, a culture is likened to an airplane that must achieve ‘take-off’ before it can begin to grow and eventually stabilize at ‘cruising altitude,’ which means sustained growth and consumption. Of course, some of his other assumptions are much more problematic, such as that is the fault of the culture itself that it cannot ‘get off the ground.’ Experience has amply shown that there are many reasons why the taxi down the runway to liftoff might be bumpy and why, even once off the ground, the culture might repeatedly slam into the ground. The society’s own internal failings are (at best) one reason; actions by many would-be do-gooders (and not so do-gooders) are as likely if not more likely to be to blame.

Bitter Roots is a really tragic portrayal of a promising development scheme gone wrong. In 2007 two colleagues of the eminent John Marshall, longtime chronicler of the !Kung or Ju/hoansi, returned to the storied area of Nyae Nyae to take stock of a program that he and they had set up some years before. An ominous beginning is their visit to the former field office of Nyae Nyae Development Foundation, which was abandoned 1999.

Claire Ritchie, co-founder of the Foundation along with Marshall (who died in 2005) explains that the original hands-on, in-the-village program turned into an office-based, paperwork-intensive, consultant-driven foundation…and failed. This, she states and we can certainly agree, is the very antithesis of development. The film describes Marshall’s fieldwork and his plan to help the Ju/hoansi develop a mixed-subsistence economy. In the 1960s the formerly foraging people moved to a government settlement, where their lives were devastated. In 1980 Marshall and Ritchie discovered that the society was dying out, so they established a grassroots foundation to build family farms. The outlook by the late 1980s seemed brighter. In what would seem at first glance to be a positive thing, donor funds flooded in, but with them came an externally-imposed development agenda that shifted away from village development and toward wildlife conservation and tourism. The Foundation essentially became a “consultancy hotel” with more comfortable accommodations than could be had in the villages and at a distance from the villages.

The other of Marshall’s colleagues featured in the film is Adrian Strong, who discusses the direction of Foundation once it was taken over by the Nyae Nyae Conservancy Office. As mentioned, the emphasis of activities moved toward animal conservation, for which the locals were supposed to be compensated; however, after two years of wildlife management, each person earned $75 Namibian, or $10.50 US. Worse yet, most of the animals bought by the World Wildlife Fund had escaped the reserve or died. Further, elephant populations have pushed people out of their old camp at /Gautcha, and the reservoir has been damaged beyond repair by elephants. Elephants, of course, benefit tourists and trophy hunters but make life harder for Ju/hoansi. In still another injustice, aid and charity groups poured money into some villages while ignoring others. Finally, lions and leopards attack the people’s herds—and on one occasion, attacked a man. But the nature conservancy does not kill the predators, only relocate them, and now the lions are returning.

The current foundation director, Lara Diez, is probably a well-meaning person, but she is based in the capital city, 800 kilometers away. Diez says that donors like the World Bank don’t want to deal with the local people; they just want to see a proposal and give you money. Kxao Visser, manager of Nyae Nyae Conservancy, states that he wants to get more animals and provide them more freedom of movement in areas closed to humans, which is supposed to benefit the people somehow. However, a white lodge manager in the area argues that the Conservancy is only interested in wildlife. At /Gautcha, locals claim that the foundation no longer helps them acquire cattle while preventing them from hunting wild animals.

As is widely recognized, tourism and even misplaced development can have an exoticizing effect on native peoples. The lodge manager says that tourists want to see natives as they lived 100 years ago, in their ‘traditional’ or even allegedly ‘pristine’ condition, not as they actually live today. One Ju/hoansi man who deals with tourists complains that white culture changes, so why would they expect that Ju/hoanis culture does not change. But tourists are not interested to see today’s realities, only yesterday’s myth. The film travels to the deserted village of N/amtchoa, one of the first farming communities established by the project. Ironically, its former residents have been resettled for an unrelated film production about ‘traditional life.’ At the film set, some small reed huts have been built, and the Department of Nature Conservation has brought a springbok so the film can show how the natives processed it. The makers of this anachronistic film want a scene with no Western influences. As is often the case, the best-conceived development efforts seem to be the most local ones. At Dutch Reformed Church farm in the vicinity, the pastor has established a program to provide cows and sheep to Ju/hoansi villages, but he gets no help from the government. On the final day of filming, Mwala Lutaka, acting commissioner of Tshumkwe district (not a Ju/hoansi) and a person who acknowledges the influence of Marshall, says that he is devoted to helping the people, but Namibian independence shifted effort away from Ju/hoansi farms and toward tourism and wildlife conservation. Once more, the end of colonialism did not necessarily mean the improvement of the lives of the indigenous people, who were frequently more bothered by independence governments than by colonial regimes.

The film closes with these words: “In April 2010 we learned the communities had come together and insisted they receive cattle as a benefit from the Conservancy. The Foundation, concerned about over-grazing, have employed a grazing management specialist to work with the local authority on over-grazing around Tsumke and plan to manage the cattle in the Conservancy with the Conservancy Office. However, it appears that no further technical assistance is being given to guide Ju/hoansi on practical matters of cattle farming.”

Bitter Roots is an eye-opening, depressing, and angering—and therefore very effective—film about all of the things that can go wrong in a development project even when the intentions of the project are arguably mostly good. Perhaps the most important message, as mentioned above, is that the best development is local development, that planners, managers, and donors need to be on the spot and understand the perspective of the local people. Far-away administrators and idealistic but uninformed money-givers and bureaucrats too easily lose sight of the people really need (and we hope that they care what people really need, although often they do not). We can only imagine the frustration for Ritchie and Strong to see a plan that started with such promise but that has not only failed but largely backfired, and we, as well as development anthropologists and development agencies, can learn a lot from the experience.

Level/Use: Suitable for college courses in cultural anthropology, applied/development anthropology, anthropology of threatened cultures, and African studies, as well as general audiences.