Does Sedentarization Promote Gender Inequality? A Case Study from the Kalahari

By Kent, Susan | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, September 1995 | Go to article overview

Does Sedentarization Promote Gender Inequality? A Case Study from the Kalahari


Kent, Susan, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


In a number of seminal papers, Pat Draper describes a general loss of autonomy and status among formerly nomadic, now sedentary, female Ju/'hoansi (!Kung) Basarwa (San or Bushmen) from Ngamiland, Botswana (Draper 1975a; 1975b). Prior to this loss, Ju/'hoansi women were noted for their voice in political matters, which now is in the hands of men. Traditional Ju/'hoansi considered female and male work as equally important with minimal sex-typing of tasks. Likewise, property and ownership were not divided along gender lines. Socially, Ju/'hoansi women were equal to men. Additional studies indicate a reduction in gender equality even among children in settled camps when compared to their nomadic counterparts (Draper & Cashdan 1988). Since the early 1980s, sedentism in Ngamiland has been accompanied by profound economic changes introduced, or at least influenced by, neighbouring patriarchal Bantu-speaking peoples. Ju/'hoansi initially became sedentary in order to work for neighbouring agro-pastoralists, to maintain cattle and small livestock, and to farm. During sedentarization, interaction with non-foraging Bantu-speakers increased in frequency, particularly for Ju/'hoansi men. Consequently, it is difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle the impact of sedentism on gender egalitarianism from that of profound economic change, or from the adoption of the patriarchal values of neighbouring peoples; each has been accompanied by the other (for discussions of patriarchy and sexual asymmetry among neighbouring Bantu-speakers, see Alverson 1978: 12, 49; Lee 1993: 131; Molamu 1992: 82-3).

Draper's intriguing observations prompted my study of the effect of sedentism on gender roles among hunting and gathering people who had become sedentary without undergoing such profound economic, social and political changes. Based on these criteria, I selected for study a group of recently sedentary Basarwa living at Kutse, located just outside the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. Unlike the sedentary Ju/'hoansi and other sedentary Kalahari groups, Kutse Basarwa remain primarily, though not exclusively, foragers (Kent 1992; 1993a; in press a).

This article also draws on Loermans's (1992) observations during the late 1980s of Nharo Basarwa women living in the Ghanzi District [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. Loermans notes a loss of autonomy and equality among Nharo women similar to that described by Draper. She attributes this change to the same factors identified by Draper: to sedentism and the adoption of their patriarchal neighbours' economy and customs. As with the Ju/'hoansi, the Nharo have experienced massive economic change in conjunction with adopting a sedentary settlement pattern. The Nharo, sometimes referred to as 'Farm Bushmen', have been sedentary for decades, in fact for longer than the Ju/'hoansi (e.g., Guenther 1979). Most Nharo became sedentary in order to work on European-owned farms, slowly adopting the economic practices and some of the customs of their European and Bantu-speaking Batswana neighbours (Guenther 1979: 86-7).

Inter-Basarwa group comparisons

The individual studies upon which this article is based represent different time periods, different investigators, different linguistic groups, and different data collection methods. Even so, there are similarities that facilitate comparison. One is the fact that both the Kutse Basarwa and the Ju/'hoansi were nomadic and highly egalitarian in the not too distant past.(1) Both groups were primarily hunter-gatherers (the former remain so, but the Ju/'hoansi today are better characterized as practising a mixed subsistence strategy). The Nharo are somewhat different, because they became sedentary and adopted a mixed economy much earlier than did the other two groups. Most Nharo abandoned full-time hunting and gathering a century ago and have interacted closely with Europeans and Bantu-speakers for at least as long (Barnard 1992; Guenther 1975; 1976; 1979; 1986). …

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