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‘Our hearts were happy here’: recollecting acts of dwelling and acts of clearance through mapping on-site oral histories in west Namibia


Sian Sullivan gives research paper at the 12th Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies (CHAGS12) at the Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang Island, as part of a panel on "Cultural maps and hunter-gatherers’ being in the world", convened by anthropologis Ute Dieckmann.
The paper abstract was as follows:

'This paper introduces a historical cultural mapping project in west Namibia that documents childhood memories of former dwelling places, particularly in Sesfontein and Purros conservancies and in the Palmwag tourism concession. The research draws into focus past practices of dwelling, mobility, livelihood and environmental perception amongst Khoe-speaking peoples (of ||Khao-a, !Narenin and ||Ubun !haoti or lineages) who lived as hunter-foragers and small stock pastoralists throughout the wider west Namibian landscape, prior to a combination of factors that cleared them from these lands. Using a combination of tools – from recorded oral histories and musics associated with remembered sites, to logging mapped coordinates and associated information on google maps – the project aims to (re)inscribe layers of cultural significance now occluded from maps of the area.'

Killing Nature to Save it? Ethics, Economics and the Trophy Hunting of Black Rhinoceros.


A free public lecture by Mike Hannis, hosted by Bath Spa University's Research Centre for Environmental Humanities.

Wednesday December 13th 2017

6.30-8.00 pm, in Commons 225/226

Bath Spa University Newton Park Campus, BA2 9BN

Supported by large conservation NGOs, the US government has recently reaffirmed its support for the counter-intuitive practice of raising funds for conservation by selling rights to shoot individuals of the very species being conserved. This talk explores discourse generated by the controversial trophy hunting of an endangered black rhinoceros in Namibia by a wealthy US hunting enthusiast. Consideration of the conflicting ethical arguments, illustrated by hypothetical analogous cases, suggests that what initially appears as a triumph of utilitarianism over other ethical approaches may be better understood as a triumph of economics over ethics.


In November 2017 Future Pasts ethnomusicologist Angela Impey, Mamokobo director Andy Botelle and BBC radio producer Robin Denselow travelled to Okombahe in west Namibia to document the 37th Damara King's Festival (see blog). Following a century of discrimination by German colonialism and South African apartheid rule, the film (viewable here) considers how this annual festival provides a valuable opportunity for Damara performers, community leaders and audiences alike to ‘think aloud’ about their histories, identities and imaginaries for the future. In 2017 the film was shortlisted for the UK's Arts and Humanities Research Council’s prestigious Research in Film Awards (category 'International Development - Mobilising Global Voices'). The screening at London's School of Oriental and African Studies was followed by a Q+A with filmmaker, Andrew Botelle and Rosa Namises, representative of the Damara King’s Festival Organising Committee. More photos from this event can be viewed on the Namibian High Commission's facebook page here.

The Damara King's Festival film, made as a collaboration between Future Pasts, Mamokobo Film and Research, and the Damara King's Festival Organising Committee was shortlisted for the AHRC's Research in Film Award, category 'International Development: Mobilising Global Voices'. The award ceremony was held at BAFTA (British Association of Film and Television Awards) in London's Picadilly. The Future Pasts delegation to the ceremony consisted of Andy Botelle (film-maker and director of Mamokobo), Rosa Namises (Damara King's Festival Organising Committee), Welhemina Suro Ganuses (Future Pasts translator and collaborator), Robin Denselow (BBC radio producer), Angela Impey (Future Pasts/SOAS ethnomusicologist) and Sian Sullivan (Future Pasts principal investigator from Bath Spa University). See article in The Namibian newspaper here.

“Future Pasts”. Introducing a historical cultural mapping project in western Namibia

Lunch Talk at the Basler Afrika Bibliographien (BAB), with Welhemina Suro Ganuses and Sian Sullivan (Palmwag (Namibia) & Bath (UK))

From the BAB website: 'The “Future Pasts” project on sustainabilities and cultural landscapes in western Namibia draws on arts and humanities research methodologies to document and analyse culturally-inflected perceptions and practices of sustainability. In this talk Sian Sullivan (professor of environment and culture, Bath Spa University) and her Namibian collaborator Welhemina Suro Ganuses (Save the Rhino Trust, Palmwag) introduce the innovative project. The focus of the talk will be on the relevance of Khoekhoegowab oral traditions and working with people returning to places in the broader Sesfontein / Purros / Palmwag environment'.

Filming the Damara Kings festival in west Namibia: cultural documentation and socio-political redress


Presentation by Angela Impey at Bath Spa University's 'Filming African Music' event.

Abstract: This presentation will consider the relevance of festival and spectacle as sites of ethnographic research in Africa, focusing on their role as concentrated performative negotiations of histories, cultural identities, territorialities or senses of place. The presentation will reflect in particular, on the filmic documentation of the Damara King’s Festival in west Namibia, an annual ritual of renewal that enables performers and audiences alike to ‘think aloud’ about their histories and imaginaries for the future. Having been profoundly displaced by German colonialism (1884-1915) and by seven decades of discriminatory South African rule, the presentation considers the role of film in both contributing to an as yet under-researched cultural archive, as well as in engaging publicly -- via film festivals, local television and exhibitions -- in current discussions about political, cultural and environmental redress.

The discussion will be accompanied by a 30-minute film made through a collaboration between Future Pasts, Mamokobo Film and Research, and the Damara King’s Festival Organising Committee. The film can be viewed here. It has recently been shortlisted for an AHRC Research in Film award in the category International Development: Mobilising Global Voices.

Repeat landscape photography, historical ecology and the wonder of digital archives


Rick Rohde gives presentation at the Standing Conference on Library Materials on Africa (SCOLMA) annual conference at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. For more information see blog and abstract here.

'Uranium Burns a Hole in Forever'


Mike Hannis gave a presentation entitled 'Uranium burns a hole in forever': temporalities, ethics and the nuclear fuel cycle at a Bath Spa University symposium entitled Digital Ecologies and the Anthropocene.


The sheer physical scale of both uranium mines and deep geological disposal facilities suggests that these may join anthropogenic radionuclides as long-lasting markers of the Anthropocene. Landscapes and communities are dramatically reshaped by uranium mining and processing, and tell stories which already raise significant concerns, even before any nuclear reactions occur. But these concerns are brought into sharper focus by the ‘downstream’ issue of radioactive waste, which forces human cultures to explicitly confront the extreme temporalities associated with uranium and its derivatives. This paper presents a snapshot of work in progress which seeks to connect ethical issues arising at both ‘ends’ of the nuclear fuel cycle. Reflecting on limitations of previous work on how to distinguish compensation from bribery in agreements made with communities hosting radioactive waste disposal facilities, I draw on recent experience of how this work was received by practitioners in Sweden, who perhaps understandably chose to focus primarily on the present and the near future, effectively bracketing consideration of trickier but critical issues relating to far future human (and non-human) interests. I also compare the tone of debates around nuclear waste disposal in countries such as Sweden and the UK with that of representations of uranium mining in countries such as Namibia, noting significant differences but also the consistent rhetorical deployment of climate change, another phenomenon marked by extreme temporalities, to support the reinvention of nuclear technology as ‘clean’.

!Nara harvesters of the northern Namib: recovering disrupted pasts through on-site oral history


Sian Sullivan gave a research seminar in the Dept. of Anthropology at the University of Tromsø, Norway, for the department's ‘Interdisciplinary Research Group on Comparative Indigeneity’, ('Komparativ Urfolksforskning’), based on oral history collaborations in west Namibia with Welhemina Suro Ganuses, Franz ||Hoëb, Noag Ganaseb, Christophone Daumû Tauros, Michael Ganaseb, Hildegard |Nuas and Filemon |Nuab.

Abstract - The endemic food plant !nara (Acanthosicyos horridus Welw. ex Hook.f.) of the arid western reaches of south-west Africa has long been associated with Khoe-speaking peoples (Topnaar Nama, or ≠Aonin) living in the lower reaches of the !Kuiseb River in Namibia. Oral histories recorded since the 1990s in the Hoanib River area north of the !Kuiseb, however, indicate that !nara harvesting and husbanding were also central for several land and lineage based groups (!haoti) of Khoe-speaking peoples in this more northerly area. Recent field research has permitted the return with now elderly people to localities of past dwelling in the lower reaches of the Hoanib and Hoarusib Rivers, enabling documentation of childhood memories of place names, life events and practices of living in these areas. These are localities from which people were progressively excluded, as access to the coastal reaches of this northern part of Namibia became restricted for diamond mining (in the 1950s) and latterly due to the establishment of the Skeleton Coast National Park (in 1971). This seminar will be based on preliminary analysis of material emerging from on-site oral history research in remembered localities in these areas that are now closed to their former inhabitants. I hope in particular to explore some threads of emphasis in memory studies and cultural landscapes to consider the significance of returning to past places in prompting recollections and re-imaginings of pasts often only present as faint traces (if at all) in formal historical record.

Ontology after truth? Ethnography and ethics in an unravelling world


Sian Sullivan and Mike Hannis gave a joint presentation at the inaugural symposium on Environmental Humanities: Doing Interdisciplinarity with Depth at Bath Spa University's new Research Centre in Environmental Humanities. Their presentation, entitled ‘Ontology after truth? Ethnography and ethics in an unravelling’, was given as part of a panel on ‘Onto-epistemologies and ethics’.


Over the last couple of years, and through the Future Pasts research project, we have been collaborating across the disciplines of environmental anthropology and environmental ethics to find points of intersection and departure in our approaches to understanding socioecological phenomena (see, for example, our second FP working paper). This endeavour may have seemed a simple one, concerned as we both are with considerations of sustainability and justice in the contemporary moment. In practice, however, we have encountered significant tensions at the meetings between the ethnographer’s allegiance to the particular, and the philosopher’s orientation towards more abstract universal ideals of human flourishing. In this conjoined presentation we offered some reflections on our experiences of this cross-disciplinary tension. Is it possible for us to simultaneously celebrate the particular ontologies expressed through cultural differences and the emancipatory liberalism of universal conceptions of virtues, rights and personhood? Might finding a balance between these different approaches to ‘truth’ help us to keep our bearings in the seemingly unravelling world of ‘post-truth’ politics?


Sian Sullivan (with Welhemina Suro Ganuses), Rick Rohde (with Siona O'Connel and Sophie Claaste), and Chris Low with (Chris Morton and Stilvanus Ndumbu) proposed a panel for the 2016 conference on Contemporary Ethnography Across the Disciplines, held in Cape Town from 16-18 November. The conference focused on Ethnographic Imaginings: Place, Space & Time. Our panel, entitled Encountering Each Other: Agencies, (Im)possibilities, and Reciprocities in Dryland Southern Africa – A Sharing of Co-created Works and Experiences was accepted for the conference theme on Indigenous Voices: Communicating Peoples. Sian and Suro unfortunately had to cancel their involvement at the last minute due to the death of Sian's father.  

Killing Nature to Save It? Ethics, economics and rhino hunting in Namibia.


Mike Hannis gave a paper on the ethics of trophy hunting to a plenary session of the 2016 conference of the International Society for Environmental Ethics, at Pace University in New York. This will in due course become a Future Pasts Working Paper.


This paper presents a case study of ethical discourse generated by a recent complex conservation issue, the officially sanctioned trophy hunting by a US hunter of an endangered black rhino (Diceros bicornis) in Namibia, following a permit auction raising US$350,000 for rhino conservation. Both the hunter and the Namibian government were vocally condemned by those focussing on the welfare of the animal. The focus here however is not primarily on animal rights arguments, but on the dominance of economic reasoning in the heated debate surrounding the story, and on how an apparently ‘wrong’ action is seen to become ‘right’ if it has economically desirable consequences. The welfare of the individual animal is one of several ethical considerations rendered invisible or illegitimate in this process: others include local perspectives, historical context, contemporary power relations, and the pre-shaping of future management decisions. The calculative consequentialist logic of the market displaces other forms of ethical reasoning, marginalising critique and further consolidating its own hegemony. But this is not a triumph of utilitarianism: little trace remains of Bentham’s egalitarianism, or of JS Mill’s concerns with the qualities of pleasures, and their effect on character. It is rather a triumph of economics over ethics, in which almost anything can be commodified into commensurable ‘capital’, thereby erasing other ways of understanding the world.

The fog of historical ecology - conference paper at the Royal Anthropological Institute


'The fog of historical ecology: an interdisciplinary collaboration investigating vegetation change in relation to human impacts, global drivers and climate change projections in the Namib desert' conference paper to be presented by Rick Rohde (co-authored with M Timm Hoffman) at the Royal Anthropological Institute conference on Anthropology, Weather and Climate Change, Panel 06 on 'Interdisciplinary dialogues or monologues across the scientific worlds of climate change'. Full programme here.

Short Abstract: Historical ecology is interdisciplinary by nature. Our presentation describes some of the processes that evolve when social and natural scientists work together. We use the example of our research into 100 years of vegetation change in Namibia in relation to human impacts, climate change and fog.


Abstract: Historical ecology research is by definition an interdisciplinary project between the social and natural sciences. Environments are fundamentally historical and untangling the interwoven effects of the history of human impacts and climate change on the ecological landscape is an important preoccupation of the discipline. This presentation describes an example of my collaboration as a social scientist with a friend and colleague in the biological sciences where we have endeavored to establish trends in environmental change in western Namibia during the last 150 years spanning the onset of colonialism into the present. Our methodology includes the use of repeat photography, historical research, ethnography, vegetation surveys, evaluation of climate records and the effects of environmental policy.


Presently we are investigating vegetation change in the Namib Desert in relation to the effects of global climate change on the large-scale weather patterns that govern the upwelling of the Benguela current, which in turn affects the fog dependent biota of this arid region. Historical trends give us insight into the causes of present conditions and allow for hypothetical speculation of future scenarios.


One of the key tensions that arises between the social and natural science view of any particular landscape resides in the negotiation between meaning and fact: as a social scientist I am conscious of the performative aspects of representing non-human nature, whereas my biological science colleague is a detached observer of nature aiming to establish empirical reality. This tension has perhaps been the most fruitful aspect of our professional relationship.

Future Pasts researchers contribute to Earthwatch debate - Does nature come with a price tag?


Should we put a monetary value on nature to save it? This was the core question asked at the Earthwatch Spring public debate, held at the Royal Geographical Society. Future Pasts researchers Sian Sullivan and Mike Hannis were invited to speak at the debate, in which a panel of six speakers led a broader discussion regarding values and natures. The full debate can be watched here. Highlights are available here.

Ancestral agencies at re-membered places: articulating the conservation and cultural landscapes of Palmwag/Hurubes, west Namibia


With colleagues at BSU Sian Sullivan developed a panel on 'Death, Memory and Landscape' for the Landscaping Change conference at Bath Spa University (29-31 March 2016). Her own paper considered sites of burial and relationships with ancestors in west Namibia.


Abstract. Some land areas of north-west Namibia, such as the tourism concession area now known as Palmwag, have been exoticised as a spectacular ‘last wilderness’ populated by rare and threatened large African mammals: as territories existing somehow outside of history where wildness appears to remain beyond reach of significant human intervention. This paper considers ways in which this wildness has been made historically, through cartographic and political intervention that created boundaries distinguishing where and which people could retain access and dwellings. Through recent return with KhoeSan-speaking peoples of various groupings (!haoti) associated with what they know as the land (!hūs) of Hurubes, the paper introduces some of the socialising practices that enabled people in the recent past to flourish in a landscape valued now as rugged, inhospitable and remote. A focus will be on the greeting and gifting of ancestral spirits of the dead associated with the graves of known ancestors located in the landscape, as well as with the spirits of anonymous dead, and with a key ancestor-hero-trickster known as Haiseb. These ancestral agencies are understood ontologically as able to intervene so as to assert influence in the present, and as such to assist with guiding and protecting people as they move to and through remembered places and interact with other beings encountered there. The paper seeks to juxtapose some of the different memories and modes of relating asserted historically and today by varied actors with interests in the Hurubes/Palmwag landscape. In doing so it draws attention to the territory’s shifting articulation as both the spatial arena where conservation of a wildness that is somehow outside of culture can occur; and as an intimately relational context for dwelling and the practice of diverse reciprocal interactions with entities-beyond-the-human.


The image to the left shows Ruben Saunaeib Sanib at Kai-as sitting with a grandfather of his lineage, after decades of being unable to return to this place where formerly he lived (Sian Sullivan archive 231114, image used with permission from Ruben).


Following from her paper 'The Natural Capital Myth; or will accounting save the world?', Sian Sullivan was invited to speak at a session called 'The ethics debate. Challenge and be challenged' at the 2nd World Forum on Natural Capital. Since she was in Namibia at the time, Mike Hannis spoke instead at this event. Mike presented a critical intervention entitled 'Is the World Really Made of Capital?'. The ethics panel was chaired by Inger Andersen, Director General of IUCN, and also included Pavan Sukhdev, founder of the TEEB project; Catie Burlando of CEESP; Alicia Montoya of Swiss Re Insurance, and Samuel Vionnet of Valuing Nature. Mike's contribution has led to an invitation to contribute content for a  new Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) being developed on "Ecosystem Services" by the University of Geneva (Switzerland), to include a debate with Pavan Sukhdev.


Sian Sullivan wrote a post on the Future Pasts blog to coincide with the Forum on Natural Capital Forum, reflecting on the concept of Natural Capital.


How have different societies in different periods thought about ‘the future’? What role have different conceptions of the future played in confronting the problems of the present or reflecting on those of the past? What role does the future play in creating and connecting communities? How do narratives across past, present and future cohere? How do societies and communities use and construct utopias and other forms of anticipation to build agency and capacity for change? What impedes or enables these processes?   This two-day interdisciplinary symposium, organised by the AHRC's Connected Communities and Care for the Future themes, brought together researchers, Civil Society Organisations, NGOs and other groups concerned with questions of social and environmental change, humanitarian challenges, and community empowerment and participation, with philosophers, artists, historians, theorists, social scientists and other disciplines concerned with questions of temporality, futures and utopias.


Sian Sullivan was part of the steering group for the symposium and co-organised, with Owain Jones (Bath Spa University, AHRC Connected Communities), a 'Roundtable' entitled ‘Temporalities / Communities / Sustainabilities: Frictions and Frissons in the making of Utopian Futures’, involving Future Pasts researcher Mike Hannis and Katherine Jones, University of the West of England.



Maps and Memory - RGS-IBG Annual Public Lecture hosted by Bath Spa University


The annual Royal Geographical Society-Institute and British Geographers Public Lecture for the West of England and South Wales Region, hosted by Bath Spa University, was given by Sian Sullivan, and based on ethnographic and archival research conducted as part of Future Pasts. The talk was entitled 'Maps and memory: on colonial exploration and indigenous cultural landscapes in west Namibia’, and will be available in the coming months as a project working paper.


Abstract: This talk will follow the footsteps of early European travellers to the country now known as Namibia. Many of these men - Sir James Edward Alexander, Sir Francis Galton and Major Charles Manning - were supported by and had connections with the Royal Geographical Society in London. Their mapping and economic activities in the west Namibian landscape were critical for opening the country to colonial expansion and the creation of a modern economy. But these innovations often rested uneasily with conceptions of landscapes held by people indigenous to the territory, traces of which can be discerned through ethnographic fieldwork. The talk will draw on diverse maps and the stories they tell, so as to discuss the complex historical processes influencing the present geography of this African landscape.


Paper presented by Sian Sullivan at the conference Landscape, Wilderness and the Wild, Newcastle University, 26-29 March 2015.
Abstract. Modern biodiversity conservation in southern Africa is replete with reference to the value(s) of ‘the wild’. ‘Last wildernesses’ become conservation areas, ‘wilderness schools’ encourage human experiences of a transcendent ‘wild nature’, and ‘game’ farming and trophy hunting are framed as economically necessary for the sustenance of ‘wildlife’. The category of ‘wild’ is extended to ‘wild people’ or ‘Bushmen’, whose othered identities are sustained through Living Museums where tourists can consume in the present apparent past practices. Drawing on recent ethnographic encounters with created wild landscapes, wild life and wild people in Namibia, conveyed through a montage of still and video images, this paper seeks to problematise categories of both ‘wild’ and ‘game’ in conservation discourse and practice. Inspired by recent ‘anthropology of nature’ work by Philippe Descola and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro among others, ‘wild’ and ‘game’ are theorised as intrinsically problematic terms and categories for the sustenance of socionatural abundance. This is due to their associations with a ‘humanist naturalist’ (cf. Descola) ontology of separateness between cultured heroic humans and their antithesis of a constructed wild natural realm that can become the object of productive management and instrumentalisation. This humanist naturalism of the wild is contrasted here with an ontology of what I will call ‘animist socialism’, documented ethnographically as characterising the worldviews of many indigenous peoples globally. In this, plants, animals and other subjects are assumed to be animated by souls, language and culture in ways that bestow personhood and the possibility of social relationships between what are thus kindred others. Understanding the structuring and ethical implications of the different ontologies of humanist naturalism and animist socialism is considered critical for conceiving and composing socionatural abundance based on cohabitation with other species as ‘soul mates’, rather than through barriers between humans and ‘wild game’.

Key words: wild; game; wilderness; biodiversity conservation; Bushmen; humanist naturalism; animist socialism; socionatural abundance


Rick Rohde and Angela Impey contribute a poster at the first colloquium of 'Foglife', and international collaboration to monitor desert ecology in conjunction with possible climate change related alterations in the occurrence of fogs in the coastal area of the Namib desert. The poster summarises initial thoughts for collaborative research to connect repeat landscape photography with soundscape recordings in the Kuiseb River environs. 


The sound workshop at Basler Afrika Bibliographien (BAB) entitled 'The Histories and Politics of Audio Archives: Trans-disciplinary Trajectories of Audio Recording, Audio Archives and Hearing Cultures in South(ern) Africa', draws attention to the roles of sound and listening in historical and ethnographic research:
'Historical audio recordings, voice and speech collections are increasingly receiving attention in cultural and social studies. Sound and hearing studies itself have become a small but burgeoning field and some scholar are claiming a “sonic” or “acoustic” turn in their fields of study. At the same time a general public, in constant search of “the authentic voice” yet long accustomed to the visuality of history, is turning eagerly to historical sound and music to “listen in” and “listen out” to voices assumed as having been “lost”, “silenced” or “forgotten.” Some have argued that the “visual turn” has not only exceeded its limits – it has resulted in the disjuncture of what is conceptually closely related to each other: visuality and acoustics in one field of experience, practice, knowledge production and representation.


Future Pasts researchers presented two papers at this workshop:

'New developments in digitizing audio and possible applications in Namibia' (Chris Low)


‘(Fragments of) text, sound and corporeality in recording KhoeSan contexts: a preliminary sharing of past and present ethnographic research in Namibia’ (Sian Sullivan)


Angela Impey presents a keynote address, entitled 'Mainstreaming musical knowledge into development policy and practice', at the International Council for Traditional Music (UNESCO), Fourth International Symposium of the Study Group on Applied Ethnomusicology, Eastern Cape, South Africa.


Rick Rohde, Mike Hannis and Sian Sullivan spent several days at Gobabeb Research and Training, giving two seminars to staff, students and visitors there:

'Repeat photographs and environmental history' (Rick Rohde)


'Offsetting nature? Notes on the development of biodiversity offsetting policy in the UK and beyond...' (Mike Hannis and Sian Sullivan)

Gobabeb is located amongst Aonin / Topnaar settlements on the !Kuiseb River, which forms an ephemeral river boundary between the gravel and dune deserts of the Namib (see photo). Gobabeb is a partner organisation of Future Pasts.

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