The imprint of industrial mining on the land is often clearly visible on aerial photographs and satellite images. Yet older conceptions of place, landscape and identity live on, remembered through songs and stories – haunting the present with memories of past possibilities.
Reminding us that predictability may be short-lived, that life often brings surprises, and that things may not be what they seem, is the character of Haiseb. Haiseb features in stories and songs remembered throughout west Namibia. He can be described as a culture hero or trickster figure spoken of by Dama, Nama and Hai||om, who overlaps strongly with wider San / Bushmen trickster figures from across southern Africa
Since the earliest colonial records of southern Africa, European observers have mentioned how Khoekhoe herders made offerings at cairn-like piles of stones [as shown here] that are found all over southern Africa and particularly in the Northern
Cape and up into north-west Namibia.
Colonial accounts describe the Khoekhoe as believing that Haiseb (or ‘Haitsi Aibeb’) was buried in these graves, but because he came to life bagain his body never remained in any one stone pile. The many piles of stones found across the landscape reflected his many episodes of death and rebirth.
Stories of Haiseb combine ambiguity and mutability, light and dark, to remind us of the mysterious and unpredictable, as well as the often unfathomable and funny, natures of existence. For more on Haiseb see Future Pasts blog and the video below.
Future Pasts collaborator Welhemina Suro Ganuses stands next to Haiseb cairn (||kho||khobab) near Sesfontein. Photo: Chris Low, March 2016.
Haiseb cairn (||kho||khobab) panoramas in west Namibia. Photos: Sian Sullivan, 2014 and 2015.
Haiseb was a very clever person. One day he went to the house of ≠An-guseb who had a sheep that was so fat that it couldn’t walk. Nonetheless, ≠An-guseb refuses to slaughter the sheep for the women.
Now one day Haiseb says, ‘if I go to ≠An-guseb he will slaughter that sheep for me’. Haiseb’s wife said ‘you are lying! ≠An-guseb will not slaughter that sheep for you’. Haiseb says, ‘you will see’.
So now Haiseb dressed in a long dress with a scarf on his head like a woman, and he was carrying an egg of the ostrich. He poured water into the egg so that he can pretend that he is carrying a baby that will need to urinate, and he covers that ‘baby’ and goes to ≠An-guseb’s house.
Now, when Haiseb came to the house, ≠An-guseb was not there but his brother was at home. And the brother ran to ≠An-guseb and said, ‘A ta ta ta, ≠An-guseb, there is a beautiful woman at home. A beautiful woman!’ ‘From where?’ says ≠An-guseb. ‘No, let’s go and see’. So, ‘A ta ta ta, she is very beautiful!’
And ≠An-guseb says yes, go and take that fat sheep and slaughter for her. And he slaughtered the sheep and another brother of ≠An-guseb said ‘now, what must I cook for you?’ And ‘she’ says ‘only the liver’. And he cooked for her the liver. And she ate.
And then it was night-time and ≠An-guseb wished to lie with the beautiful lady. But whenever ≠An-guseb came close to her/him, ‘she’ said, ‘oh, the baby is wet!’, and poured out some of the water from the ostrich egg shell – a little bit, just twice. And when ≠An-guseb came closer to him/her then he said again, ‘oh the baby is wet!’, and poured out some more water.
And in the morning time Haiseb came out from the house and said, ‘aaii, where I was coming from things are not good so I have to go and check the people at home, but then I will come back. And the child is sick, so I have to go and leave the child at home. But when I come back then I will stay with you!’
And he went up onto the hill and then he called ‘ha, ≠An-guseb, I am also a man like you! - I am not a woman!’
Now, ≠An-guseb called the others so that they can go and kill Haiseb. But Haiseb changed again, this time into an old man.
And there was a plains area in the landscape, with many ûias plants (edible corms) and holes where the people had been digging for the ûias. There was also a lot of ash from a big cooking fire that had been there.
And the man who was helping Haiseb became a tree and the meat of the fat sheep that he was carrying for Haiseb also was changing. And Haiseb took his eyes out, and began to sit there like a very old and blind man.
And when ≠An-guseb and his people arrived at this plain they said to the old man ‘grandfather, did you see anything here?’
‘Aaii, as you can see I cannot see, but I heard the sound of the people running here’.
Now some of the people said, ‘it’s him!’ - pointing to the old man.
But the others said ‘no no no, we cannot kill him because you can see he’s an old man. And can you see the work that he has been busy doing here to dig out and cook all of these ûias? – it couldn’t be him that came to ≠An-guseb!’
Now when the others ran by Haiseb and his associate both changed back into men. And then Haiseb returned to his house and he said to his wife - ‘can you see, this is the meat of ≠An-guseb!’
And so, Haiseb is very clever!
In the heat of the day a distant mirage – fluffy white against red land – is spoken of as a flock of Haiseb’s sheep, evoking the elusiveness of both water and wealth in livestock in this arid landscape. Photo: Sian Sullivan, near Hunkab spring, February 2015.
Our exhibition closes with a story about Haiseb. This was told to Sian and Suro at Kai-as in November 2014, by Ruben Saunaeb Sanib – a formerly celebrated hunter who lived in Hurubes in the Palmwag tourism concession in west Namibia. Ruben left his audience convulsed in laughter at the combination of absurdity, cleverness and mystery distilled in the tale, which goes like this . . .