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Recollecting pasts in west Namibia, by Sian Sullivan

… remembering is not only welcoming, receiving an image of the past,
it is also searching for it, ‘doing’ something (Paul Ricoeur)[1]

It was when engaged with field research for my PhD in the mid-1990s that I first learned of local histories embedded in the broader landscape around the settlement of Sesfontein / !Nani|aus, north-west Namibia. This is an area known today for its spectacular landscapes and desert-adapted black rhino and elephant. It is a sought after tourism destination now catered for by luxury eco-lodges linked to locally-run conservancies. I have come to learn, however, that the landscapes described as ‘wilderness’ in tourism brochures advertising the area are also full of the traces of former dwelling places and the graves of known ancestors. People alive today are amongst those who lived at these places and who remember what they were like in times past.

I started recording oral histories in the area in 1999. The first of these interviews, on 15th April 1999, was with the grandmother of Welhemina Suro Ganuses, a ǂNūkhoe woman from Sesfontein who in 1994 became my companion and translator whilst carrying out ethnographic field research for my PhD. Suro continues to play a large collaborative role in Future Pasts research.


Suro’s grandmother, Philippine |Hairo ǁNowaxas, pictured below in 1999 outside her home in Sesfontein, opened her narrative by saying,

I was born at Sixori in Hurubes. We moved around and moved around.

My father was really from this place [Sesfontein] and my mother was from Hurubes, really she’s from Hurubes; she’s ||Khao-a Dama.

|Hairo then began to list various places she knew, saying,

This is Sixori, this is Tsaugugam, this is Oronguari, this is the home of Xoms, here is the field (!garob). I move to and sleep at the places where the rain falls, because the food is there.


|Hairo and several other people I worked with in the 1990s have since passed away. In the course of Future Pasts, however, Suro and I have been working back in west Namibia with those who remember past places in which they lived, so as to put these places ‘on the map’, as it were. In doing so, we are recovering and creating a record of place names, lived experiences and genealogies embedded in the landscape that disrupts some of the written archived narratives and maps associated with the area.

The late Philippine |Hairo ǁNowaxas, pictured outside her home in Sesfontein / !Nani|aus. Photo: Sian Sullivan, April 1999.

In the images below we have combined oral histories recorded on-site at remembered places with aerial images of the positioning of these places in the dramatic and diverse landscapes of west Namibia. At times returning to these places has been emotional. People are reminded of friends and relatives who have now passed on. And they remember assumed futures altered by broader historical processes that are not of their choosing.

Enacting tsē-khom at |Giribes

In May 1995, Nathan ǂÛina Taurob (R), Christophine Daumû Tauros (centre) and Michael |Amigu Ganaseb (L) took Sian and Suro to gather grass seeds from harvester ants nests in the plains known as |Giribes, north-west of the village of Sesfontein. On arrival at |Giribes (|girib = jackal), they enacted the practice of tsē-khom. In this practice, known ancestors and anonymous spirits of the dead are respectfully greeted and given gifts. They are requested to take care of the people as they move through and seek sustenance from these potent landscapes.

In the image above, ǂÛina, Daumû and |Amigu enact tsē-khom as they look across the |Giribes plains towards their home area of Purros in north-west Namibia.

Photo: Sian Sullivan, May 1995, composite made with Mike Hannis using four 10 x 10 km 2008 aerial photographs from the Directorate of Survey and Mapping, Windhoek.


At the permanent spring of Kai-as in the heart of the Palmwag tourism concession Ruben Sauneib Sanib (top left) and Sophia Obi |Awises (middle left) recalled how people from different areas used to gather at this place to play their healing dances called arus and praise songs called |gais. These were times when young men and women would meet each other. Times when different foods gathered in different areas were shared between the people. Dances through the night were supported by honey beer (!khari) made from the potent foods of sâui (Stipagrostis spp. grass seeds collected from harvester ants nests) and danib (honey).

On a different journey Franz ǁHoëb (bottom left) pointed out the exact place of his father’s hut where Franz himself had once lived.

The aerial photographs combined in the image above show the many animal tracks that converge on the permanent spring of Kai-as, including those of !nawab/s, the black rhino (Diceros bicornis bicornis). In the midst of these tracks are the traces of former dwellings, kraals, graves and the small gardens that were once fed by the clear waters of Kai-as.

Photos: Sian Sullivan, November 2014 and 2015, composite made with Mike Hannis using two 10 x 10 km aerial photographs from the Directorate of Survey and Mapping, Windhoek.


Andreas !Kharuxab, the former Damara / ǂNūkhoe headman of Kowareb village, stands with his family at their home close to the Hoanib River as it enters the incised valley of the Kowareb Schlucht.

Photo: Sian Sullivan, August 1992, composite made with Mike Hannis using four 10 x10 km aerial photographs from Directorate of Survey and Mapping, Windhoek.


Cousins Noag Mûgagara Ganaseb (L) and Franz |Haen ǁHoëb (R) revisit places in the westward reaches of the Hoanib River where they used to live. Here they are close to ǁOeb, now the site of an eco-tourism lodge called Hoanib Camp, located on the south side of the bend in the Hoanib River just to the right of centre in this image.

When Franz, Noag and their families lived in this area they would alternate between harvesting !nara (Acanthosicyos horridus) from their !nara fields near the waterhole of Auses / !Uiǁgams, and walking southwards to Kai-as and the !Uniab River where different foods as well as !nara could be found.

In the 1950s the coastal dunes were opened for diamond mining. Then in 1971 the lower Hoanib was gazetted as part of the Skeleton Coast National Park. As these areas became opened for industry and conservation, they became closed to habitation by those who once lived there.

Photo: Sian Sullivan, November 2015, composite made with Mike Hannis using three 10 x 10 km aerial images from Directorate of Survey and Mapping, Windhoek.


In November 2015 we made our way to the flat top mountain said to be the place where ǁKhao-a Dama originally came from. Standing behind Ruben Sauneib Sanib and Sophia Opi |Awises is the mountain called ǁKhao-as. It is also the prominent mountain rising from the aerial photograph image to their right. Today, ǁKhao-as is far from where people are living, and it had been a long time since Ruben and Sophia were able to see the mountain.

When we travelled to ǁKhao-as Sophia broke into an arus healing song telling of how the ǁKhao-a Dama lineage originated at ǁKhao-as mountain. The song that came forth in the moment of returning to the mountain can be heard here.

Photo: Sian Sullivan, November 2015, composite made with Mike Hannis using four 10 x 10 km aerial photographs from Directorate of Survey and Mapping, Windhoek.

Finding Sixori

Ruben Sauneib Sanib leads us past old dwelling structures of the |Awise family towards the clear permanent water of Sixori, a spring located in the folds of the hills just above the centre of the aerial photograph above and the birth-place of Suro’s grandmother |Hairo.

Sixori is named after the xoris (Salvadora persica) bushes that grow around a permanent spring of clear, sweet water and whose fruit provide a filling dry season food. This spring is located in the deeply incised landscape to the south-west of the village of Sesfontein. Finding it on a brutally hot day in March 2015 required triangulating the orientation skills of Ruben Sanib – who remembered Sixori from past visits – and Filemon |Nuab - a younger man and well-known rhino tracker, who knew from present patrols in the area the location of the spring, but had not previously known its name of ‘Sixori’.

As we sat in the shade of a rocky overhang close to the spring Sanib told us of harvesting honey (danib) in the past from a hive in the vicinity of Sixori. He was with Aukhoeb |Awiseb (also called ǁOesîb after his daughter ǁOemî), Seibetomab and Am-!nasib (also known as Kano). Aukhoeb was the brother of |Hairo's mother (Juligen ǁHūri |Awises). He was living at Sixori, and ǁHūri was visiting him when she gave birth to |Hairo, Suro's grandmother. The honey cave was west of Sixori. Sanib and companions travelled there to sam (to pull) the honey out from the hive, coming to Sixori afterwards to make sâu beer with that honey. From Sixori they walked back to Sesfontein through the pass that is called ǂAu-daos. At that time they didn’t have a donkey so they carried the honey in big tins on their shoulders.

As we were at the place where her grand-mother was born, Suro commented,

I said in my mind I will go and see where my grandmother is born.
And I have to tell also my children, and even the others who are not here and don’t know where my grandmother is born.
I will tell them that my grandmother was born here and there is water surrounded by Salvadoras.
So it is very wonderful, and I am very happy to be here because she is the one who taught me a lot of things - she is my hero!
I’m very happy to be here.

Photos: Sian Sullivan, March 2015, composite made with Mike Hannis using four 10 x 10 km aerial photographs  from Directorate of Survey and Mapping, Windhoek.

In the image right Suro Ganuses, Ezegiel |Awarab, Filemon |Nuab and Ruben Saunaeb Sanib (L to R) sit at Sixori spring, Palmwag tourism concession. Photo: Sian Sullivan, 14 March 2015.


[1]Ricoeur, P. 2004 Memory, History, Forgetting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 56.

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