Tracking Haiseb in west Namibia
Updated: Mar 4
Perhaps it should be unsurprising that tracking such a slippery character as ‘Haiseb’ is proving less straightforward than I initially imagined.
Scholars typically describe Haiseb as a culture hero or trickster folklore figure found among the Nama, Damara and Hai||om that overlaps strongly with wider Bushmen trickster figures from across southern Africa. These trickster figures range from |Kaggen of the nineteenth century |Xam of South Africa, to Huwe and Haiseb of contemporary Khoe and !Xun Bushmen of northern Namibia.
Of the numerous scholars of the Khoekhoe and Bushmen (often linked as a spectrum of peoples known as ‘KhoeSan’) who have written about Haiseb, Sigrid Schmidt stands out for the extent and detail of her work, particularly so in relation to the folklore of the Nama and Damara. Schmidt’s long-term research has involved cataloguing and analysing folktales of the Khoekhoe and Bushmen. In a recent paper Schmidt has additionally assembled an impressive body of references to what are known as Haiseb ‘graves’. It was these ‘graves’ that I initially sought to find in field research for Future Pasts.
Since the earliest colonial records of southern Africa, European observers have mentioned how Khoekhoe herders made offerings at cairn-like piles of stones that are found all over southern Africa and particularly in the Northern Cape and up into Kaokoland. European travellers moving through these areas came to know these mounds as Heitsi Eibebs or, more accurately, Haitsi Aibeb ‘graves’.
The name Heitsi Eibeb is less common now than it once was. Most Damara and Hai||om, among whom the tradition remains the strongest, use an equivalent name 'Haiseb' that is also of long standing. Colonial accounts describe the Khoekhoe as believing that Haitsi Aibeb was buried in these graves, but because he came to life again his body never remained in any one stone pile. The many piles of stones found across the landscape thus reflected his many episodes of death and rebirth.
The association of Haiseb with the cyclical essence of life and death ties strongly with wider Haiseb folklore tales that deal with themes at the heart of creation and the proper order of the world. Schmidt, however, is keen to point out that the Haiseb ‘graves’ say more about the mutable character of the trickster who was not really dead and hence could climb from his temporary grave, than Haiseb’s ‘real’ death and resurrection. This caveat notwithstanding, creation and death remain key Haiseb themes. It is, for example, Haiseb who asserts the current order in the world by bringing the first fire from the Ostrich to the people. It is also Haiseb who performs disgusting acts, including murder, that, in going beyond acceptable behaviour, help define and sustain moral order. It is Haiseb who defeats other well known folklore enemies whose presence haunts the KhoeSan landscape, such as ǂGâǂgorib, who pushes people to death into holes. In a very meaningful way, Haiseb epitomizes an incomplete movement from a primal time of ‘First Order Creation’, when animals were people, to ‘Second Order Creation’, when the animals and people became ordered as distinct. Haiseb brings life and fire and his activities precipitate human society. His death is framed sometimes as an event to be celebrated because the land becomes free of his power and the world becomes more familiar and predictable. In other moments, his actions are celebrated as saving and protecting people from situations of conflict and confusion.
On the back of Schmidt’s references and my own research on Haiseb stone cairns, my initial plan was quite straightforward: travel to north-west Namibia and undertake a thorough geographical and oral history survey of the Haiseb ‘graves’. I wished to record their precise location, note their structure, composition, size and orientation, relative to the physical and celestial environment and record in film and sound as many local accounts of each mound as I could. I would then plot these graves onto an interactive media rich web map. I envisaged that this map would enable some interpretation regarding the relationship of these mounds to local ways of being in the landscape and that accurate plotting of these mounds might reveal how they relate to movement across the landscape, or possibly wider zoological, geographical or astronomical patterns. By digitally embedding local accounts of these mounds into the map, I wished to draw out the nature and consistency of beliefs surrounding these mounds and trace possible shifts in beliefs over time. More broadly, I wanted to capture the presence of these mounds before they literally disappear into the landscape amidst ongoing road construction that typifies the region, whilst wondering how a wider story of changing relationships with landscape might be played out in the shifting beliefs surrounding these mounds.
After some time devoted to tracking Haiseb cairns in the Brandberg and wider regions of western Namiba, it became clear to me that the initial ambition of the project underestimated the difficulty of finding stone cairns that local people clearly identified as Haiseb mounds. Whilst finding piles of stones that were made by people was relatively easy, linking these to local beliefs proved difficult. The stones in the image to the left, for example, were piled up ready to be thrown under the wheels of cars stuck in sodden sand. In the next image it is hard to tell whether or not these stones are due to road construction, or if they are a grave or perhaps a Haiseb cairn. Input from local people is essential for determining the significance of a pile of stones.
Moreover, it is far from easy distinguishing between stones piled up during the construction of roads, from piles that might be unmarked graves or ‘cairns’ of some other significance. When local people did respond to my enquiries about potential ‘cairns’, few people linked these to Haiseb, and when they did make this link virtually no one could say any more than ‘this is a Haiseb mound’. In summary, plotting Haiseb cairns proved more time consuming than I was able to commit to. In other aspects of Future Pasts research, however, place-based oral histories recorded by colleague Sian Sullivan that document childhood memories for people who used to live in some of the most westerly reaches of the region (now the Palmwag Tourism Concession) have connected Haiseb and associated stories directly with a number cairns in these areas, as located in the map of west Namibia below.
Asking about Haiseb has thus not been fruitless and many local people have been kind enough to share their knowledge and embark on cooperative projects. Through these endeavours Future Pasts is helping to record local history whilst generating a range of resources that we hope will support community desires to recover and recollect perspectives on values, practices and events in the past. Future Pasts will continue to explore broad Haiseb relationships with the landscape and to utilise internet and digital media possibilities in sharing performative and embodied dimensions of Haiseb story-telling.
This short film gives some indication of possibilities . . .
Haiseb songs and stories are explored more fully in this website.