‘Our hearts were happy here’ - recollecting acts of dwelling and acts of clearance through oral hist
Updated: 20 hours ago
It was when doing 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. But I have come to learn 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. And that people alive today were 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. I borrowed an old cassette recorder from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London where I was then working, recording some 885 minutes of oral history interviews with Damara / ≠Nūkhoen individuals known to me through my PhD research. These individuals lived throughout the former Namibian ‘homeland’ of ‘Damaraland’: in Sesfontein / !Nani|aus; on redistributed former Afrikaans settler farms near the Aba-||Huab river; and in settlements along the !U≠gāb river.
‘I was born in Sixori in Hurubes’
The first of these interviews, on 15th April 1999, was with the grandmother of Welhemina Suro Ganuses, a ≠Nūkhoen woman from Sesfontein who in 1994 had become my companion and translator whilst carrying out ethnographic field research for my PhD.
Pictured here in 1999 outside her home in Sesfontein, Philippine |Hairo ||Nowaxas, opened her narrative by saying,
‘I was born at Sixori in Hurubes’.
She went on to say,
‘We moved around and moved around. My father was really from this place [!Nani|aus] and my mother was from Hurubes, really she’s from Hurubes; she’s ||Khao-a Dama.’
And she began to list various places 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.’
I have now studied multiple maps from the German colonial rule of Namibia that started formally in 1884, until the present time. None of these named places and land areas appear on any printed map I have seen of the area. It is as if these personal histories and experiences simply do not exist in formal representations of the territory. But they are known and spoken about locally. They linger in the memories of now elderly people dwelling in settlements to which they became constrained after being cleared from this mountainous corner of west Namibia.
In recent decades these clearances have been enacted for several reasons:
* to periodically create a livestock-free zone north of the veterinary fence that dissects Namibia from east to west, so as to control the movement of animals from communal areas in the north to settler commercial farming areas in the south;
* to make available relief grazing under Namibia’s South African administration, which went mostly to Afrikaans livestock farmers in the 1950s;
* in the course of extending the boundary of Etosha National Park westwards to the coast from 1958 to 1967, when the boundary followed the Hoanib River in the north and the Ugab River in the south (see map below) (from 1967-1970 the southern boundary moved northwards to between the !Uniab and Koigab rivers, before the western park boundary assumed its present position);
* and in the 1970s in the course of enacting the Odendaal plan for establishing ‘Homeland’ areas for different Namibian ethnic groups. At this time, the 'Damaraland Homeland' was created, providing re-settlement opportunities for many Damara / ≠Nūkhoen in other parts of Namibia. In the southern parts of the Homeland territory in particular, surveyed farms that had been settled by predominantly Afrikaans settler farmers were 'communalised' (i.e. turned into communal land) through their (re)allocation to ≠Nūkhoen herders. Simultaneously, however, much of the land areas (!hūs) known as ≠Khari ||Hurubes, !Nau ||Hurubes, Aogubus, and Namib (see map below) became consolidated as a wildlife hunting, and then tourism, concession known as Palmwag. At this time, ||Khao-a Dama of ≠Khari ||Hurubes were mostly consolidated in the northern settlements of Sesfontein / !Nani|aus, Anabeb, Warmquelle and Kowareb. Dâure-Dama of the more southerly !Nau ||Hurubes concentrated mostly in the vicinity of the Ugab River to the south of the concession.
People were understandably reluctant to leave places they considered home. Some oral histories indicate that coercion accompanied this movement. In November 2014 I sat at the waterhole of ≠Habaka, now in the Palmwag concession, with Ruben Saunaeib Sanib, a formerly renowned hunter of the |Awise ||Khao-a Damara family associated with ||Hurubes and surrounding areas.
'The government said this is now the wildlife area and you cannot move in here. We had to move to the other side of the mountains - to Tsabididi [the area also known today as Mbakondja]. Ok, now government police from Kamanjab and Fransfontein told the people to move from here. And the people move some of the cattles already to Sesfontein area, but they leave some of the cattles [for the people still in Hurubes and Aogubus] to drink the milk. Those are the cattles the government came and shot to make the people move.'
Some of these cattle belonged to an elder (or 'grandfather') of Ruben called Sabuemib:
'And Sabuemib took one of the bulls into a cave and he shot it there with a bow and arrow [so that they would at least be able to eat the meat and prevent the animal being killed by the authorities]. Other cattle were collected together with those of Hereros [also herding in the area] and were shot by the government people at Gomagorras [named after the word goman for cattle and located in the hills south of Tsabididi]. Some of Sabuemib's cattle were killed in this way.'
‘Our hearts were happy here’
|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.
This on-site oral history research will always be incomplete and partial. Nonetheless, it is enabling the mapping of remembered places and associated names through GPS logging of coordinates, as indicated in the map below.
Returning to the traces of particular dwelling structures as well as of graves at many of these remembered places stimulates memories for those who once lived there. 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.
At the permanent clear waters of Kai-as spring in November 2014 Sanib and Sophia Obi |Awises 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. And when much honey beer (!khari), made from the potent foods of sâui (Stipagrostis spp. grass seeds collected from harvester ants nests) and danib (honey), was consumed.
As Sanib and Sophia described:
'our hearts were happy here' (Sida ≠gaogu ge ra !gaia neba).
This on-site oral history research is being complemented and extended so as to more explicitly connect and juxtapose these oral histories with a range of written and recorded archival sources. New historiography for the area also provides insights into past land use and indigenous presence in west Namibia.
The General Kaokoveld Report and accompanying map by Major Charles John Manning in November 1917 as well as Manning’s follow-on report of 1919, for example, suggests connections between families encountered by Manning and their elderly descendants in the area today.
Two ||Ubun individuals - cousins Franz |Haen ||Hoëb and Noag Mûgagara Ganaseb, in the image opening this blog - thus have spoken in recorded interviews of living in the past in the westward reaches of the Hoanib River, and of moving southwards from there to Kai-as and the !Uniab River.
In November 2015, we travelled together down the Hoanib River to locations marked on the map sketched by Manning, recording information about a number of former dwelling places and other key sites on the way to Möwe Bay on the coast. Notable are the !nara (Acanthosicyos horridus) plants near the waterhole of Auses / !Ui||gams whose melon fruits were once harvested under careful management and ownership structures. In the 1950s the coastal dunes were opened for diamond mining and 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 dwelled there.
To return to Sixori, the place mentioned above of Suro's grandmother's birth. After several false starts we eventually made it to the spring Sixori that in 1999 started this thread of enquiry.
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 Sesfontein. Finding it on a brutally hot day in March 2015 required triangulating the orientation skills of 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 known its name of 'Sixori'.
As we sat in the shade of a rocky overhang close to the spring Ruben Sanib told us of harvesting honey from a hive in the vicinity of Sixori. He was with Aukhoeb |Awiseb (also called ||Oesîb after his daughter ||Oemî), Seibetomab and Am-!nasib (also known as Kano). Aukhoeb was the brother of |Hairo's mother (Juligen ||Hūri |Awises). He was living at Sixori, and ||Hūri 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 ≠Au-daos. At that time they didn’t have a donkey so they carried the honey in big tins on their shoulders.
Returning to these places stimulates memories of practices, people and events, providing a window into how people lived here in the past. It can also be eye-opening for people in the present.
To give the last word to Suro - as we were at the place where her grand-mother was born, she 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.'
The field research on which this blog article is based was conducted with Welhemina Suro Ganuses (Save the Rhino Trust Namibia) as well as Rhino Ranger Filemon |Nuab who was our field guide for all the cultural mapping journeys drawn on herein. I am grateful to the National Museum of Namibia for a Research Affiliation contract, and to the Ministry of Environment and Tourism for research permits connected with the project 'The significance of the Namib Desert endemic !nara (Acanthosicyos horridus) as a keystone species in ecology, phenology, culture and horticultural potential', led from Gobabeb Namib Research Institute (permits 2023/2015; 2190/2016; 2311/2017). The research has also been supported by the Sesfontein Conservancy, the Namidaman Traditional Authority and the manager of Palmwag Lodge, Kapoi Kasaona. I am grateful to everyone involved for their assistance. A slightly amended version of this post also appears on the website for the AHRC Care for the Future and LABEX Past in the Present project Disrupted Histories, Recovered Pasts - see https://dsrupdhist.hypotheses.org/227.
Disclaimer: (Re)inscribing place names is, of course, a political act, given a complex context of historically overlapping claims to land, as well as the links between acts of ‘naming’ and acts of ‘claiming’ where land is concerned. An additional politics not emphasised here relates to overlapping and contested ≠Nūkhoen and ovaHerero claiming of land and pastures, in a context wherein Herero historically both lost access to immense tracts of land into which they were expanding, and deploy naming through praise songs (sing. omitandu; pl. omutandu) as one means of claiming places and spaces . Contemporary processes of land redistribution in Namibia are additionally shaped by contentious claims for historical and ancestral restitution. The information shared in this post is intended to report on oral history research as it is documenting childhood memories of times past, before this information is lost to the future. This research is not being conducted with any links to groups concerned with a politics of restitution in Namibia.
 In this context, so-called Damara Khoe-speaking people tend to refer to themselves as ≠Nūkhoen, meaning literally ‘black’ or ‘real’ people and thus distinguished from Nau khoen or ‘other people’ (fieldnotes).  As documented in Miescher, G. 2012 Namibia’s Red Line: The History of a Veterinary and Settlement Border. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.  As documented in Kambatuku, J. 1996 Historical profile of farms in former Damaraland: notes from the archival files. DRFN Occasional Paper 4.
 As documented in detail in Sullivan, S. 1996 The ‘Communalization’ of Former Commercial Farmland: Perspectives From Damaraland and Implications for Land Reform. Windhoek: Social Sciences Division of the Multidisciplinary Research Centre, University of Namibia, Research Report 25.  Bob Hitchcock and colleagues record similar reports for the northern British Protectorate Crown Lands of Botswana in the late 1940s, describing the purposeful shooting by camel-mounted police of domestic livestock belonging to Tshwa Bushmen (Hitchcock, R.K., Acheson-Brown, D., Self, E. and Kelly, M.C. 2017 Disappearance and displacement: the San, the Bamangwato, and the British in the Bechuanaland Protectorate, 1943-1945. South African Historical Journal 69(4): 548-567).  Officially the language is referred to as Khoekhoegowab. When speaking with people locally, however, they tend to refer to the language by the autonym ‘≠Nūkhoen’, hence this usage here. The Dâure Daman Traditional Authority also refers to the ‘Dâure Daman regional dialect of Khoekhoegowab’ as ‘≠Nūkhoegowab’ (see Dâure Daman Traditional Authority 2013 The Dâure Daman Traditional Authority / Dâure Daman di !Hoa!nasi ≠Gae≠guis, pp. 184–215 in Hinz, M.O. and Gairiseb, A. (eds.) Customary Law Ascertained Volume 2: The Customary Law of the Bakgalagari, Batswana and Damara Communities of Namibia. Windhoek: University of Namibia Press, p. 200).  Especially relevant are Miescher, 2012 op. cit. and Rizzo, L. 2012 Gender and Colonialism: A History of North-western Namibia. Basle: BAB).
 National Archives of Namibia (NAN) ADM 156 W 32.
 Hoffman, A. 2009c Finding words (of anger), pp. 115–143 in Hoffman, A. (ed.) What We See: Reconsidering an Anthropometrical Collection from Southern Africa – Images, Voices and Versioning. Basle: Basler Afrika Bibliographien, p. 117.