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  • Sian Sullivan

Future Pasts exhibition curated in Namibia

Updated: Jun 18, 2020

Swakopmund residents from Sesfontein visit exhibition on 150619, Mike Hannis, Sian Sullivan & Welhemina Ganuses to left of image

Swakopmund residents from Sesfontein visiting our research exhibition on 15 June 2019. Back left are Future Pasts researchers Mike Hannis, Sian Sullivan & Welhemina Suro Ganuses.

In the first half of June 2019, Welhemina Suro Ganuses, Mike Hannis and I were able to make real our dream to show an exhibition of work from the Future Pasts research project in Namibia.

The Future Pasts project explores how ideas and assumptions about the past – particularly about past relationships between people and the natural world – shape the futures being created now in pursuit of ‘sustainability’. It engages with the interplay of resource extraction, conservation and tourism as these unfold in diverse cultural landscapes that are also home to valued (and endangered) animal and plant species. Our academic contributors draw on an overlapping range of disciplinary approaches to explore these themes: environmental anthropology (Sian Sullivan), environmental ethics (Mike Hannis), ethnomusicology (Angela Impey), medical anthropology (Chris Low) and environmental history (Rick Rohde).

First curated at Gallery 44AD in Bath in July-August 2017, the exhibition Future Pasts: Landscape, Memory and Music in West Namibia journeys through a series of themes we have explored in our research: place, music, healing, change, landscape, memory, mining, and lastly "Haiseb" - the complex Damara / ≠Nūkhoen[1] ancestor-hero-trickster character whose mythical antics remind us of the mysterious and unpredictable, as well as the often unfathomable and funny, natures of existence.

The images below and here give some idea of how we set out the exhibition in the Oyetu ('it's ours') Hall at COSDEF Community Arts Venue in Swakopmund from 5-15 June 2019.


The exhibition opened on 5th June with an evening launch party . . .

Two emphases of the Future Pasts research project have been to:

1) document some of the pressures experienced by especially Khoekhoegowab[2]-speaking Damara / ≠Nūkhoen inhabitants of west Namibia that have often resulted in their marginalisation with regard to land and resources;

and 2) support intangible cultural heritage practices relating especially to identity, place, and the natural and supernatural worlds.

A highlight of our launch, therefore, was an exciting set of performances of |gais praise song-dances by the |Haihāb Cultural Group from Swakopmund, followed by a series of acapella songs led by visitors from Sesfontein / !Nani|aus in north-west Namibia who are now resident in Swakopmund.

Performance of |gais song-dances by the |Haihāb Cultural Group (for bookings in Namibia please contact Secretary Elly Ta≠gaite on 081 285 7898 / tagaite7 @ or Chairman David |Nuseb on 081 255 2077 / dmtnuseb @

An historical detour to the past world of the Damara 'outlaw' |Haihāb[3]

The |Haihāb Cultural Group is named after a locally famous Damara / ≠Nūkhoen man who evaded and resisted German colonial advance in the early 1900s. Named after his grey (|hai) horse (hāb), |Haihāb ||Guruseb became an outlaw in the Khan [≠Khanni] River and Usakos [!Ūsa!khōs] areas to the east of Swakopmund. He was a son of Abraham ||Guruseb, a chief (gao-aob) in the vicinity of the striking table-topped mountain the Gamsberg [≠Gans] in the upper reaches of the !Khuiseb River, who ‘for some unknown reason had had to leave that area for the area near |Â≠gommes (Okombahe)’.

It is tempting to consider the possibility that Abraham ||Guruseb and associates were connected with the 'Hill Damara' village encountered only a handful of decades earlier by the British Captain James Edward Alexander. In his narrative Alexander writes of Hill Damara living autonomously in the foothills of the "'Tans mountain", carrying bows, spears and the spoils of hunting, their dwellings containing conical clay pots in every hut. He describes their dances and healing practices, noting that the men dance ‘with springbok horns bound on their foreheads’.[4]

(L) A 'Hill Damara' village in foothills of the table-topped 'Tans [≠Gans] Mountain, as sketched in the 1830s narrative by British Captain James Edward Alexander[4]; (R) the Gamsberg white-owned commercial farming area as it is today (photo by Sian Sullivan, 8 March 2014).

The years immediately following Alexander's travels saw many disruptions in this area: the expanding sphere of influence of the ambitious Oorlam Nama[5] leader Jonker Afrikaner; increasing European intrusion into the interior of the territory and the opening up and defence of trade routes; and escalating conflict between Herero and Nama pastoralists as they vied for the rich grazing lands of the central highlands. It is likely that this combination of pressures increasingly pushed 'Hill Damara' / ≠Nūkhoen out of the hilly terrain of the upper !Khuiseb: leading both to Abraham ||Guruseb's relocation northwards, and to his son |Haihāb's antipathy towards those considered to be invaders into territory previously lived in and moved through by ≠Nūkhoen.

In any case, from the late 1800s it was already being reported that 'a small band of marauders' were making the district of Otjimbingwe unsafe for the European settlers who had in turn had made the area unsafe for its prior inhabitants. The disruption caused by |Haihāb and followers to consolidating colonial ox-wagon transport and cattle stock-posts led to a price of 500 Marks being placed on |Haihāb's head by 1901 (and 100 Mark for each of his proven allies). A local German newspaper published suggestions that Africans – specifically the Oorlam Nama Witboois – should be hired to ‘assist in the hunt for |Haihāb’.

By early 1903, |Haihāb's activities had reached as far as the German colonial authorities in Berlin, leading to a request to the imperial government in Windhoek 'to terminate the robberies through appropriate action’. In May 1903, German colonial Governor Theodor Leutwein approached Captain !Nanseb Hendrik Witbooi in Gibeon for the supply of horsemen to search for |Haihāb.

The commando based itself at Aukas / Aukhās - an outspan on the Khan River some 16km south-west of Usakos. They found footprints of |Haihāb’s ‘gang’ at various locations in this rugged terrain. At Charadeb waterhole they startled a group who took flight, at which point Lieutenant Müller von Berneck ordered his men “to fire on the fleeing”, killing several, including a woman and a boy. The tough and ‘extremely shrewd’ |Haihāb was eventually shot on 30 September 1903 ‘in the area between the Khan River and the Chuos mountains’. His hand was reportedly cut off at the wrist for presenting to the authorities.

|Haihāb's sphere of influence, late 1800s - 1903

Map showing |Haihāb ||Guruseb's sphere of influence from the late 1800s to his death at the hands of the German colonial authorities and collaborating Witbooi troopers in 1903. A fully referenced and annotated map can be viewed here, drawing heavily on Haacke, W. 2010 The hunt for the Damara |Haihāb in 1903: contemporary oral testimony. Journal of Namibian Studies 8: 7-25.

In our exhibition the striking landscape of the Khan River in which this |Haihāb history unfolds features in one of our sets of repeat landscape photographs, collated by Future Pasts researcher Rick Rohde. The images show change in the biophysical and built environment at specific places throughout west Namibia. At the Khan River local inhabitants at the railway station built as the German colonial regime gained territorial control are clearly visible in an archival photograph from 1906. No traces of the railway station remain in the present, the site now dominated by a new road-bridge built to service Husab Uranium Mine, owned by the China General Nuclear Power Group.

Khan River

Left - Khan River Bahn Station, 1906 (F. Lange) - two Damara women with children posing in the dry riverbed with the Khan Railway Station in the background. This narrow gauge railway was the first rail link between Swakopmund and Windhoek, built under German Colonial rule between 1897 and 1902.

Right - Khan River Bridge, 2016 (R. Rohde, E. Erb & M.T. Hoffman) - by 2016 all traces of the original German railway have disappeared and been replaced by the private Khan Road Bridge. Built in 2015, the bridge was constructed to access and develop the new Husab Uranium Mine, owned by the China General Nuclear Power Group.

These repeat photographs taken of the Khan River in the Namib Desert illustrate the apparent lack of change in the river’s ecology in contrast to the changing political and economic development under colonial and neoliberal contexts.

On visiting our exhibition the Chairman of the |Haihāb Cultural Group, David |Nuseb, wrote of the importance of documenting especially the stories and knowledge of senior people in the Damara / ≠Nūkhoen community, urging that this 'wonderful work' may continue.


We were delighted that several representatives of two of our partner organisations - Save the Rhino Trust and Gobabeb Namib Research Institute - were able to visit the exhibition. Gobabeb's Research Manager Eugène Marais wrote of how much he appreciated how the exhibition shares 'stories, memories and knowledge of the people that inhabit the spaces that we so often pass through and know so little about'. Jeff Muntifering, Science Advisor to Save the Rhino Trust, wrote that the exhibition encompasses a 'very inspiring collection of stories & song - so worth preserving!' Basilia Shivute of IRDNC (Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation) shared how the exhibition made her feel 'proud of our national cultural heritage' and specifically thanked Welhemina Suro Ganuses - Future Pasts Namibian research collaborator from Sesfontein - for 'being our ambassador'.

Some visitors were Namibian residents or tourists to the country who heard about the exhibition through word of mouth:

'A most informative exhibition showing survival of indigenous people in a harsh, yet so beautiful landscape! Memories of these peoples are collected and displayed, which is very important for the memories of Namibians' (Swakopmund resident)

'Super-interesting exhibition - it's great to see the changes that took place across these different themes. The situations of change from various sources is really awesome to see' (Tourist from Edinburgh, Scotland)

In the second week of the exhibition, around 200 students from two Swakopmund High Schools braved the dramatic seasonal east wind to visit the exhibition.

Sesfontein / !Nani|aus

A personal highpoint of the exhibition was being able to share our research with young people from families in Sesfontein I have known over the last 25 years. Many of the younger people in these families have sought work and opportunities in the coastal town of Swakopmund, but their circumstances remain precarious and their options limited.

Ganuses and Tauros homes in Sesfontein in north-west Namibia (1995) and the informal settlement of 'DRC' (Democratic Resettlement Community) in Swakopmund where many of the young people from these families now live (2018). (Photos by Sian Sullivan).

They spoke with enthusiasm at seeing stories and knowledge of senior members in their families represented in the oral history / 'memory' section of the exhibition, and of how much they valued seeing images of people they know. As Jansen Taurob from Sesfontein wrote in our comments book,

I or rather we are so grateful that Sian and partners have over the years continued with the FUTURE PASTS project. The project brings to life and revives the the culture, traditions and memories of our people's untold land. It is a documentation of our peoples rich history. The residents of the north west Namibia through this project have the opportunity to tell their stories/history and how they were affected by changes and how they face the future.

A few weeks ago you took my aunt Julia Tauros on a trip to Purros, the place of her birth and burial site of her grand-mother. She told me how she felt by saying "I am so happy to have gone back and seen our father's dwelling place and burial site of my ancestors. Now I am happy. Even if I die I will die a happy person". Jansen Taurob (Purros-damab) Namibia.


Many thanks to Jessica le Grangé, Michelle ||Inixas and all the staff at COSDEF for hosting our exhibition with so much generosity and enthusiasm! We gratefully acknowledge the support of the UK's Arts and Humanities Research Council, Bath Spa University, the National Museum of Namibia, Gobabeb Namib Research Institute and Save the Rhino Trust in preparing and curating the exhibition. Most importantly, thank you, kai aios, to everyone who has been involved with Future Pasts research. I hope we have done some justice to the memories and experiences you have shared.


The exhibition Future Pasts: Landscape, Memory and Music in West Namibia is fully transportable and we are potentially interested in bookings in galleries or other spaces. Please email futurepastscontact @ with any enquiries.

The exhibition is accompanied by an explanatory booklet that is free to download here.

Our visitors' comments book for the COSDEF exhibition is viewable here.

Follow us on social media! Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

To book the |Haihāb Cultural Group, contact

Secretary Elly Ta≠gaite on 081 285 7898 / tagaite7 @

Chairman David |Nuseb on 081 255 2077 / dmtnuseb @


[1] So-called Damara Khoekhoegowab-speaking people refer to themselves as ≠Nūkhoen, meaning literally ‘black’ or ‘real’ people and thus distinguished from Nau khoen or ‘other people’. Historically, the ethnonym ‘Dama-ra’ is based on an ‘exonym’, i.e. an external name for a group of people. It is derived from the name ‘Dama’ given by Nama for ‘black-skinned people’ generally (with ‘ra’ ‘referring to either third person feminine or common gender plural’). See Haacke, W.H.G. 2018 Khoekhoegowab (Nama/Damara), pp. 133-158 in Kamusella, T. and Ndhlovu, F. (eds.) The Social and Political History of Southern Africa’s Languages, London, Palgrave Macmillan, p. 140; also Sullivan, S. and Ganuses, W.S. 2020 Understanding Damara / ≠Nūkhoen and ||Ubun indigeneity and marginalisation in Namibia, pp. 283-324 in Odendaal, W. and Werner, W. (eds.) ‘Neither Here Nor There’: Indigeneity, Marginalisation and Land Rights in Post-independence Namibia. Windhoek: Land, Environment and Development Project, Legal Assistance Centre.

[2] Shortly after Namibia's independence in 1990, the glossonym (language name) and former endonym (the name speakers use for their own language) ‘Khoekhoegowab’ was ‘officially reintroduced for the language that had become known as "Nama" or "Nama/Damara", a dialect continuum with Nama as southernmost and Damara, Hai||om and ≠Aakhoe as northernmost dialect clusters’. Khoekhoegowab ‘is the sole surviving language of the Khoekhoe branch of the Khoe family’ (Haacke op cit., pp. 133-134). The symbols |, ||, ! and ≠ in Khoekhoegowab words indicate consonants that sound like clicks, as follows: | = the ‘tutting’ sound made by bringing the tongue softly down from behind front teeth (dental click); || = the clucking sound familiar in urging on a horse (lateral click); ! = a popping sound like mimicking the pulling of a cork from a wine bottle (palatal click); ≠ = a sharp, explosive click made as the tongue is flattened and then pulled back from the palate (alveolar-palatal click).

[3] This section draws heavily on Haacke, W. 2010 The hunt for the Damara |Haihāb in 1903: contemporary oral testimony. Journal of Namibian Studies 8: 7-25.

[4] Alexander, J.E. 2006(1938) An Expedition of Discovery into the Interior of Africa: Through the Hitherto Undescribed Countries of the Great Namaquas, Boschmans, and Hill Damaras, Vols..1 and 2. Elibron Classics Series, orig. published by London: Henry Colburn, Vol. 2, pp. 135-138.

[5] Oorlam Nama = people with variously 'mixed Khoesan and slave descent, acculturated to the Dutch settler way of life, and having horses, guns, and the Bible' who moved northwards into Namibia as the Cape Colony frontier expanded and asserted dominance over local Khoe, including Dama / ≠Nūkhoen (Kinahan, Jill 2017 No need to hear your voice, when I can talk about you better than you can speak about yourself…’ Discourses on knowledge and power in the !Khuiseb Delta on the Namib Coast, 1780-2016 CE. International Journal of Historical Archaeology 21(2): 295-320, p. 303, after Penn, N. 2005 The Forgotten Frontier: Colonist and Khoisan on the Cape’s Northern Frontier in the Eighteenth Century. Athens: Ohio University Press, pp. 200, 217, and especially Lau, B. 1987 Namibia in Jonker Afrikaner’s Time. Windhoek: Archeia 8, National Archives of Namibia).

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