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  • Writer's pictureSian Sullivan

Future Pasts scholarship is praised by Damara traditional leader in Namibia

Updated: Nov 20, 2020

Sian Sullivan (L) and Welhemina Suro Ganuses (R) at Suro's farm !Naodâis in north-west Namibia.

Future Pasts Principal Investigator Sian Sullivan and local Namibian collaborator Welhemina Suro Ganuses have received a letter from Gaob (King) Justus ||Garoëb praising their research in Namibia.

Gaob ||Garoëb, recognised paramount traditional leader of Damara / ≠Nūkhoen, writes in his letter of 10 November 2020,

It is with so much gratitude that I am writing this little note of appreciation on research done by Bath Spa University and particularly by Professor Sullivan and team over the years.

gives us hope that our history and customs will be written down and shared with future generations to come. I could see that work of Prof. Sullivan even went deep into archives to retrieve archived documents and such efforts are well-received by our people with highest appreciation and royal order.

Our chapter builds on two main sources of data.

On-site oral histories

The first dataset is a collection of on-site oral histories gathered through journeys with now elderly people to places significant to them in the past, but which they are unable to access today. This process of on-site oral history began by relocating places named in earlier oral history research where access is now restricted because they are in areas claimed historically for mining, commercial farming, conservation and tourism.

An example is the spring Sixori, birth-place of Suro’s grandmother Philippine |Hairo ||Nowaxas. This place kickstarted our mapping research when |Hairo began the first oral history interview we recorded in 1999 with the words “I was born at Sixori in Hurubes.” Neither of these names appear(ed) on maps of the area. After several failed attempts to relocate Sixori we eventually found it in March 2015.

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

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. The spring is located in the deeply incised landscape to the south-west of Sesfontein on the Hoanib River.

Finding Sixori on a brutally hot day in March 2015 required triangulating the orientation skills of two men: Ruben Sanib, an elderly man 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 Ruben Sanib recalled harvesting honey (danib) from a hive in the vicinity of Sixori when he was much younger. He was with three older men, one of which, Aukhoeb |Awiseb, was the brother of |Hairo’s mother (Juligen ||Hūri |Awises) who was visiting him when she gave birth to |Hairo, Suro’s grandmother, in around 1910.

Sixori was one of the places we sought to convey in a series of images created on the theme of "memory" for an exhibition created from Future Pasts research. The images combine oral histories recorded at remembered places with high resolution aerial photographs, to invoke the simultaneous intimacy and 'wildness' of these known landscapes of west Namibia.

Through Future Pasts, dozens of places of past cultural significance in west Namibia have now been relocated. This ‘counter-mapping’ research has formed the basis for reporting to the Namidaman Traditional Authority (TA) in north-west Namibia and has been mobilised as part of this TA’s submission to an Ancestral Land Commission established by the Namibian government in 2019.

Historical research

The second dataset drawn on in the chapter acknowledged by Gaob ||Garoëb is built from a process of mapping historical references to the presence of ≠Nūkhoen throughout the territory now known as Namibia. This spatialising of historical documentation emerged as an attempt to understand in detail the highly disrupted circumstances of the 1800s and 1900s, as landscapes inhabited by ≠Nūkhoen and others became subjected to different layers of colonisation.

Each placemark on the map below includes documented historical information from texts written mostly by European men who were hunters, traders, missionaries, settlers and colonial administrators in the territory from the late 1700s onwards. The documentation needs to be read critically for the projections and prejudices with which it is often imbued. Nonetheless, the texts also can draw into awareness circumstances that were radically disrupted from especially the early 1900s onwards.

Contemporary Namibia remains shaped by the land appropriations that intensified in the wake of a genocidal colonial war concentrated in 1904-1907, preceded by multiple acts of resistance by indigenous peoples throughout the territory. The concentrated trauma of colonialism and the ensuing apartheid administration mean that archive and oral history research can sometimes offer powerful counter-points to assumed understandings about peoples' pasts.


Archive and oral history research for Future Pasts (as well as the Disrupted Histories, Recovered Pasts project) is carried out in a spirit of acknowledging the historical privilege of working across a 'north-south axis' by collaborating to mobilise skills and resources that support marginalised voices and experiences. It is thus encouraging to be validated in our approach by these words of Gaob ||Garoëb:

Our people are very excited and for an old leader of 77 years, professionally researched work gives us better hope. Many of us researched and know a lot about our history and customs, but never found time to write. It is against this background that I am thanking you very much for your interest and love for our people, language and in-depth research conducted about this forgotten ≠Nūkhoen/Damara people ... Please continue with the extraordinary and formidable work.

Gaob Justus ǀUruhe ǁGaroëb, paramount traditional leader and King of the Damara / ≠Nūkhoen Nation in Namibia. Source: 2016 photo by R I Gaob Kawango,, accessed 16 November 2020

Notes Suro and Sian first met in Sesfontein, north-west Namibia, in 1994. We have worked together on and off since then. We are especially grateful to the National Museum of Namibia, Save the Rhino Trust, the Namidaman Traditional Authority, Gobabeb Namib Research Institute, Sesfontein Conservancy and the Legal Assistance Centre for supporting our research.

Many of the Khoekhoegowab words above include the symbols |, ||, ! and ≠. These symbols indicate consonants that sound like clicks and which characterise the languages of Khoe and San peoples who live(d) throughout southern Africa: | = 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).

In 2016-2017 the Future Pasts research project made a film about the annual Damara King's Festival featuring Gaob ||Garoëb that was shortlisted for the 2017 Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Research in Film Awards (category 'Mobilising Global Voices'). The film ‘The Damara King’s Festival’ was made in collaboration with Namibian film organisation Mamokobo, the Damara King’s Festival Organising Committee, and Angela Impey at SOAS London. For more information see here and here.

The multi-media research exhibition Future Pasts: Landscape, Memory and Music in West Namibia is online and has been curated at Gallery 44AD in Bath (2017) and COSDEF Community Arts Venue in Swakopmund, Namibia (2019).

Our on-site oral history research is in press in two academic publications:

  • Sullivan, S. and Ganuses, W.S. Densities of meaning in west Namibian landscapes: genealogies, ancestral agencies, and healing, in Dieckmann, U. (ed.) Mapping the Unmappable? Cartographic Explorations with Indigenous Peoples in Africa. Bielefeld: Transcript.

  • Sullivan, S. Maps and memory, rights and relationships: articulations of global modernity and local dwelling in delineating land for a communal-area conservancy in north-west Namibia, in Sullivan, S., Baussant, M., Dodd, L., Otele, O. and Dos Santos, I. Special Issue ‘Disrupted Histories, Recovered Pasts | Histoires Perturbées, Passés Retrouvés’, Conserveries Mémorielles: Revue Transdisciplinaire 25. (Working Paper version here)

Suro and Sian at Glastonbury Tor, during Suro's visit to the UK in November 2017, supported by Future Pasts.

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