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  • Writer's pictureSian Sullivan

"The Music Returns to Kai-as" – a film by Future Pasts

Updated: Jul 25, 2023

"Good day, I am happy to report to you that we are now busy watching the Kai-as video with members of the cultural group" (WhatsApp message from Fredrick ǁHawaxab in Sesfontein / !Nani|aus, 26 December 2020).

Hoanib Cultural Group at screening of 'The Music Returns to Kai-as' in Sesfontein, 26 December 2020. Photo by Fredrick ǁHawaxab, shared with permission.

The Music Returns to Kai-as

Our film The Music Returns to Kai-as is an outcome of oral history research in a particular area of north-west Namibia. With Welhemina Suro Ganuses, recently appointed Councillor for the Nami-Daman Traditional Authority, we have worked mostly with families in a settlement called Sesfontein. They have formed a cultural group called the Hoanib Cultural Group, after the main ephemeral river that flows through the area in which they now live.

The Hoanib River in flood near Kowareb. Photo by Sian Sullivan, 11 April 2018.

One of the favourite songs of Hildegaart |Nuas, the oldest member of the Hoanib Cultural Group, is about the Hoanib . . .

Cultural Landscapes

Through our research, two things started to come into focus.

One was that elderly people often spoke of places in the wider landscape that were important to them, but for which very little was more widely known in terms of cultural heritage and values. These places tend not to be named on contemporary maps of the area, and histories of dwelling and use there had not been documented.

One of the threads of our research has thus been to create a record of some of these past places. In doing so we have come to understand the broader landscape as a cultural landscape, rather than only as a conservation landscape and wilderness area. Most of this cultural mapping research involved following peoples’ leads regarding places they wished to relocate, and then working with them to record information they recalled about these places.

The place Kai-as, where a permanent freshwater spring made sustenance in this arid landscape possible, was often mentioned in this research as an important past meeting place. People would congregate at Kai-as after the rains had started.

Aerial photograph of Kai-as spring and former living place, north-west Namibia. Adapted from Windhoek Survey Dept. image, shared in 2014..

Kai-as was also a key place on routes between the localities of important food resources. For example, ǁUbun would move between !nara (Acanthosicyos horridus) melon patches in the !Uniab and Hoanib river mouths, via springs at Kai-as and Hûnkab (to the north-west of Kai-as). As Ruben Sanib described:

when ǁUbun and ǁKhao-a peoples met in the rain time at Kai-as, the ǁUbun would bring !nara and share with the others. The !nara has oil/fat inside. They would mix the !nara and the sâui (Stipagrostis spp. grass seeds) and bosûi (Monsonia spp. seeds) together – it was delicious food!
Kai-as old settlement in detail.
Ruben Sanib, Sophia Opi |Awises and Franz |Haen ǁHoëb return to Kai-as in November 2014 and 2015. Composite image made in July 2017 with the assistance of Mike Hannis, combining original photographs by Sian Sullivan with two 10 x 10 km aerial photographs from the Directorate of Survey and Mapping, Windhoek. Also see .


As we were doing this mapping research, a recurring theme was of how people remembered gathering to play music and dance together at former dwelling places. Ruben Sauneib Sanib and Sophia Obi |Awises thus recalled how people from different areas (!hūs) used to gather at Kai-as to play their healing dances called arus and praise songs called |gais.

A |gais song, broadly speaking, is a song sung to praise something. |Gais are sung to celebrate things, people and events that are of value. As Jacobus ǁHoëb, leader of the Hoanib Cultural Group – known locally as the 'king of the |gais' – says in our film,

My grand-parents taught me to play the |gais. The springbok are playing. The zebra are playing, the gemsbok are playing. All the animals are playing when the rain falls. And the people say, ‘how can we make something to praise the animals?’
Jacobus ǁHoëb pictured above after the Kai-as Festival of May 2019 (portrait by Oliver Halsey), and below, on receiving his copy of the film, amidst the heightened vulnerabilities caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, December 2020 (photo by Fredrick ǁHawaxab).

Arus are sung more specifically to support individual and social healing, and especially to support the strength and insights of healers. In this cultural context, a name for a healer is |nanu-aos or |nanu-aob – meaning literally a woman or man who has been called by the rain (|nanus) and 'has the rain spirit'.

A large part of the second half of The Music Returns to Kai-as is an arus healing dance sequence. The songs and practices here are part of a healing tradition that, whilst not static, is generations old. It is a healing technology and understanding of the causes of, and ways of resolving, dis-ease that comes from a time prior to peoples’ contact with allopathic medicine and that now exists alongside allopathic medicine. A concern often voiced in the present moment, especially by elderly ǂNūkhoe Sesfontein residents, is that young people are not being called to become arus healers.

The Hoanib Cultural Group beginning an arus healing dance at Kai-as, 23 May 2019. (Photo: Sian Sullivan).

Returning Music to Kai-as

Given the repeated mention of Kai-as in our mapping research, as well as of memories of playing |gais and arus there, an idea started to bubble up amongst our mapping research team. This was to try and support the Hoanib Cultural Group to return to Kai-as to play their |gais and arus.

Kai-as is now in an area to which access is restricted. Facilitating this event meant gaining support from a number of organisations in the area to permit the Hoanib Cultural Group to return to Kai-as. I would like to thank Save the Rhino Trust, the Namidaman Traditional Authority, the Sesfontein Conservancy and manager of Palmwag Lodge Mr Kapoi Kasoana, for enabling this cultural heritage event.

In editing the footage from this 'Kai-as Festival' of May 2019, filmmaker Oliver Halsey and I tried to support what was shared with us as far as possible on its own terms. At the same time, we have had to intervene in all sorts of ways in the editing process, in part through adding subtitles in English that act as pointers towards what is happening for an external audience. What we have tried to avoid, though, is bringing an overly authoritative ‘master narrative’ to the material shared in the film, or to control the events filmed as they were taking place.

We are now working with our collaborators in Sesfontein on a series of edits from our remaining footage, all of which will be returned to the Hoanib Cultural Group and the Nami-Daman Traditional Authority as a record into the future of knowledges and histories shared with us.

In dialogue and solidarity with the Nami-Daman Traditional Authority and the Hoanib Cultural Group, a small Trust is also being established to support the Hoanib Cultural Group and their heritage practices into the future, to which we welcome contributions. For more information see


December 2020 saw two very different screenings of our film The Music Returns to Kai-as. The film is made in collaboration with local organisations in north-west Namibia – the Sesfontein Conservancy, the Nami-Daman Traditional Authority, and Save the Rhino Trust Namibia – with filming by Namibia specialist film-maker Oliver Halsey.

The first screening, on 16th December, was held remotely as a public online event held by the Research Centre for Environmental Humanities at Bath Spa University. It attracted an international audience that included the Dean of the School of Education & Culture at Great Zimbabwe University, who kindly commented on the ‘amazing work being done by the team in Namibia’.

We were joined at this screening by Theresia !Gorases Pullen, my first teacher (at the Africa Centre, Covent Garden, in 1993-1994) of Khoekhoegowab – the language spoken by Damara / ǂNūkhoen and others in Namibia. COVID-19 meant I could not travel to Namibia and check translations in the film with my main ǂNūkhoe collaborator there – Welhemina Suro Ganuses – with whom the film was made. I am grateful to Theresia for her help with some subtitle queries as we were finalising the film.

Theresia !Gorases Pullen reading work from the Future Pasts project on meeting again after more than 20 years, thanks to finding each other on facebook! Photo by Sian Sullivan, 8 November 2018.

The second, rather different, screening took place in the intense summer heat of Namibia’s north-west. This is the home of the Hoanib Cultural Group who share songs, stories and senses of themselves in the film. Poor internet provision in this remote corner of Namibia, combined with the impacts of COVID-19 on travel and transportation, meant the film could only be shared after a circuitous journey by post, tracked by me in the UK as it travelled to Opuwo post office in Namibia's Kunene Region. From here it was collected by Fredrick ǁHawaxab of the Namidaman Traditional Authority who collaborated on the film. Fredrick delivered the film to the Hoanib Cultural Group in Sesfontein.

Ruben Sanib (L) and Jacobus ǁHoëb (R) in Sesfontein / !Nani-|aus, north-west Namibia, receiving the DHL parcel sent from Bath, UK, containing copies of 'The Music Returns to Kai-as' for the Hoanib Cultural Group. Photo by Fredrick ǁHawaxab, 26 December 2020.

Copies of the film were also sent to Swakopmund on the Atlantic coast. These were for delivery to my collaborator Suro Ganuses and lead tracker Sebulon ǁHoëb at the Save the Rhino Trust (SRT) base camp several hundred kilometres away, where Suro also works as an administrator. The contribution of time and expertise by Suro and Sebulon, as well as 'Rhino Rangers' from the Sesfontein Conservancy (especially Filemon and Patrick |Nuab), were integral to the making of the film.

During filming at Kai-as: above, Welhemina Suro Ganuses records an interview; below, SRT lead tracker Sebulon ǁHoëb (L), with Rhino Rangers from Sesfontein Conservancy - Patrick |Nuab (centre) and Filemon |Nuab (R).

Below we share some initial reviews and responses to the film. If you would like to share yours, please email - we will be happy to hear from you!

Reviews & responses

"It's really amazing and quite frankly it's also tearful for those that know and understand |gais and arus songs in detail... the sound quality and film quality is very excellent. Thanks for your commitment and time spent on developing the film of this quality. Kai-aios (Thank you)."

Fredrick ǁHawaxab, Namidaman Traditional Authority, Sesfontein, 7 December 2020.

"Invest 60 minutes.

In a couple of scenes, healers handle glowing coals to participate in access to the spirits: the whole film works on the same principle. It's a slow burn, but burn it absolutely does. And heal and move. My face was wet with tears half way.

These old bodies, dancing and stomping and stirring the soil and singing themselves home.

I was going to call the film a kind of gem but that's not quite right—it's a mud brick: baked in the desert, perfectly simple, humble, humane, crafted with nothing extraneous, but utterly sturdy & durable forever ... you could hang any single frame on your wall.

Haunting, mournful, devastatingly elegiac—yet also somehow affirming, inspiring and thoroughly joyous: it wallops you hard in the guts like a slow motion punch. Or a hummingbird-fast caress. I'd watch a second time right now but I'm not sure I could find my way out of the trance."

@mr_calvero 9 April 2021

Click on tweet below for full review & images ...

"I simply do not have the words to describe my appreciation properly."

"It is very moving, at once saddening and celebratory. And very beautifully and sensitively composed and shot. What a very significant event you managed to make happen. Respect…"

Katherine Homewood, Professor of Human Ecology, University College London

"My favorite quote from the film is 'Tobacco is smoked for the ancestors' pleasure.' As fine an expression of a down-to-earth, humanistic religion as I've heard.

I love the aerial shots of mountains and desert and of dry watercourses and their vegetation. I could watch hours of that stuff with no questions asked. In the case of a water-marginal people like those you are filming, it is absolutely eloquent as to the necessary activities of their daily lives. For me, the best thing in the entire film is the way it shows how rhythm, music, and dancing repeat improvisationally until all the rough edges--of personalities, of clothing, of hunger, of dry skin and missing teeth--are won away into smoothness, into a joyous whole made of all that is there and all who are present. I was particularly moved by the neon-orange skirt of one woman, filmed near sunset, I think, and how the light shining through it cast a glow that was picked up by other bits of orange, pink, and ochre in the scene and contrasted with some blues and turquoises and khakis and umbers that were there. I found it breathtaking!

Of course I am lucky to have some special sets of synapses born of longterm experience of similar music and dancing with the Ju|'hoansi. But the dfferences-- the generally slower pace of the songs, the ubiquitous drumming, the leather caps, and the appetitive mouthplay with burning coals--made it wonderful and NEW for me, too. ... As a whole, the way the film mostly shows, rather than tells, giving the viewer a simulacrum of being there without words, makes it very effective. I imagine that students will love this film and want to see it more than once, if they have a chance. Thank you for managing the project and being the driver!"

Megan Biesele, Director Emerita, Kalahari People’s Fund, author of Women Like Meat: The Folklore and Foraging Ideology of the Kalahari Ju|'hoan (1993), co-author of Healing Makes Our Hearts Happy: Spirituality and Transformation Among the Ju|'hoansi of the Kalahari (2000) and The Ju|'Hoan San of Nyae Nyae and Namibian Independence: Development, Democracy, and Indigenous Voices in Southern Africa (2010).

"Dr. Sullivan’s film is first and foremost, full of the people in it. Sian is not someone who has just dropped in out of passing interest. She has committed much of her professional life to being alongside the traditional peoples whose voices shine so clearly and strongly through this film. As always with Dr Sullivan’s work, she claims no space for herself or her own agenda. I was equally educated and moved by her film. I’m sure you will be too.”

Ya'acov Darling Khan, co-founder of the School of Movement Medicine.

"The film is terrific! With respect both to style and substance. The cinematography is striking; the beauty of the aerial and terrestrial landscape scenery underscores what the film's basic theme – the attachment of the Damara people to the land. It is based, ultimately, on the landscape's inherent features and the "spell of the sensuous" (pace David Abram), which culture picks up on and amplifies. There are enchanting cinematographic moments in the film, such as when the glowing embers of the nocturnal dance fire transition into the rising morning sun or when the reeds surrounding the Kai-as spring, reanimated through people having just before "greeted" the ancestors who resided there in the past, blend into the cultural performers, wearing ancestral garbs and steenbok horns. Oliver Halsey is to be congratulated!

I like the way the film gives the "authorial voice" to the people – along with striking cinematographic portraits of some of the narrators. Their comments about the past and their past lifeways, specifically as connected to the relinquished waterhole Kai-as and its encompassing band territory and the "ancestors who lived and died in this area" (and used to "eat honey and collect sâui seeds"), are moving and eloquent. And very "quotable", I made copious notes! The comments are also rich ethnographically, especially so the footage on the ancestor “greeting ceremony” at Kai-as spring and the dance performances by the Hoanib Cultural Group.

Thank you for making this film, Sian, and for making it available to me to view. In featuring a relatively obscure Khoe-speaking people, the film – along with the exhibition volume it complements – is a significant contribution to Khoisan ethnography."

Mathias Guenther, Professor Emeritus (Anthropology), Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada,

author of Tricksters and Trancers: Bushman Religion and Society (1999) and Human-Animal Relationships in San and Hunter-Gatherer Cosmology, vols. 1 & 2 (2020).

"I really cannot say how much I am impressed by this work. The form alone deserves highest praise. And you hardly can imagine how I was thrilled to see the old Damara ceremonies performed in detail. I knew them only by telling. ... The film is a work of art, of great ethnological worth and a heritage document for the Damara people, Congratulations!"

Sigrid Schmidt, author of many books and articles on 'Khoisan' folklore, including the two volume Catalogue of the Khoisan Folktales of Southern Africa (2013).

"What a multi sensory delight – such vibrant sounds and colour and such heart warming stories from the Hoanib Cultural Group of their ancestors and their healing traditions through their songs and dances and the landscape. Earth fire water and air so strongly interwoven between past and present. Beautiful."

Kerri Cripps, qualified Movement Medicine teacher.

"I was transported… The film is a poignant reminder that we have lost our connection and in our arrogance insist that others give up theirs."

William Todd-Jones, Welsh storyteller, puppet designer, director and writer for film, TV and theatre in the UK and abroad. Company Director for Wild Connect, TEDX talk Muppets and mussels prove truth is in the eye of the beholder.


Language note: many of the Khoekhoegowab words above include the symbols ǀ, ǁ, ! and ǂ, denoting consonants that sound like clicks and which characterise the languages of Khoe and San peoples who live(d) throughout southern Africa. The sounds these symbols indicate are as follows: ǀ = the ‘tutting’ sound made by bringing the tip of the tongue softly down from behind front teeth (dental click); ǁ = 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 (alveolar click); ǂ = a sharp, explosive click made as the tongue is flattened and then pulled back from the palate (palatal click). Some ǂNūkhoe perfer the name ǂNūkhoegowab instead of Khoekhoegowab.

Sesfontein is also known in Khoekhoegowab as !Nani|aus (!Nani = six, |aus = spring) and ǂGabia-ǂgao (ǂGabia = confused, ǂgao = heart - so called because of the amazement one feels when encountering the many large springs of permanent fresh water in this semi-arid land), and Hamuheke in Otjiherero. Under German colonial rule, the settlement was called Zeßfontein.

Welhemina Suro Ganuses and I recently contributed a chapter to a national review of the circumstances of indigenous and marginalised people in Namibia, see Understanding Damara / ǂNūkhoen and ǁUbun 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, 2020. For more information regarding this work also see:

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