Sand, San and sacred lands

Andrew Mourant

Spotlight Namibia

In common with other African countries, Namibia’s indigenous tribes find their homelands and traditional ways threatened in the name of progress

Duwisib Castle

© Patrick Giraud / CC BY-SA 2.0

Namibia’s vibrant national flag is both a history and geography lesson. It contains yellow, symbolic of sunlight and desert; blue, reminiscent of rain and ocean; green, relating to crops; and red, marking blood shed in war. White bands surround the red, celebrating peace and reconciliation after oppressive colonial rule.

In the peaceful climate, indigenous cultures have revived – cultural expression is invariably a casualty when conquerors march in. All too often in Africa, native tribes have been callously dispersed by occupiers, their traditions threatened. And yet, perverse as it may sound, even a wretched empire driven by greed can leave behind some good things.

The charms of African capitals, and other towns, owe a debt to imported architectural traditions. Although created without a thought for the conquered, colonial buildings give substance and identity, creating treasures that now belong to independent states. From 1884 to 1915, the Germans trampled over Namibia; and yet, for all their brutality, embellished the country.

Characterful relics of Germany endure in towns such as Luderitz and Swakopmund, where, incongruous amid arid surroundings, sit buildings with gables, towers, turrets and domes. Luderitz boomed following the discovery of diamond deposits in 1908 and troops further swelled the population as uprisings against German rule increased.

Its railway station, built in 1914, has been described as the “emergence of modern architecture in Germany at the time”. Another landmark – Namibia remains predominantly Lutheran Christian – is Luderitz’s ‘Felsenkirche’ (church on the rocks), on which work began in 1911. The creator, Albert Bause, “more of a builder than architect”, was influenced by the English style that surrounded him in Cape Colony. A few miles away, there are more ghostly echoes of German rule and the diamond rush. Welcome to Kolmanskop, built from 1908 around the scramble for mineral wealth and yet, within little more than 40 years, abandoned to encroaching desert sands as the diamonds ran out and richer deposits were discovered elsewhere.

Kolmanskop is a place of haunting emptiness, doors and windows open to drifts of wind-blown sand – the remains of a boom town that once had a hospital, ballroom, theatre and casino. Some German buildings were restored by the mining giant De Beers in 1980, with the company also creating a museum. The environment shouts ‘film set’: in 2000, Kolmanskop was the setting for The King is Alive; and, in 1993, used in Dust Devil.

Until independence, Namibia’s 11 ethnic groups battled to cling on to their own cultures. Some continue the fight, even though the country has, in many ways, been a success story – they include the Himba and Zemba peoples, who fear their whole way of life is under threat. Early in 2012 they presented declarations and demands to the national government, asserting the separateness of their traditions. At the heart of their grievance lay plans to build a hydroelectric dam on the Kunene River. This would flood the ancestral graves of their ancient homeland, Kaokoland, and force them to move.

The Himba are semi-nomadic, many living and dressing according to ancient traditions, and live in scattered settlements. Their characteristic look is of intricate hairstyles, traditional clothing and jewellery – women apply a paste of red ochre, butter and resin from the Omuzumba shrub to their skin, as a lotion and protection against the weather. Often the Himba are the face of Namibia, gracing front covers of travel brochures; yet their lifestyle is in retreat, more often practised in remote spots where Western influence is minimal, or for cultural display. Pre-arranged visits to Himba settlements are a feature of Namibia’s tourist trail. Westernisation has brought improved medicine and education, but it’s created tensions wherever Himba elders insist on traditions being upheld. The battle over sacred places seems at odds with the revival of national and ethnic culture since Namibia shrugged of South African Apartheid-based rule in 1991.

About half of Namibia’s 1.8 million people belong to Owambo, the collective name for several tribes living in central-northern Namibia. Among others, there are emphatic cultural distinctions: the San, the oldest inhabitants, said to be great storytellers and to love music, mimicry and dance; the Nama of the south, to have a great oral tradition of poetry and prose, and a natural talent for music.

Some women among the Herero, a pastoral cattle-breeding people thought to have originally come from East Africa’s great lakes region, wear Victorian-style dresses adapted from the wives of Rhenish missionaries. The Herero-German War of 1904-07 almost wiped out this population: its few survivors clinging on to maintain bonds of family life and tribal solidarity.

The San (bushmen), numbering around 35,000, are hunter-gatherers and Namibia’s earliest known inhabitants, occupying remote areas in the east and the Kalahari Desert. Through the millennia, they’ve left rock paintings and engravings in mountains and hills, the oldest dating back 28,000 years: art that includes the famous White Lady painting of the Brandberg and the rich treasure house of rock engravings at Twyfelfontein.

Namibia’s 117,000 Damara belong to one of the oldest cultural groups in the country, though many now play a pivotal role in public life – as politicians, teachers, clerics and officials. Only a quarter remain in their former homeland, which became part of the Erongo region after independence.

Such snapshots convey a fraction of Namibia’s diversity. This is a nation with 11 indigenous languages, yet also a cosmopolitan society where people commonly speak two or three languages. Afrikaans, a legacy of the South African occupiers, is used by around two-thirds of the 100,000 or so of European descent; though English is the official language and, from secondary school, the medium of instruction.

One showcase for Namibian culture is the National Theatre in Windhoek, the capital. At festival time, it hosts ethnic music and dancing, but much more too: from community-based drama to performers from around the world. Namibia’s literary world, however, is small – most writing in native languages comprises traditional tales, short stories and novels for schoolchildren. Fiction, poetry and autobiography appear in both English and Afrikaans.

The government has striven to promote music, dance and oral literature. Cultural policy is seen as a way of cementing post-independence unity and Namibia is much healed after its turbulent past. But, as the Simba story shows, where ancient traditions and a huge project in the national interest collide, some conflicts may prove impossible to reconcile.


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