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San People Living Museum – Watching The “Noble Savage”?

Did you ever travel to a remote village and felt like an intruder? Did you want to take pictures, so badly, but sensed that it was wrong? That’s exactly what I encountered when I visited the Living Museum of the Ju/’Hoansi San in Namibia.

A boy pushes a toy car, made out of wood, wires, and cardboard, naked pot-bellied children play in the dusty streets of a small rural village. The sun sits low on the horizon and the sky glows majestically. This is how many envision Africa – a mixture of fact, fiction and the remains of a bygone era.

A San boy in the bush of his village in Grashoek, Namibia.

The sun sets over the Ju/’Hoansi-San village in Grashoek, Namibia.

The sun sets over the Ju/’Hoansi-San village in Grashoek.

I too came to Namibia yearning to find people truly in touch with nature, uncorrupted by superficial desires. You could call this “romanticised primitivism”. Suffice to say that it was just that: A primitive and naive notion. Yet, I am not the only one with that image in mind.

That is why the The Living Culture Foundation’s (LCFN) concept of the Living Museums in Namibia works. There, in the veld, between bushes and Mangetti trees, we can watch the people of the past in Grashoek’s Ju/’Hoansi-San village.

Young San in their traditional attire in Grashoek, Namibia.

Young San in their traditional attire in Grashoek.

The Ju/’Hoansi-San

Originally, the San were nomadic hunters and gatherers. They are considered to be the first inhabitants of Namibia. But they are no longer allowed to move and kill and thus have lost access to their old means of survival. Today poverty, alcoholism, and drug addiction are widely spread among the modern San.

San in the bush in Grashoek, Namibia.

A group of San show us plants and roots used for their traditional medicine.

That is why the Living Culture Foundation helps marginalised groups like the San to preserve their culture and make an income by running a Living Museum. Originally, the German-Namibian tour guide Werner Pfeifer established the idea in 2004. It is based upon the European model where historians reenact scenes of the past.

Am I here to learn about culture or to watch Africa’s “wild people”?

Education or Exlpoitation?

Upon arrival, we are greeted by the Ju/’Hoansi-San: Men in the front, women looking timidly, children posing experienced for the camera. Under a tree, the local guide explains our options for the stay: A “walk in the wild”, “singing, dancing and games”, or “storytelling at night”. Tourists come almost every day, he explains. And when they come, the Ju/’Hoansi-San sing and dance.

A group of the Ju/'Hoansi in Grashoek's Living Museum, Namibia.

A group of the Ju/’Hoansi-San greets us upon arrival.

San children pose for the camera in the Ju/’Hoansi-San village in Grashoek, Namibia.

San children pose excitedly for my camera when we arrive in the Ju/’Hoansi-San village in Grashoek.

The Performance

The next day we learn how to make fire with wood, dried grass, and a stone and which plants the San use for their traditional medicine.

Then the villagers gather in a semicircle, glap, and chant energetically – we are in the middle of a healing ceremony. And for the grand finale we join them in a celebratory dance, round and round in a circle, dive under each other’s arms, laughing and holding hands.

San men making fire, Grashoek, Namibia.

Two San men make fire by quickly spinning a wooden stick on dried grass and a rock.

Two San men make fire by spinning wooden sticks on dried gras and a rock in Grashoek, Namibia.

A second piece of wood with small holes serves as fiction surface on top of the rock. The quick movement finally sets the dried grass on fire.

A Human Zoo?

Yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling of eeriness: The moment I stepped into Grashoek, I was no longer just a person; I was a tourist, an observer, and a customer. All roles were predefined which made a true cultural exchange impossible. Also, the performance is based upon a European concept. The San may have chosen this option, but again Western culture was imposed upon them.

What are my responsibilities towards modern Africa as a tourist?

I couldn’t help but think of “Human Zoos”. They were a popular thing in Western society from the 19th to the 21st century and mostly exhibited Africans brought to Europe, either in cages or in mock villages. But was this just the arrogance of my European mind, judging something I did not understand?

Maybe. Because my Namibian companions agreed that the initiative helped to preserve a culture that would otherwise die out.

San woman holding her baby in Grashoek, Namibia.

A young San woman holding her baby boy.

There is no Truth

Indeed, it seems to be the only way in which the San can still practise their culture and show children their inheritance.

The people of Grashoek make due with their Living Museum and it is their choice to do so. And yet it seems to be their only choice. Restricted from hunting or moving, the Ju/’Hoansi-San have little other options to sustain themselves.

I played the most primitive role of all: The White Voyeur.

A San woman hanging up self-made jewellery and crafts in their shop in Grashoek, Namibia.

A San woman hanging up self-made jewellery and crafts in their improvised shop.

No human rights are violated, and yet human dignity might be in danger. Because, as much as LCFN’s website aims to promote cultural preservation, the focus lies on tourism. Here, the humans are the main attraction. And if they play their role of the “noble savage” well, tourists will keep coming.

The White Intruder

But in the end, it is up to us to ask ourselves: Am I here to learn about culture or to watch Africa’s “wild people”? And what are my responsibilities? I took beautiful pictures of the Ju/’Hoansi-San and if I hadn’t, I couldn’t tell this story. But at the same time, I played the most primitive role of all: The White Intruder.

Certainly we’ll always want to see other cultures, whatever our motive. So the idea of the Living Museum is a way to treat indigenous people respectfully while supporting them directly. But there is only a fine line between cultural tourism and exploitative observance.

Click on this GALLERY to learn more about the San and how they live today.

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Elemotho – “Black Man” Return to Mother Africa

Money, cars, smart phones – the modern African man wants what the Western man has and more. As a result, mother Africa is losing her children to the lies of a corrupt world. That’s why singer-songwriter Elemotho appeals to his fellow Namibians with his new album “Beautiful World”: Don’t give up the fight for equality, don’t succumb to the glimmer of money and power.

Elemotho – the “Black Man”

And his means are simple, yet powerful. Guitar in hand, Elemotho Gaalelekwee Richardo Mosimane sings softly in a mix of English and Setswana. It is a Bantu language, spoken in his motherland Namibia. That way, the self-proclaimed musical activist pronounces his belonging. Because his music is about the return to nature and the honouring of his heritage. And most of all, it is about the “black man” – as one of his songs is called. In it, he addresses the African man’s loss of culture, eyes on the money, bottle in hand.

Get Up and Dance

This struggle between past and present is directly reflected in his music: The American black man’s blues meets African tribal music with a hint of rock ‘n’ roll and jazz. In the beginning, Elemotho’s acoustic guitar underlines a sad song in Setswana, a keyboard is following him slowly in the back of the stage.

However, as the concert progresses, so does the music. Because tradition needs to be celebrated. African congas and a Dundun drum beat loudly in accord with an E-guitar and a western drum kit. A long saxophone solo sends vibrations through the air. And Elemotho yells: “Get up and dance”. In the end, the message gets across and everybody is on their feet.