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Namibia’s San People – Cultural Exchange or Human Zoos?

Do you want to leave the beaten tourist track and see how the natives live? And once there, surely you’d like to take pictures to show everyone your crazy journey? So did I.

During my first weeks working in Namibia for an NGO, I was invited to join a trip to a remote village by a local woman. I thought that we were visiting her friends and was beside myself with excitement. When we reached the village gate, our group jumped out of the car to walk the last few sandy metres: Curious faces in the bush, simple huts, and the vast horizon – I felt happy. But when the children started posing for our cameras, thumbs up, smiling experienced, I suddenly felt strange, like an intruder. I hadn’t come to a befriended village – I was in the middle of the “Living Museum of the Ju/’Hoansi San”. In the next two days my image of Africa should first be satisfied, then turned upside down:

Sunset over Grashoek, Namibia

Sunset over Grashoek, Namibia

Past and Present

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.

I came to Namibia looking for 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. They help the San community of Grashoek revive the age-old traditions of Namibia’s oldest tribe and instruct them on how to perform them for curious visitors. 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 due to land ownership and hunting laws. Today poverty, alcoholism, and drug addiction are widely spread among the modern San.

San in the bush in Grashoek, Namibia.

Looking for plants and roots used for their traditional medicine.

That is why the NGO Living Culture Foundation helps marginalised groups like the San to preserve their culture and make an income by running a “Living Museum”. The concept 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 all around. 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”. “You can choose”, he says. 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.

San men making fire, Grashoek, Namibia.

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

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.

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 idea, not an African one. The San may have chosen this option, but again Western culture was imposed upon them.

San woman holding her baby in Grashoek, Namibia.

A young San woman holding her baby boy.

What are my responsibilities towards modern Africa as a tourist?

I couldn’t help but think of the term “human zoo”. But was this just the arrogance of my European mind, judging something I did not understand?

Maybe.

Namibia's San people in Grashoek's Living Museum.

Me taking a photograph of a group of San in Grashoek’s Living Museum

There is no Truth

Because, it seems to be the only way in which the San can preserve 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 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 Intruder.

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 “wild man” 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.

Namibia's San people in Grashoek's Living Museum.

Me taking a picture with a group of young San in Grashoek’s Living Museum.

I tried to find an answer and failed. So I can only speak according to my feeling which tells me that the concept of the Living Museum does not ensure a dignified life of the San. It doesn’t seem right for us to come and watch people under the premise of seeing “Ju/’Hoansi bushmen” perform their “original way of living” (LCFN). Sadly the San are the losers of a modern world that doesn’t allow them their life of choice or opportunities such as ownership of fertile land, of life stock, and an easy access to secondary and tertiary education.

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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The Beautiful People – The San Past and Present

The gallery juxtaposes the difference of the Ju/’Hoansi-San of the San people then and now. In Grashoek’s Living Museum, I captured images of the community’s modern life as well as of their old traditions displayed through an reenactment by the San themselves.

The Past

Thus part one of the gallery gives you an insight into the Ju/’Hoansi-San’s past. These are images, the San themselves choose to share with visitors. Their performances are partially reenactment, partially taken from today’s life. But particularly their traditional clothes, made out of animals skin are reserved for the show today.

In this attire the Ju/’Hoansi-San of Grashoek’s living museum perform traditional dances, healing ceremonies, games, and show how to make fire or how to use plants for medicine.

The Now

In contrast to the past, the San have settled down as they are prohibited from living a nomadic lifestyle. Therefore, their shelter no longer consist of thin sticks and straw but sometimes resemble houses from other cultures like the Oshiwambo tribe: Thick wooden sticks or a mud-mix. Some houses are made out of congregated steel, others even have concrete-like textures.

Today, the Ju/’Hoansi-San dress mostly in Western clothes or African inspired prints.

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Namibia’s Traditional Culture – Visiting an Oshiwambo Village in the North

Pink and red skirts are swaying rhythmically to joyful singing and clapping. They are bound together with belts made out of beads or animal fur and belong to about 20 laughing women, dancing in a circle. It is a special day for the habitants of “Ongonga” village. It is the day of the Epasha ritual. Twins were born into the village and their arrival calls for a celebration.

Namibia's traditional north. Oshiwambo people celebrating a traditional Epasha ritual.

Women are singing and dancing cheerfully in their traditional Oshiwambo attire.

Throughout the Namibian culture, the birth of twins has always been special. But today only a few tribes celebrate the age-old ritual; most of them have turned away from it completely. “Don’t talk to my grandmother about it. She believes that rituals like that are the work of the devil”, a co-worker at the NGO, I’m working at, tells me.

Westernisation in Namibia

In modern Namibia, answers like hers are common. When the missionaries arrived in Namibia in the 19th century, they demonised the indigenous beliefs. As a result, the people themselves started to denounce their old rituals and turned to the Christian god. But even more: They too believed that their own traditions were the works of the New Testament’s devil.

Additionally Namibia, like all African countries, had been colonised since 1884 by Germany. It was called German South West Africa until South Africa took over in 1915. The following South African Apartheid-regime has done the rest to destroy the Namibian culture and heritage and further ensured fiction between the tribes.

Namibian Culture Today

Today, Apartheit is over and 27 years ago Namibia gained its independence. But while the call for true reconciliation is getting louder, Namibia is far from restored. Especially the young have forgotten what their culture entails and for many of the older generation, the memory is too painful.

Yet, far from cities and shopping malls, you can still find the remains of Namibia’s ancestral culture. In the country’s north, the Ovakwanyama tribe of the Oshiwambo people have remained as traditional as the modern world allows.

The Epasha Ritual

Here, special occasions like the birth of twins is celebrated just like in the old days, explains grandmother, Lucia Kambode Nangolo, 96: “It is the same way my grandmother celebrated it and her grandmother before that. Christianity hasn’t changed it. This is Oshiwambo culture”.

Namibia's traditional north. Oshiwambo people celebrating a traditional Epasha ritual.

Elder and grandma Lucia Kambode Nangolo. She’s 96 years old.

Thus friends and family have gathered today in the home of the twin’s mother. We are in a village within a village. In the Oshiwambo culture, a big family lives together in a circle of huts surrounded by a wooden fence. On this day about 50 people have joined to honor the twins.

Namibia's traditional north. Oshiwambo people celebrating a traditional Epasha ritual.

The celebrated twins. The Epasha ceremony usually takes place 1 or 2 months after they are born.

The main part of the ritual contains of a traditional cleansing ceremony, in order to keep the children and parents save from illnesses or bad spirits. This is followed by dances and music.

Culture Endangered

Yet here too, Western influence is visible. Our clothing, Coca Cola, and bottled beer have mixed with traditional attire and self-brewed drinks like “Omalodu Oilya”. While the belief in spirits is still existing, the prayer outside the village is to the Christian god. Thus it might only be a question of time before it will disappear as a whole.

So let’s enjoy the images while they are there. To get an even better idea of the Epasha ritual, check out my videos on Youtube.

The Short Version

The Long Version

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Keeping Africa’s Traditions – The “Epasha” ritual in Namibia

The Cleansing

Oshiwambo culture today. In northern-central Namibia, the Ovakwanyama people still celebrate their traditional ways of life. With the “Epasha”-ceremony the tribe is welcoming twins into the world. First, a spiritual cleansing of father, mother, and the newborns takes place. The couple undressed in front of selected family members. Then, their bodies are cleansed by a traditional healer, an “Onganga”. For this, a special medicine is made from the mopane – or “Omufyaati” – tree. At the end, dried parts of the tree are eaten.

The ceremony lasts a day and is accompanied by a big meal, singing and dancing. Through the influence of Christianity, prayer has become an integrated part of the festivities.

The Ovakwanyama (Oshiwambo culture) are praying a Christian prayer. ©Manon Steiner

The Ovakwanyama (Oshiwambo culture) are praying a Christian prayer. ©Manon Steiner

A Tradition For Kings

For the Ovakwanyama, the birth of twins is a godsend. In the old days, only a man born as a twin or with his feet first could become a tribe’s king. In tradition this is called “Eehamba”. It is hard to tell how long “Epasha” goes back. But due to legend, already the first Oshiwambo kingswere cleansed through this ritual. Their names were Kavongeka, Kapuleko, Heita, or Hautolonde.

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Discovering Namibia – Spinning the Kids off the Streets

Thousands of small pebbles are catapulted at my bare arms and legs, a cloud of dust engulfs my face. Momentarily, I feel like I’m in a battlefield and there is no place to hide from the attack.

As my view gets clearer, I focus my eyes back to the action right in front of me. A car is racing past, comes to an abrupt halt and starts spinning around its own axe. Suddenly, the driver jumps out, watches his car turn around him and jumps on the hood. A few more circles and he’s back behind the wheel.

Spinning Round and Burning Rubber

We’re at the Otjiwarongo Spin Show in Namibia. Here, tuned cars are drifting and spinning on the gravel, while their drivers are conducting crazy stunts and burning rubber.

According to “Windhoek Spin City’s” organisers Joel Nambahu and Emmanuel “Driver”, spinning  is one of Namibia’s fastest growing sports. In the midst of the roaring crowd, boys and young men of various ages – the youngest is Joel’s 10-year old son – are showing their skills.

Live at Windhoek Spin City in Otjiwarongo with Joel Nambahu's youngest son on the hood, March 2017.

Live at Windhoek Spin City in Otjiwarongo with Joel Nambahu’s youngest son on the hood, March 2017.

Keeping the Kids off the Streets

But this isn’t just about entertainment: “We are trying to keep the kids off the streets”, explains Joel. Before they started their initiative, young boys were taking their cars to the streets illegally, often leading to accidents and injuries.

With “Windhoek Spin City”, Joel and his crew are offering the kids a save environment in which they are teaching them how to spin, drift and perform stunts without harming themselves.

In March 2017, I got the opportunity to witness the results live in the small city of Otjiwarongo, two-hours north of Namibia’s capital Windhoek. Follow me here:

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Discovering Namibia – Detour Johannesburg

Hello, I’m Manon and this is the first part of my story.

Right now, I’m in Namibia, working for an NGO – something I’ve always wanted to do.

On my way there, I stopped in the infamous South African city of “Joburg” for a weekend. Follow me on my journey into the world and into life.