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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?


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.