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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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On the search…

On the search…

Manon Steiner in a fishing boat on the Mekong river in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.

On the lookout over the powerful Mekong – thinking about the meaning of life. ©Manon Steiner

I’m on the search. For what? A sense of belonging, myself, a career I feel worth pursuing, the world and the meaning of it all. The usual stuff. For a long time, I was horrified at the idea of designing my own life and that made me stop short of breath instead of going forward.

I still don’t know what I’m doing or where I’ll end up. I have no master plan and certainly no answer. But there are two things I do know.
First, you do in fact only live once. While this realisation seems to have reached our generation with the much overused term “yolo”, it is only penetrating the surface. People are still chasing money and a certain status in life. That brings me to my second realisation: For me, this is not enough. I want to find inner peace by exploring every bit of life and the world possible.

Because, for those of us who don’t believe in heaven, an afterlife or rebirth, that’s it. And in today’s world of opportunities, choices and expectations, we need to take a break from rushing around to get what we want and think about what it actually is that we need?

One Size doesn’t fit all

If your dream is a good job, a nice apartment and a family, that’s great. Because our society is designed for that. But as we’ve learned from buying jeans and shoes, one size doesn’t fit all, no matter what the shopkeeper is telling you. 

Nowadays, young people don’t necessarily strive for the old dream of a white-fenced house in the suburbs. But talking to my closest friends, I realized that, indeed, I was the only one who wasn’t already on the path towards a promising career and a more or less settled life.

Doomed to live unhappily?

And that stressed me. For over a year, I had been in a job I hated and couldn’t imagine ever liking being tied town by another one. So, was I doomed to live unhappily?

For a long time, I thought so. And then I remembered a dream, I’ve had since I can remember. That dream is to see the world – all of it. And learn as much as possible about this universe. And you can’t do that with a steady job, an apartment and often even with a relationship. I always thought, I was one of the few, feeling this way.

Until, in mid-2016, I finally left my hometown Vienna and stepped out into the world for good. I had always been fortunate enough to travel and to live abroad for a periods of time. But the thought of planning my four to five week holiday each year, evoked in me the kind of “horror” that Mr. Kurz must have felt in the “Heart of Darkness”.

The Berlin-months

Music, fashion, press passes, parties: For 4 beautiful months, this was my life.

So, after some soul searching and quitting my first steady job, I decided to follow dream number two: Being a music journalist for Rolling Stone magazine and living like my idol Hunter S. Thompson.

I secured a short-term freelance position with the German Rolling Stone magazine and embarked onto the Berlin Club scene. The following four months were a exhilarating mix of learning, mind opening, fun, bizarre events and stress. But most importantly, they paved the way for my further decisions.

For one, I realized that even my dream job wasn’t as rosy as I had painted it and that I was in no way ready to settle down or close to living the way I wanted – not even in the amazing city of Berlin – a place that only exists once in the world and that I can recommend to all the lost souls out there.

Finally on the Road

So after four months in Berlin, my boyfriend Tom and I went on a trip to Southeast Asia with no return ticket and no apartment or job to come back to.

Finally on the road in Vietnam. ©Manon Steiner

Finally on the road in Vietnam with Tom. ©Manon Steiner

It was there, that my journey really began. We only had a rough idea of the countries we wanted to see and no specific plan. We bought our ticket three weeks before we left and booked the cheapest flight to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. (Check out pieces and pics of the trip on this site).

Changes happened gradually. They can’t be made manifest on certain events or situations. It was the journey, the people we met, the things we learned, that gave both of us a different perspective on life. And that’s what it’s all about: Seeing the world, the whole world, as it really is with all its beauties and horrors and becoming at peace with it.

I’m not there yet but I am on the way and this is the beginning of my story.

Always ready to capture life with my Canon EOS 750D and my iphone. ©Michael Dande

Always ready to capture life with my Canon EOS 750D and my iphone.
©Michael Dande

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Crazy, adventurous and endlessly curious – Vagabond Manon.

Crazy, adventurous, confused, a tad neurotic and endlessly curious. That’s me, Vagabond Manon.

I am a writer, blogger and self-proclaimed vagabond. Currently I am exploring the world and learning new things every day.

Join me on my quest to figure out life and follow me into the world!

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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.

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Lost in the World

Hi, I’m Manon. According the general consensus, I’m a so called “Millenial” and a member of the Generation Y, or as I’d like to call it: “So many options and no fucking clue what to do with them”.

Published research and books, say that we are all about the “I”, that we are more confident than ever, have more possibilities than our parents, some say we are the luckiest, others we are the unhappiest generation of all. Confusion all over the place. It that sense, it seems fitting.

On the search…

Manon Steiner in a fishing boat on the Mekong river in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.

On the lookout over the powerful Mekong – thinking about the meaning of life. ©Manon Steiner

So, I’m on the search. For what? A possible career, myself, life, the world and the meaning of it all. The usual stuff. For a long time, I was absolutely horrified at the idea of designing my own life and that made me stop short of breath instead of going forward.

I still don’t know what the hell I’m doing or where I’ll end up. I have no master plan and certainly no answer. But there are two things I do know. One is the motto of the current youth, “yolo” – a term coined in 2011 by rapper Drake. Technically it is a term that is supposed to match the feelings of the generation Y. I hate that word. And if you’re like me, you feel already too old to exclaim “yolo” three times a day.

But once you leave your annoyance behind, the meaning behind rings more true than ever. We only live once. Simple, old and yet charged up with new meaning. Because, for those of us who don’t believe in heaven, an afterlife or rebirth, that’s it. And in today’s world of opportunities, choices and expectations, we need to take a break from rushing around to get what we want to think about what it actually is that we really want?

One Size doesn’t fit all

If your dream is a good job, a big house and a family, that’s great. Because our society is designed for that. But as we’ve learned from buying jeans and shoes, one size doesn’t fit all. 

True, nowadays, young people don’t necessarily strive for the old dream of a picked-fenced house in the suburbs. But talking to my closest friends, I realized that, indeed, I was the only one who wasn’t already on the path towards a promising career and the nice apartment, soon to be filled with a baby or two.

Doomed to live unhappily?

And that stressed me, for, at the time, I was about to quit my job and couldn’t imagine ever liking being tied town by another one. So, was I doomed to live unhappily?

For a long time, I thought so. And then I remembered a dream, I’ve had since I can remember. That dream is to see the world – all of it. And you can’t do that with a steady job, an apartment and sometimes even with a relationship. I always thought I was one of the few feeling this way.

Until, a year ago, I finally took the step to leave my hometown Vienna and step out into the world for good. I had always been fortunate enough to travel in the past and lived abroad twice already. But at the thought of planning my four to five week holiday each year, I felt the kind of “horror” that Mr. Kurz must have felt in the “Heart of Darkness”.

The Berlin-months

Music, fashion, press passes, parties: For 4 beautiful months, this was my life.

So after a lot of sole searching and quitting my first job after a year, I decided to follow dream number two: Being a music journalist for Rolling Stone magazine and living like my idol Hunter S. Thompson, thus writing and experiencing with various substances simultaneously.

I secured a short-term freelance position with the German Rolling Stone magazine and embarked onto the Berlin Club scene. The following four months were a great learning experience, mind opening, fun, bizarre, stressful but above all, they paved the path for my further decision-making process.

For one, I realized that even my dream job wasn’t as rosy as I had painted it and that I was in no way ready to settle down. Not even in an amazing city like Berlin – a place that only exists once in the world and that I can recommend to all the lost souls out there.

Finally on the Road

So after four months my boyfriend Tom and I went on a trip to Southeast Asia with no return ticket and no job to come back to. I’ve always travelled but it was there, that my journey really began. We only had a rough idea of the countries we wanted to see and no specific plan whatsoever. Our ticket we bought three weeks before we left. Since we didn’t have any priorities, we booked the cheapest flight available to Ho Chi Minh or Saigon in Vietnam (the only place I didn’t want to go to was Thailand as I had already traveled it). Pieces and pics of the trip I will share with you in various different posts.

Beautiful beach in Myanmar, at a hidden spot in front of the Indian Ocean. ©Manon Steiner

Finding paradise: At a beach at Southern cost of Myanmar engulfed by the Indian Ocean. ©Manon Steiner