Cultural heritage and histories of the Northern Namib
Following a request by Mr Kenneth |Uiseb, Deputy Director of Wildlife Monitoring and Research for Namibia's Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism, the UK Principal Investigator for Etosha-Kunene Histories has contributed a report on cultural histories and heritage to support the new Management Plan for the Skeleton Coast National Park (2020/21 - 2030/31). The report builds on prior research, and overlaps with especially the 1st, 2nd & 4th Work Packages of the Etosha-Kunene Histories project.
The full report title is 'Cultural heritage and histories of the Northern Namib: historical and oral history observations for the Draft Management Plan, Skeleton Coast National Park 2021/2022-2030/2031', and it has been published as Future Pasts Working Paper 12.
The report shares documented information for Indigenous cultural heritage and histories associated with the Northern Namib, designated since 1971 as the Skeleton Coast National Park. It draws on two principal sources of information.
First are historical documents stretching back to the late 1800s. These texts flesh out histories of the Northern Namib, by tracing the first European colonial journeys there in the course of prospecting for minerals and other economic opportunities, for example when Namibia’s north-west was considered owned by the German colonial Kaoko Land & Mining Co., as demarcated in the map below.
These journeys encountered people living on the coast, harvesting !nara melons and marine resources there. As shown, for example, in this defiant image of ‘Seebüschmanner’ at the Hoanib River mouth, taken during 1895/6 expedition by German surveyor Georg Hartmann (after whom Hartmann's zebra, endemic to west Namibia and south-west Angola, are named).
The second main source of information is from oral history research with now elderly people who have direct and familial memories of using and living in areas now within the Park boundary. Some elderly people today thus recall harvesting !nara at locations now in the Park. For example, see this short film of much loved Sesfontein resident Hildegaart |Nuas tells of how she grew up with !nara in the Hoanib in the past.
The research reported here affirms that localities and resources now included within the Skeleton Coast National Park were used by local people in historical times, their access linked with the availability of valued foods, especially !nara (Acanthosicyos horridus) melons and marine foods such as mussels. Memories about these localities, resources and heritage concerns such as graves of family members remain alive for some individuals and their families today.
Read together, the historical and oral history material shared in this paper convey a different version of the Northern Namib to that which is vivid in the popular imagination, namely the wild, desolate beauty of the ‘SkeletonCoast’.
Instead, the Northern Namib comes into focus as a remembered landscape, a source of valued foods, and where known and unknown ancestors are buried – for example the grave of ǁUbun ancestor ǂGîeb, located exactly as his grandson had told us, behind the dunes near the !Uniab River mouth…
These concerns retain cultural resonance in the contemporary moment, despite significant access constraints over the last several decades. Suggestions are made for foregrounding an understanding of the Northern Namib as a remembered cultural landscape as well as an area of high conservation value, and for protecting and perhaps restoring some access to sites that may be considered of significant cultural heritage value. Such sites include graves of known ancestors and named and remembered former dwelling places.
The material shared in the report may thus contribute to a diversified recognition of values for the Skeleton Coast National Park for the new Management Plan that will shape ecological and heritage conservation practice and visitor experiences over the next 10 years.
Key words. Northern Namib; on-site oral history; cultural landscapes; Indigenous histories; Khoekhoegowab; !nara (Acanthosicyos horridus); Skeleton Coast National Park; Namibia