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  • Writer's pictureEtosha-Kunene Histories

!Nara harvesters of the northern Namib: new paper!

Acanthosicyos horridus growing near the mouth of the !Uniab River, where harvesters used to gather !nara melons in the past. Photo: Sian Sullivan, May 2019. 

A new article from research through Etosha-Kunene Histories has recently been published by Sian Sullivan with Namibian collaborator Welhemina Suro Ganuses. The paper is entitled !Nara harvesters of the northern Namib: a cultural history through three photographed encounters”. It is an invited contribution published in the Journal of the Namibian Scientific Society for a Special Issue commemorating the 60th year of Gobabeb Namib Research Institute in Namibia, where Sian is a Research Associate.

Images of Gobabeb from the 1960s (below) and the present (above), as used for the cover of the Gobabeb@60 Special Issue of the Journal of the Namibian Scientific Society (Issue 69, 2022).

The article weaves together oral history, archive history and heritage mapping to draw into focus very marginalised Indigenous histories in north-west Namibia. It works in part with material published in a lengthier report by Sian for Namibia's Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism (MEFT) called "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". Using images from 1895/6, 1955 and our own recent research – as shared below – we explore histories of human presence in the northern Namib, now the Skeleton Coast National Park. Uninhabited now except for tourism, this landscape has a rich cultural history from which people have been excluded.

Photograph taken at the Hoanib River mouth by Dr Georg Hartmann, surveyor for the Kaoko Land and Mining Company, and published in 1897. Captioned as "Group of sea-bushmen at Hoanib mouth; captain with a woman in the foreground". Source: Hartmann 1897: 129 (out of copyright)

Images taken in Sesfontein and published in 1955 with the captions (L) "Three Strandlopers of Sesfontein S.W.A., standing in front of their rude hut built of wood, bark, palm fronds and grass"; (R) "The same three Strandlopers seated or squatting, the tall one on the right side of the previous picture having changed over to the left side in this picture". Source: Dart 1955: 176 (out of copyright). Through working with living individuals in Sesfontein we have identified two of the men photographed here (there are in fact four men in the photos, as the three images are not of exactly the same men). Our paper draws out some of the realities of the lives of these men, beyond the objectifying and often racist observations published with the images in 1955.

Franz |Haen ǁHoëb, now resident in Sesfontein, stands at the grave of his grand-father ǂGîeb in 2019, having told us repeatedly about this grave in previous interviews. The footsteps from a recent sports run across the desert are clearly visible around the grave. The dwelling place of Daniro (the place of honey/danib), where ǁUbu people lived in the past, is close to the !Uniab River on the right of the image. Photo: Sian Sullivan, May 2019.

Inspired by hearing elderly people talk about harvesting !nara from northern coastal dune areas in the past, we've worked to reconstruct mobilities & knowledge practices, & relocate graves of known ancestors, in this seemingly empty landscape.

!Nara plants on dunes in the lower Hoanib river. Photo: Sian Sullivan, November 2015.

In this short film, for example, the late Hildegaart |Nuas tells us of how !nara was harvested in the Hoanib River mouth in the past.


The article's abstract in English and Khoekhoegowab, for which we thank Kenneth |Uiseb of the MEFT, is shared below:

English: We report on Indigenous cultural heritage and histories associated with the northern Namib desert, designated since 1971 as the Skeleton Coast National Park. Review of historical documents and oral histories from elderly people with direct and familial memories of accessing and living in the northern Namib show how places and resources were used here by Khoekhoegowab-speaking peoples in the past. A focus of this use was the availability of valued foods, especially melons of the !nara (Acanthosicyos horridus). Three photographed encounters provide focus for a narrative connecting memories about the northern Namib that stretch back to the first European colonial journeys into this remote area of north-west Namibia. In ‘repeopling’ the northern Namib, we aim to also ‘rehumanise’ documented colonial encounters that objectified and diminished the peoples who knew, accessed and dwelled in this now protected area.

Khoekhoegowab Nēba ta ge ǃhūǁî khoen di ǃhaoǃnabe ǁnaedigu tsî ǀuǀarus ǀawasǀkhab Namib ǀGowas dib hîna ge 1971 ǁî gurib ǃnâ ǃûihesa ǃkhaib ase ǂanheb xara ǃnuri. ǀUǀarusi xoa-ain tsî kai khoen hîna ǀaokhoesi ǃgaeǁarede Namib ǃnâ ge ǁgan hâ-î khoen ǀkha ge uhâ in di ǁgaeǂhoân ge ra ǁgau Khoekhoegowaba ra ǃhoa khoen ge ǀawas Namib disa ǃharu ge ǁaeb ǃnâ ge re sîsen u ǃkhaisa. Nē sîsen-us ge lo-aisase ǃgarob ǂûn, ǃgosasa ǃnaran (Acanthosicyos horridus) di hâs tsî hohes ai ge ǃgaoǃgaosa i. ǃNona ǃhoǁnahege a ai-isigu ge ra ǁapoǁapo tsî ra ǀhaoǀhao ǁnâ ǂâihodi tamas gara io mûnanaidi ǀawas Namib disa ǃoa hâde hîna ǂguro ǃurikhoen Europapa xu hân gere nē kaise a ǃnū ǀawas-hurib ǀkhab Namibiab dis ǃna ǃnarima ǁaeba ǃoa. Sida di ditsâs khoena ǀawas Namib dis ǀkha ǃgaeǁares ǃnâ da ge ra siǃnâ ǂgao, nē lkharib xa a xoasa ǀuǀarus ǃurikhoenxas hîna ǁnāba ge hâ tsî ǁnabara hohe huisen-uxuna gere sîsen u khoena xoaǁauǁau tsî ǂkhariǃgôasa di unusa.

Dedication & acknowledgements

The article is dedicated to the late Michael |Amigu Ganaseb (d. 30 April 2022), who shared his memories of the northern Namib with us, as in this quote from a conversation with him and his partner Christophine Daumû Tauros on 7 April 2014:

“The !Narenin people are the people of Sarusas and down there in Hoanib, but the ǁUbun people are the people who are coming from Walvis Bay. Now along the ocean there are the huts of the ǁUbun people they built with ribs of the whale. So the !Narenin are this side—Purros side. ... The ǁUbun, they move from the !Uniab to the Hoanib, and the !Narenin are also moving from Sarusas [north of the Hoarusib] where they are, to the Hoanib.”
The late Michael |Amigu Ganaseb, portrait by Oliver Halsey, Sesfontein/!Nani|aus, 25 May 2019.

We also gratefully acknowledge the assistance and support of many others:

& about the authors...

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