Text and photographs: Marita van Rooyen
Text and photographs: Marita van Rooyen
Romansia ‘Roos’ Roman fashes her contagious smile as she invites guests at the lodge where she works to a glass of the legendary desert refreshment, Desert Rose, a drink she invented herself. It consists of a combination of secret ingredients plus a shot of kaktusfeigen (prickly pear) juice that varies in colour from season to season, and ensures a soft pink tinge that “puts everyone who drinks it in a good mood!”Roos is part of the Riemvasmaker community who lives in the area. Her grandmother, at 90 years old, is one of the original members who were forcibly removed from their former land south of the Orange River (See box for a short history of the Riemvasmaker). Roughly halfway between Khorixas and Palmwag, close to where the dry Huab and Aba-Huab rivers meet, is where Roos and many of the Riemvasmaker call home. Here, communal farms flank small settlements like the community headquarters of De Riet. On their share of communal land, aptly named Spaarwater (save water), the Roman family farms with goats, sheep, donkeys and chickens, as do others in the community who still rely on subsistence farming to survive. A few brave ones also try their luck at crop farming, but for most, it’s not worth the struggle because the elephants tend to take the upper hand.
Said to hail from an environment of stark, natural beauty and rare mineral deposits, members of the Riemvasmaker community were moved to the barren, rocky landscapes of north-western Namibia in 1973-74 under the Apartheid regime.The area they have occupied since then has proven somewhat challenging. With sparse rainfall of 50-100 mm per year, it is dominated by dry riverbeds, rocky mountain outcrops and arid gravel plains. Adequate water supply and grazing have always been among the community’s biggest concerns. For many, the challenge is not only a shortage of grazing but also human-wildlife conflict management.Still, the largely untouched natural environment holds its own unique charm – and over time had become home – so much so that when in 1994 the community was given the opportunity to return to Kakamas in South Africa, many of them opted to stay.
In recent years the Riemvasmaker and their surroundings have grown in popularity among travellers in search of cultural experiences and off-the-beaten-track destinations. As a result, many community members have found jobs in the tourism industry.Roos takes pride in her position as a waitress at the exclusive, award-winning Damaraland Camp (part of the Wilderness Safaris portfolio, it boasts an inspirational partnership with the local community). Based in a remote, ancient valley of the Torra Conservancy where desert elephants still roam, she happily spends most of her days serving Desert Roses (and other refreshments) and dreams of working her way up to become general lodge manager in the not so distant future.Apart from being fluent in a very poetic, pure Afrikaans – her home language over many generations – as well as Damara and English, she also speaks a bit of German, Otjiherero and Oshiwambo. As a citizen of a country with 13 ethnic groups, she believes that the more languages one can speak the better we can all get along. Of course, it also helps to communicate with foreign visitors to the area.
Around the time Roos’s grandparents arrived in the region, Ouma Johanna Rhyn and her husband settled at Fonteine near present-day Damaraland Camp. “I cried a lot when we first arrived here. There were so many rocks and mountains,” Ouma Johanna recalls. While she fondly remembers her days as a young woman in Kakamas – the town in South Africa where she grew up gathering cotton, cutting grapes, shelling peas and managing the kitchen – she soon became used to the rugged Kunene environment. She had nine children when she was resettled, but only six survived, three boys and three girls. “Later the Lord took the girls as well,” she says. The early years were hard. Her eldest son, Oom Jantjie Rhyn, and his family live with her at Fonteine. A former farmer and leader in communal conservation, Jantjie has retired “to also enjoy a taste of what I’ve helped to create here”. The Rhyn legacy and perseverance continues, and his children and grandchildren are now in charge of farming activities.
One day I asked my grandmother why some people have whiter skins than us Riemvasmakers. She said, “come here my child, and I will tell you”. But I knew my grandma too well. She liked to pinch my ears or give me a slap when I was a bit naughty. So I stayed far away and told her that I could hear her very well from where I was standing. She gave me a funny look, but then she started telling the story: Long ago there was a big dam. The Lord said that everyone should come to swim in the dam, to wash away their sins. The first group of people came and jumped into the water. They stayed in the water for such a long time that their skins turned a luminescent white. And those were the albinos.The next group came and jumped into the dam. They also enjoyed the water too much, so when they came out, they were white. And those were the white people.And then, finally, it was our turn. We went to the water and touched it with the bottom of our feet and hands and immediately realised, “Oh, it’s cold!” And so, our people stayed a bit dark, except for those spots where we touched the water.And you know, my grandmother can tell a story in such a way that you feel as if you’re part of it. For a long time, I believed her story to be the only truth as to why some people are different than others.
Oom Jantjie was 20 years old when he arrived in Namibia. “When we first moved here, we were not used to co-existing with lions and elephants,” he says. “The reality came as a big shock, and suddenly we had to make peace with a very different life. Over the years we had to learn how to use the presence of wildlife to our advantage.”
Despite the challenges, Oom Jantjie believes that Namibia provides better opportunities than his former homeland. “Communal farming is a different concept here than what it is in South Africa. Yes, we have our testing times, but we learnt to work with what we have.”
With support from the government, the community formed a trust with the aim to find a communal way of wildlife management. “In the beginning, our community reacted with doubt to the idea”, Oom Jantjie recalls. “Many asked what benefit they would get out of protecting predators that pose a threat to their livestock. Meeting after meeting, and finally, most of the members agreed: we could create jobs and generate income by managing our wildlife better. Wildlife could bring more tourists to our community.”
Today, tourism is one of the main livelihoods for many in the Riemvasmaker community.
Oom Jantjie explains that the advances in tourism lead to a decrease in farming activities, as the former provides a more ‘stable’ source of income. “Tourism brought a lot of positive change to our community, but still, there are many who prefer sticking to farming, and our farmers face big challenges with human-wildlife conflict. To co-exist with wildlife is not an easy life.” He has had numerous face-offs with destructive elephants and hungry lions. “Elephants are a problem to our gardens and water points, lions and hyenas to our goats, donkeys, calves and even fully grown cattle.”
Oom Jantjie started his farm with 40 heads of cattle. Today he has seven left, if not as a result of the predators, then due to the drought. The family garden – despite its sponsored electric fence – has been destroyed by rogue elephants, and he has given up trying.
“We want the wild animals here for our future generations, but we also want to be able to continue farming, today and tomorrow. It’s a tough choice, but we have to keep in mind that the conservancy concept is for our children, not for us. We’re doing this for future generations,” Oom Jantjie emphasises.
If you find yourself fortunate enough to pass through De Riet on your way to an inspiring Kunene landscape, be sure to make a stop at the De Riet Information Centre.
A community initiative, in partnership with TOSCO (Tourism in Support of Conservation), the centre was only recently opened to the public. It is housed in an eye-catching historic building, and apart from refreshments, crafts and space to mingle with the local community, also provides detailed information on the Torra Conservancy, the Riemvasmaker community, desert-dwelling elephants and other wildlife found in the surroundings.
The centre is open every day. It is run by the friendly Rebecca Adams who can be contacted at +264 81 3429965. Visitors can also email email@example.com for more information about the centre.
In October each year, the Riemvasmakers host a Cultural Festival at De Riet with traditional song, dance and delicatessen. It is worth a visit if you happen to be in the area. Visits to the local settlements can be an enriching cultural experience, which can be organised through lodges or via tour operators.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of TNN.