Text and photographs Ron Swilling
The novel concept of the Living Museum may seem like a contradiction in terms, but these institutions provide an opportunity for different ethnic groups to retain their cultural identity while benefiting from their traditional skills, and for visitors to experience Namibia’s intriguing cultures.
So, take a bush walk, listen to the vibrant singing and dancing, or spend a day learning about cooking, culture and craft.
The living museums are ‘open-air museums’ where the participants re-enact their traditional lifestyles that are in danger of falling into disuse and becoming lost as the groups begin to identify increasingly with the western world. The Living Museums are supported by the Living Culture Foundation Namibia (LCFN), an NGO that assists people in communal areas to benefit from tourism.
Several living museums now dot the country, giving guests a chance to meet the different Namibian cultural groups. They offer a choice of activities, depending on the preferences of the guests and available time. In the north-eastern section of the country, the three to look out for are the Living Museum of the Ju/’Hoansi-San on the road to Tsumkwe, a short detour that you will be happy you made; the Living Museum of the Mbunza, 14 kilometres west of Rundu; and the Living Museum of the Mafwe on the D3502 turn-off near Kongola in the Caprivi.
Don’t miss the ultimate experience of meeting the light-spirited Ju/’Hoansi Bushmen. This is a highlight on any Southern African trip. These delightful people don their traditional garb for the occasion, and in a reconstructed village treat visitors to a taste of their enchanting and fast-disappearing culture. The Ju/’Hoansi have a passion for showing their traditional way of life, and enjoy interacting with their guests. Programmes are participatory, with visitors having a chance to shoot an arrow, play games, make beads and taste bush foods. Activities include a bushwalk, where visitors are shown tracking skills; how to identify and collect bush food; make a fire the Ju/’Hoansi way; and prepare a snare. Further demonstrations are of singing, dancing and playing games; an action day including all three; craftmaking; and ‘walking in the wild’, a traditional hunter-gatherer trip. The attractive and well-made San/Bushmen jewellery and crafts are also on sale.
Situated at the Samsitu Lake in the Kavango Region, the Mbunza have lived in this area for centuries and share their traditional culture and knowledge with guests at their Living Museum. Their programme includes basket and mat weaving, bushwalks and fishing, blacksmith work, pottery and drum making.
Amid giant baobabs, on the banks of the Kwando River, the Mafwe swing their hips, their reed skirts rattling like chimes in the wind as they join together in an exuberant display of song and dance. The less time-consuming activity on the Mafwe programme includes a bushwalk and singing and dancing, while those with more time can experience the Mafwe’s traditional life, including stamping grain, tasting traditional food, weaving a fishing net or mat, and learning more about the Mafwe’s traditional fishing methods. The day ends with singing and dancing around a campfire.
Providing a new experience for most, the living museums blow the dust off the past, keeping age-old ways of life and traditions alive for subsequent generations.
This article appeared in the July'12 edition of FLAMINGO Magazine.