Riemvasmakers: The Peaceful Simplicity of Life

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Gerhard and an ancient camel-thorn in the Aba-Huab River, a few kilometres from the small settlement of De Riet.

Text and Photographs Elzanne Erasmus 

Oom Willem and Tannie Fredricka Basson give me a knowing smile when I say that it’s good to be out of the city for a change. They know all about the simple and quiet life. They have come to grips with it here in their valley of solitude. After being instructed to move to Damaraland in Namibia nearly half a century ago by the South African apartheid government, they have made a home for themselves here.

Oom Willem asks me if I am Namibian. “Yes,” I say, “born and raised.” “That’s good”, he replies. “It’s good to be a Namibian. Now I am one, too.” 

Despite the way the Riemvasmakers found their way to Namibia, the small community thrives in the arid region west of Khoixas. Some live at Bergsig, some at Vrede, and some, like Bassons at De Riet, a small cluster of informal structures close to the Aba-Huab River. With little fencing to protect themselves or their livestock, the pre-fab church destroyed by a heavy rainstorm last year, they don’t have much. But what they have been able to hold on to through all the disruption caused by the relocation, and years of living in harsh conditions is a sense of self and culture, as well as their beautiful Afrikaans mother tongue vocabulary that sets them apart from many cultural groups in the area. A community less than 100 people strong, Tannie Fredricka, or Ouma Gannas as many know her, says that they are all close friends. The Bassons only have Oom Willem’s sister and her husband as direct local family, but the people who live here enjoy a neighbourly camaraderie forged by growing up and old together, sharing the strain of displacement, hardships, the joys of new family members, the sorrow of losing others. Tomorrow is the Bassons’ 49th wedding anniversary. I promise to return fro their 50th next year. Such a special auspicious event deserves a huge golden celebration, so let us dance under the starry Damaraland skies!

“Your wife looks much younger than you,” jokes Gerhard, my travelling companion. “It’s because I took such good care of her,” Oom Willem replies cheekily.

The children stare in awe at the bicycles we have mounted onto the roof of the Landy. How much fun would a two-wheeled toy such as that be, to spin around with it the dust around the house. But the harsh conditions wouldn’t allow it to last. I see two old bicycles upended in a neighbouring yard. One of them misses a wheel, no chain on the other. Handlebars bare metal rods. Time and the elements take their toll. But despite all this, there is colour and life in this small community. A vibrant little kindergarten, a spot of brightness among the otherwise muted desert tones. The teacher waits patiently at the open doors for all her pupils to make it to the classroom. There is no set time for school to start. They filter in one after the other as soon as mum has finished her morning routine and gotten the young ones clean and ready for the day. Here they laugh and play and learn, then walk back home once the morning’s lesson is over. The older kids attend a primary school at Bergsig some kilometres away.

A lovely cup of tea, a quick visit. We talk about the weather. A cliché to some, but a necessity among Namibians. The rain, or lack of it, is always a mutually engaging and indulgent topic amongst locals of this arid land. “Is there grazing left, Oom Willem?” “No, none, but the goats wander downriver for some green bushes to nibble on.” It is there, due to a lack of manpower to herd the goats, a lack of infrastructure to protect them, that livestock is lost to predators such as the desert lions that roam the region. The human-wildlife conflict is all too real for communities such as the Riemvasmakers of De Riet. The quintessential debate ensuing on how to preserve the wild species while at the same time protecting the livelihood of the local inhabitants who live among them. A lion ranger programme is once again underway in the area, which will hopefully help curb the problem. IRDNC is helping where they can, trying to warn communities if a lion or pride is in the surroundings, and setting up deterrent mechanisms.

Here at De Riet, old and young live on the banks of a river which is mostly dry all year. The able-bodied members of their community work in town (Khorixas or as far as Windhoek) or in lodges in the surrounding area. Tannie Fredricka bakes cookies for the Wilderness Safaris lodges nearby. Oom Willem sells a goat, if there is one to sell, when it is time for them to make a trek back to Kakamas in South Africa for a wedding or a funeral. They have been here in this small corner of nowhere since March 11th, 1974. The Bassons welcome tourists for a visit. A chat paired with a cup of tea. The lost art of getting to know someone just for the sake of it. That is the slow-paced, minimal yet peaceful beauty of life for the Riemvasmakers at De Riet. 

This article was published in the Winter 2018 edition of Travel News Namibia.
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia is a high-quality glossy Namibia travel and lifestyle magazine tasked with promoting Namibia to the world. With riveting stories, first-hand encounters and magnificent photographs showcasing tourism, travel, nature, adventure and conservation, TNN is the ultimate and most comprehensive guide to exploring Namibia. Travel News Namibia is published in five different editions per year. These include four English- language editions and one German. Travel News Namibia is for sale in Namibia and South Africa.

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