By Conrad Brain
Ngobib is a small perennial spring on the south-eastern side of the vast Etosha Pan. Its name means ‘the water becomes less’ and it is also known as a waterhole associated with numerous and frequent encounters with snakes. It is perhaps this association that caused a small group of Hai//om Bushmen to establish their camp a short distance from Ngobib, and it was here that Jan Tsumeb, a child who grew to embody the spirit of Etosha, was born.
It was only much later, very much later, that Jan Tsumeb became known as Ou Jan. As a boy, Ou Jan lived and walked the plains of Etosha. His home was close to Ngobib and his backyard stretched to infinity. But in the 1950s his backyard became a lot smaller. His family and other Hai//om groups were gathered and moved out of their existence to centres appropriate for a national park. For Ou Jan and his family this new place was Onguma, which borders on eastern Etosha alongside Fisher’s Pan. At Onguma, besides adapting to a new life, Ou Jan met Selinda and a lifelong bond was formed. The bond enhanced and sustained a feeling that was already there: a love and lifetime devotion to Etosha.
As with many of the Hai//om people born in the wilds of Etosha, Ou Jan took a job with the former Directorate of Nature Conservation and Tourism. With an inherent understanding of wildlife and its ways, he initially worked on problem animal management, especially problem elephant situations. It was during this time that he had to dive out of the way of a charging elephant. One of the elephant’s feet brushed the side of his head as he lay there, but he miraculously escaped death. Ou Jan’s comment after the incident was that he had never previously realised how big an elephant was, as from that prostrate and vulnerable attitude, the animal seemed to reach the heavens.
Thereafter, Ou Jan worked extensively with Etosha’s veterinarian, Dr Ian Hofmeyr, specifically on the pioneering introductions of black rhino into Etosha. Ou Jan played a pivotal role in the rhino boma constructions at Chudop and later managing the animals inside the boma with Dr Hofmeyr. His transport was a horse and with the development of newer rhino bomas at Chudop and Kamaseb, Ou Jan clocked up many kilometres in the saddle commuting between them. With this continuous time in the field, in permanent contact with all the elements of Etosha, Ou Jan became a true treasure chest of knowledge and understanding of a complex ecosystem. This did not go unnoticed by the younger Hai//om working in the park. In the words of Johannes Kapner, a scout based in Okaukuejo, “There was never anything Ou Jan couldn’t do or didn’t know. He was always keen to teach us, but was also very strict. He applied discipline to everything he did. This you can also see in his children.”
Even after completion of the rhino work, the cessation of horseback patrols and a return to more routine management activities, Ou Jan maintained an unprecedented depth of understanding of Etosha. Even recently, just before his retirement, this fact was made graphically clear to me. I had been radio tracking elephants for over a year, using an aircraft to locate and map the marked herds, when suddenly I lost two herds. As improbable as this may sound, it happened and with everything at my disposal – an airplane, a vehicle, radio telemetry and collared animals – I couldn’t locate the missing elephants. I consulted Ou Jan. He laughed and said that they had probably gone swimming. Elephants swimming in late December in Etosha seemed somewhat unlikely, so I asked where. “Oh, near Tsinsabis,” was his answer. He had seen herds move past his house at Onguma about thirty years ago and had followed them, to find a big pool and all the elephants swimming in it. So we set out and there, more than sixty kilometres from where I had been looking, was an enormous depression that had miraculously received an isolated downpour. In places the pool was so deep that only the trunks of the swimming elephants could be seen sticking out, like snorkels, and there indeed were the missing elephants.
Ou Jan and his wife Selinda have now retired and live in a small dwelling at Oshivelo. All their children were born in Etosha, as were their four grandchildren. In fact, two of his sons are employed in the park, working as scouts with the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. An absolute wealth of experience, heritage, history and passion for Etosha is now ensconced at Oshivelo. It is hoped in all sincerity that this knowledge will be drawn upon, consulted and, wherever possible, documented, so as to fully appreciate a lifetime of dedication to Etosha.
This article appeared in the 2006/7 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.