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Text and photos by Ginger Mauney
“When I first visited Etosha in 2000, I thought the elephants and lions would be very nice, but that there had to be something more, something I wasn’t seeing.”
Given the fact that Ute Dieckmann is a social anthropologist, her sentiment was understandable. Where were the people? She knew there was a human imprint on the plains, a long human history where the Hai||om Bushmen had lived as hunter-gathers in co-existence with the animals in Etosha.
Over the next seven years, with the help of the Hai||om, Ute learned to see their imprint and document it, a process that could have ended with the publication of her doctoral thesis on the history and identity of the Hai||om in northern-central Namibia – Hai||om of the Etosha Region: A History of Colonial Settlement, Ethnicity and Nature Conservation – but it didn’t. Unlike many doctorial theses that are relegated to the back shelves in libraries, this information became the basis for the Xoms |Omis Project, a cultural heritage and mapping initiative designed to archive the Hai||om’s cultural, economic and environmental history in Etosha. Today Ute, the Hai||om and other members of the project are working to preserve the Hai||om’s past and, ultimately, to share it with others.
“I became interested in Etosha because of the people,” says Ute. “They shared their stories of the past and gave me an alternative tour of the park. Through their eyes, I saw how connected they were to the land and the animals.”
Working primarily with Hai||om elders who grew up in Etosha, and often guided by four elder men, Kadison ||Khumub (born 1940), Willem Dauxab (born 1938), Hans Haneb (born 1929, died 2006) and Jacob |Uibeb (born 1935, died 2007), Ute plotted a very different history onto maps, redefining places marked by Hai||om memories.
“These are places in Etosha where the Hai||om were born, where the graves of their grandparents still exist. The men I worked with were unique. They didn’t care about making money out of this project; they shared their knowledge with me because they thought to preserve it was important. They want the younger generation to understand and respect their personal history and they want visitors to Etosha to see the park as more than just a place for animals. Etosha is the Hai||om’s place too.”
The series of maps and posters produced by the Xoms |Omis Project celebrates this connection beautifully and informatively. “The creation of these maps takes into account the long human history within the area, the documentation of the ‘forgotten past’, deconstructing the image of Etosha as an untouched and timeless wilderness. The maps present more of the park than the few waterholes accessible to tourists and more than just the fire patterns, animal distribution or vegetation zones. In this way, they aim at presenting a ‘forgotten’ landscape.
One map entitled Hai||om traditional place names of prominent landscape features reveals the close connection the Hai||om had to their natural environment. The map is personal, identifying places where people gathered and slept, important water points, hunting areas, and even individual trees that were a part of the people’s lives. To the Hai||om the names brought meaning and order to the vast landscape of Etosha.
Another map brings to life the traditional ways of hunting and the distribution of resources used by the Hai||om in Etosha. Not only does it relate patterns of animal movements during the seasons and the prevalence of bush foods in certain areas; it also establishes the connection between these areas and those places chosen by the Hai||om as permanent living sites.
Other maps and posters give more detailed information on hunting methods, including tracking, processing and consumption of meat, and weapons and tools used by the Hai||om. Traditional plant resources are also named and explained and the location of fertile gathering grounds is mapped.
A series of large, stylised postcards has also been printed. Each postcard is peppered with archival and current photographs of the Hai||om and the Etosha environs, and has quotes that range from the touching to the bizarre, depending on the perspective of the time versus what is now known of indigenous people and their rights.
Income from project maps, postcards, and booklets goes towards creating capacity-building and sustainable livelihood projects for the Hai||om, an important component of the Xoms |Omis project.
“We want to help the Hai||om make the most of their cultural heritage,” stresses Ute. “The next step in this process is to sit with youngsters and motivate them. Interest in their culture must come hand in hand with employment. When it is clear that there is value in using traditional skills and knowledge, the culture is more likely to be preserved.”
Maps, posters and postcards were printed with financial assistance from Namdeb and GTZ and can be purchased at the Legal Assistance Centre in Windhoek. For further information on the Xoms |Omis Project, contact the Legal Assistance Centre at (061) 22 3356 or Ute Dieckmann at email@example.com.
Read more about Ute Dieckmann’s research in her book, Hai||om of the Etosha Region: A History of Colonial Settlement, Ethnicity and Nature Conservation and in Etosha: Celebrating 100 years of conservation published by Venture Publications in September 2007.
This article was originally published in the Flamingo December 2007 magazine.