By Sian Sullivan
It was when doing field research for my PhD in the mid-1990s that I first learned of local histories embedded in the broader landscape around the settlement of Sesfontein / !Nani|aus, north-west Namibia. This is an area known today for its spectacular landscapes and desert-adapted black rhino and elephant. It is a sought after tourism destination now catered for by luxury eco-lodges linked to locally-run conservancies. But I have come to learn that the landscapes described as ‘wilderness’ in tourism brochures advertising the area are also full of the traces of former dwelling places and the graves of known ancestors. And that people alive today were amongst those who lived at these places and who remember what they were like in times past.
I started recording oral histories in the area in 1999. I borrowed an old cassette recorder from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London where I was then working, and recorded some 885 minutes of oral history interviews with Damara / ≠Nūkhoen individuals known to me through my PhD research. These individuals lived throughout the former Namibian ‘homeland’ of ‘Damaraland’: in Sesfontein / !Nani|aus; on redistributed former Afrikaans settler farms near the Aba-||Huab river; and in settlements along the !U≠gāb river.
‘I was born in Sixori in Hurubes’
The first of these interviews, on 15th April 1999, was with the grandmother of Suro Ganuses, a ≠Nūkhoen woman from Sesfontein who in 1994 had become my companion and translator whilst carrying out ethnographic field research for my PhD. Suro’s grandmother, Philippine |Hairo ||Nowaxas, pictured here in 1999 outside her home in Sesfontein, opened her narrative by saying,
I was born at Sixori in Hurubes.
We moved around and moved around. My father was really from this place [!Nani|aus] and my mother was from Hurubes, really she’s from Hurubes; she’s ||Khao-a Damara.
This is Sixori, this is Tsaugugam, this is Oronguari, this is the home of Xoms, here is the field [!garob]. I move to and sleep at the places where the rain falls, because the food is there.