Could living museums keep indigenous culture alive?

In Namibia San people are finding ways to adapt to modern life whilst keeping their culture and connection to ancestors alive.

The scorching sun illuminates the golden rocks scattered across the Erongo region, in central-western Namibia. Yellow mountains, typical of this area, envelope a small, fictional village that attracts plenty of tourists every year.

A group of women and children gather in a semicircle, chanting traditional songs from their ancestors. Tourists with flashing cameras hanging from their necks smile at them and clap their hands, others film their performance on smartphones. What could be mistaken for an intrusive form of tourism is actually a business started by locals

A short man dressed in an animal skin costume, typically worn by his ancestors, welcomes tourists in perfect English, bridging the gap between visitors and his fellow countrymen. The feeling of stepping into both a traditional bushmen village and the set of a movie is confusing. Yet, San people, a highly marginalised ethnic group in Namibia, have found a way to keep their traditions alive. All before the mesmerised eyes of paying visitors. 

Living museums

Here at the Ju/’Hoansi-San Living Museum – set on a private land that houses the Omandumba farm – the men and women wearing the traditional clothes are actors whose performances are paid for. 

The San, also known as “Bushmen”, are a hunter-gatherer indigenous group that inhabits southern Africa, in areas spanning Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Angola. Anthropologists believe they are the oldest groups in the area, tracing back their origins to at least 20,000 years ago.  

Today, many San groups no longer live in the bush. Forced resettlements during the colonial era and, more recently, safari companies, have uprooted San groups from their ancestral lands, decreasing their ability to be self-sufficient and threatening their heritage, according to the NGO Survival International. Many are adapting to a modern life although some don’t have access to electricity, running water or technology. 

The museum is a private educational institution without any external financial aid – says a leaflet –  and, as such, princes are not negotiable. 

“The aim of the museum is not to get people back to live like they did centuries ago. The actors are not living like this anymore, they do lead modern lives,” Kathrin Dürrschmidt, from the Living Museum Foundation, told Words in the Bucket.  

“On Omandumba, the San are staying in a house close to the museum. The actors there change every three months so that they get home to their families, whilst the next group performs,” she continued. Short visits at the museum last about 30 minutes, but for N$600 ($41) visitors can spend an entire day with the group and learn more about their vast and often neglected culture. Tourists also have the option to witness traditional hunting techniques and visit ancestral places, rich in century-old rock paintings and carvings.

Acting to keep traditions alive 

Living museums – there are plenty across the country – have become a sustainable communal business that allows disenfranchised communities to earn a living, keep their culture alive and connect with younger generations usually more prone to embracing modern lives and forget the connection to nature that has characterised the San for millennia.  

“Living museum help to bring back the pride of the San”

Kileni Fernando, co-founder of a San youth organization, //Ana-Jeh San Trust, and coordinator of the Namibia San Council (NSC), tells us that living museums are a great way to keep her people’s traditions alive, in the face of land grabbing and a loss of connection to ancestral lands. 

“[During] the migration of the Bantu people in Namibia, the Bantu chased the San out of their territories. When the white colonialists came along, they further grabbed land from the San and the Bantu,”  she told Words in the Bucket.

“[They] erected fences making commercial farms, leaving only small portions of land for the San and other Bantu speaking people. The areas allocated to us and some of our livelihood [are] limited and hunting is prohibited [except] for the San in Naye Naye. Today, Tsumkwe is the only area where the San have their own land, but the rest live on resettlement farms, working under either Bantu farmers, or white farmers. 

“Living museums [are] the best way to preserve our culture and to educate our younger generation about our history and cultural practices. Living museum help to bring back the pride of the San. They will be proud of who they are, and preserve their culture for future generation[s].”

Acting to make a living 

In addition to isolation, San and other communities in Namibia are facing a severe drought, the worst in decades. At least 500,000 people – or one in five Namibians – have been affected and more than 60,000 animals have died since the start of the year. 

 Earlier in 2019, President Hage Geingob declared a state of emergency – the second in three years – and appealed to the international community to come together to help the country, which imports most of its food items from nearby nations, particularly from South Africa. 

In this context, disenfranchised and often isolated communities can struggle to access goods and services. Deprived of their traditional way of living, remunerative activities like the living museums can be an alternative way to make a living, as proceeds benefit the local community. 

Ludovica Iaccino

“Living museums provide employment for the San, and it differs from person to person,” Fernando explained. 

“Some San people actually have choices to apply for work anywhere they want, when they have the necessary qualifications and experience for the job, but most choose to stay closer to the family and their people.

“This is because they feel the outside world is not safe for them or they will be discriminated against, which has a negative impact on their confidence. There are a few San who are employed in towns and in the city, but those who complete their tertiary education usually [go] back to their own communities and work there, for example, [as] nurses and teachers,” she continued. 

Tackling marginalisation

Several organisations have claimed that San people are isolated and discriminated against in countries including Namibia. Landless and isolated, these communities can struggle to access goods and services. 

Both the //Ana-Jeh San Trust and the NSC aim to increase representation of San people and their needs and promote social, economic and political development of San communities. 

Although some San reject the term “marginalised”, arguing that it perpetuates stereotypes that keep people in poverty, San people are included in the Marginalised Communities Division created by the Namibian government in 2015. The division aims to integrate communities in Namibian society and economy by creating income-generating activities and providing education and sustainable livelihoods. 

“In a short span of time, the programme has recorded considerable achievements in the provision of land, livestock, education, clean drinking water, livelihood support goods, conservancies and better housing to bring these communities on par with the ‘mainstream population’ in Namibia,” said a government statement referring to development programmes for the San.   

Ludovica Iaccino

However, Fernando believes that integration is a slow process. The trust she co-founded, for example, works to help San people access education services. However, school absenteeism amongst the San can be tackled only if curricula include traditional San “culture and knowledge”, teaching bodies hire San teachers and work together to end perceived discrimination and violence against San children at schools. 

The San as we all know are the most marginalised people in Namibia, in fact, the whole of Southern Africa,” Fernando said. “The world is moving so fast, and the San are losing their way of living and, at the same time, trying to adapt to the modern lifestyle, and it is difficult and slow for them to change.”

Although local and international NGOs are making efforts to help the San integrate and access services- such as schools and health clinics – activists believe integration will succeed only if it can centre around preserving San people’s identity and culture. 

Living museums could be part of the answer. 

Human RightsOpinion

Ludovica Iaccino is a London-based press officer for children's charity World Vision. Previously, she worked as a foreign news reporter for the International Business Times and Newsweek, focussing on Sub-Saharan Africa. She has reported extensively on Nigeria and her work features interviews with local activists, politicians, survivors of terror attacks and analyses on terrorism and development. She is the author of “The Silence of Nyamata”, a historical novel about the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
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