Damaraland – A Place of Preservation

Mama Regina Heibes says stink bush helps with gastric problems but we should be sure to drink it alone. The effects are quick and the wind is strong and it’s better to be without company.

For kidney problems or men who can’t make babies she recommends longiflora, a bright green plant she pulls from a shallow woven basket in a forgotten world.  A place of eternal fires, opinion stones and young men chanting “burn, fire, burn” as they bend low, vigorously summoning the spark that will make them worthy of a spouse.

“If a man cannot produce fire, he will not have a wife.”

That is the way of the Damara people and it’s told to us in clicks.

In the melodic Khoekhoe language, they share with the Nama and the San that so confounds anthropologists because the Damara are a Bantu people. Ancient hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, coppersmiths and communal land owners who once occupied central Namibia before being displaced by the Nama and Herero and later forced into an area ranging from Uis to Sesfontein by the apartheid government who called the Bantustan “Damaraland”.

This is where we find Mama Regina.

She sits on the ground through a time-turning stone portal about 10km from Twyfelfontein’s “doubtful fountain” where she relays the old ways at the Damara Living Museum in North West Namibia.

Wearing the traditional goat skin ǃgūb (loincloth), young Rustan! Rwuseb translates and walks us through the settlement, proudly introducing us to the simulation’s blacksmiths and jewellery makers before the whole village bursts into song.

Just seven years old, the Damara Living Museum is the first of its kind and strives to honour and preserve Damara culture while expounding on its legends. Incredible tales of disputing chiefs who settled their quarrels with a traditional owela style stone game at times unwittingly played with diamonds with wives and children as the spoils. 

Around the living museum, the land is harsh.

Sand sears, shade is luxury and rain seems a thing of imagination.

But there is more than the site of poor soil and irregular rainfall into which the Damara were flung.

Rocks red and endless, mountains burnt, flat or columnar like an organ, sand sprawling and sprouting Welwitschia and grasslands golf course green depending on where the rain has been.

Defiant, contrasting and compelling, we, a group of intrepid woman journalists, journey to Damaraland with Wilderness Safaris – Africa’s foremost eco-tourism operator. 

Entrusted to tour guides Franco Morao and Jermain Ketji, we board a seven seater safari vehicle to drive the 500km to Doro Nawas Camp where the Etendeka Mountains wait beyond Khorixas and the many roadside stalls selling tribal dolls and the finest crystals the parched earth has to offer.

As we bump through the ever changing landscape and graduating light, Franco eagerly points out the fauna and flora we encounter on the way. He’s been fascinated by Namibia’s plants and animals since he was child and his enthusiasm seems to swell with each kilometre.

Born in Gobabis and placed in Windhoek’s SOS Children’s Village when he was just two years old, Franco has been connected to Wilderness Safaris since he was teenager.

Invited to experience Namibia’s natural wonders by the company’s ‘Children in the Wilderness’ (CITW) programme before working his way up from tent leader to a popular private tour guide, today, Franco who has attended CITW camps every year since 2002, is actively involved in the Children in the Wilderness programmes where he helps out as a camp director.

With his pointer angled at the sky’s various constellations, an eagle eye when it comes to spotting miniscule steenbokkies, gemsbok and giraffes bounding far across a plain boasting perhaps its sole brilliantly flowering hoodia, Franco is just one of the many children the programme has enchanted.

The magic happens a few times a year. 

Closing some of their award-winning camps for a week at a time each year to host a group of 16 -25 children between the ages of 10 – 14, Children in the Wilderness gives the local youth the opportunity to experience these wilderness areas and their wildlife in conjunction with a curriculum that covers environmental education, HIV/AIDS, nutrition, life skills and the importance of conservation.

The programme also hosts Eco Clubs with schools in the surrounding safari areas throughout the year where children are educated about their natural heritage.

The idea is that “conservation of animals and plants is only as strong as the people who live in the vicinity” and “if they’re not interested, protection is likely to exist only on paper.”

Franco introduces us to some of the men who bring the paper to life early one morning.

Trackers from the Save the Rhino Trust who meet us shortly after daybreak having recently left the luxurious Desert Rhino Camp seeking the elusive deserted-adapted black rhino in the Palmwag Concession.

The search is swift.

We’ve heard tales of fifteen hour excursions and tourists sent home without a glimpse but Top Notch and Troy appearwithin about three hours. Top Notch asleep below a euphorbia bush which is the rhino’s favourite and Troy, her two-year-old calf peering at us cautiously from the requisite 150 metres away where we stand safely upwind to take advantage of their terrible eyesight while thwarting their heightened sense of smell.

The sighting is a privilege.

Save the Rhino Trust (SRT) has been protecting Namibia’s rhinos for over thirty years and though the fight against rhino poachers continues to be a bitter one, there are firm boots on the ground working tirelessly with the Ministry of Environment andTourism as well as suspicious-behaviour-reporting local communities and NGOs to protect Namibia’s natural heritage.

For that afternoon SRT tracker Denzel Tjiraso is the principal of Rhino School.

An awe-inspiring short course in which visitors to the concession learn about SRT’s patrols, wildlife monitoring and the all-important ID book for making notes on the condition of the rhinos for the SRT database.

Like most of the rhinos in the area, Top Notch has been dehorned.

The action comes after a decree from government in a bid to halt escalating rhino poaching fueled by the demand from China, Vietnam and some other East Asian countries making use of traditional Chinese medicine.

According to these over 2000-year-old beliefs, rhino horn can treat myriad ailments but today its acquisition more commonly connotes wealth and status. And though the demand remains high, thanks to the teamwork of conservancies, the community, NGOs, government, SRT and the police, Namibia has managed to significantly decrease the occurrence of rhino poaching in Damaraland as well as in the Kunene region.

Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC) founders Dr. Margaret Jacobsohn and Garth Owen-Smith tell us as much at World’s End (Wereldsend), the IRDNC’s field headquarters near the Torra Conservancy where chance has us meeting with them enthusiastic about the IRDNC’s new directors currently providing technical, logistic and financial support to more than 50 registered and emerging communal area conservancies in the country. 

The encounter is as fleeting as the breeze that ripples through the old elephant and rhino graveyard we visit at the site, the elephant’s massive skull gleaming white like the rooster that hurries past Oom Jantjies Rhyn at the Riemvasmaker settlement near Damaraland Camp.

He’s lived there for over 40 years.

Originally from Riemvasmak in South Africa before being ejected from the region by the apartheid government and sent to live near Khorixas, Oom Jantjies has been making the most of the community-based natural resource management programme that provides for, assists, uplifts and develops local communities who agree to protect the area’s natural heritage.

But keeping goats, cattle and roosters in an area beset with lions isn’t easy for the Riemvasmakers and the drought has made it all the harder.

Oom Jantjies tells us: “Wild animals and tame animals living together isn’t easy. People are killed, gardens and water points are ruined and you can’t just chase them away. If you wanna stand against them, you must be sure you have the power.”

A proud Riemvasmaker, a community that seeks legal recognition as a marginalized group, Oom Jantjies tells a stoic story of the people scratching out a living in a desolate land that seems blistered by the sun. Where a child’s ball flies high into the barely moving air and lands in puff of dust and an old green Mazda rusts below an incongruous tree.

He wishes the compensation for animals killed by protected wildlife equaled the actual value of the livestock. He remembers that when his community agreed to protect the area’s natural heritage he was glad because it meant the lodges and the tourists would come and families wouldn’t need to be broken up as men left home to find work in Arandis, Uis or Swakopmund but he can also see the farmers going under.

Still, he believes aligning with the government and protecting as well as refraining from killing lions, rhinos or elephants is the right thing to do because they drive the tourism that sustains the area regardless of often tightfisted weather gods.

A number of Riemvasmakers are employed at Wilderness Safari’s Damaraland Camp a short distance away. 

They greet the guests in song, recite the menu in their mother tongue and shower those discovering Damaraland in the kind of hospitality that lingers in hearts sending nostalgic lyrics bursting through lips long after they’ve left one community conservation area out of the scores currently covering just shy of 20% of the country.

Those sweet and staying ditties simply requesting you feel welcome, save the rhinos and enjoy your meal.