Friday, November 1, 2013

Week 9: Looking in from the Outside

By Lena Glickman & Cynthia Njuguna

After we said bittersweet goodbyes to our host families, loaded our belongings and hopped into the van, the farms faded in the dust as we drove toward our next destination [1]. Haze from the heat began to build from the retreating early morning. Next stop, Twyfelfontein!

Our first stop near Twyfelfontein was the Damara Living Museum. The museum’s aim is to “reconstruct the ‘lost culture’ of the Damara” for both non-Damara and Damara alike [2]. The tour guide graciously led us through a thatched roof structure, which served as the gateway to museum, into an open space. Here, he and the other Damara people demonstrated and described to us how their people historically lived. They allowed us to share in the feel, taste, smell, and movement that the Damara have experienced. While we enjoyed the opportunity, the way people dance, play games, make medicine, clothing, weapons, food, drinks, etc. does not tell the whole story; what one sees at such a museum is just the tip of the cultural iceberg.

Crafts made and sold at the Damara Living Museum 
help generate income for Damara people in the area.
Looking at it on a societal level, this museum seeks to leverage the rise of tourism brought about by globalization. Understanding the positive intent of the museum juxtaposed with our perception of the negative effects of globalization. On the one hand, the Damara Living Museum not only provides an opportunity for outsiders and community members to learn about the culture, but also a source of income to its contributors. On the other hand, the rise of the tourism creates an intrusion of foreigners coming in to spectate at a people’s way of life. This propensity to spectate and a museum’s limited ability to show only tangible aspects of a culture creates the risk of tokenization.

Despite our conflicting feelings toward our experience at the museum, we greatly appreciated the opportunity to learn about the Damara. Stemming from the country’s history of colonization and the effects of western dominance, erosion of culture plagues ethnic groups in Namibia [3]. So, while the museum highlighted some of the negative effects of international tourism, we cannot deny the importance of preserving culture and the Damara museum is doing just that. These conflicting feelings about being tourists were not exclusive to the Living Museum; they continued to evolve throughout our travels in the north.

Etosha National Park is one of Namibia’s most celebrated tourist attractions. We saw napping lions, giraffes munching on leaves, herds of zebra and a family of elephants drinking from a watering hole. It felt magical to see animals that we had seen only in pictures and zoos up close and in their natural habitat.

Tourists from all over the world lean over wired fences, 
gawking at a rhino drinking from the watering hole in Etosha.
And in other moments, it was pretty boring. After an hour of game driving, Cynthia dozed off. We would drive until we came to some animals, then stop the car and crowd the windows to stare at the animals. Soon we would drive on until we found other animals. Animals, animals, animals! There was something very unfulfilling about this activity. It felt impossible to connect to the land from inside a big metal machine, behind glass windows and crowded in with a group of clicking cameras. Watching from outside the car at a watering hole near our campsite felt much different. Time slipped by quickly and peacefully; we found satisfaction and interest in just existing in the same open space as the animals.  

Rock paintings in Twyfelfontein were a method of communication 
for the San people over 2000 years ago.
Such moments, when as tourists we felt truly integrated in our surroundings, were rare in this week of travel. Being exposed to new environments, ways of life and histories contributed to our understandings of the world. But at the same time it was difficult to absorb what the towns and landscapes we passed through meant to their inhabitants. At the museum, we were also keenly aware that we were spectators. We felt a confounding dichotomy between enjoying the experience and feeling disconnected with the people and materials with which we interacted. It was as though we were looking in from the outside. We also visited Twyfelfontein to see ancient rock paintings made by the San people. Here we learned about the customs of the past nomadic inhabitants and the geologic history of the area. But seeing these markings didn’t allow us to really absorb what the pictures meant to their makers, nor what the paintings mean to the artists’ descendants; now the most impoverished and disadvantaged ethnic group in Namibia [3].

It can be frustrating to be a tourist, and to feel stuck in yourself when you want to connect with your environment. Sometimes we wish we could be invisible in order to see things as they are “naturally.” But this trip also reminded us that tourists are a part of that environment. The San rock paintings and customs of the Damara take on their own meanings to the tourists who see them. In Etosha, floodlit watering holes and idling vehicles have become a fixture of the animals’ lives; we have become part their natural habitat.

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[1] We spent the previous week living with host families on farms in the Khorixas area.
[2] The Living Museum of the Damara. (2013). Retrieved from The Living Culture Foundation:; The Damara are a minority ethnic group of Bantu origin that speak a Khoisan language.
[3] Learned in our History & Development classes.

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