Annual Nama festival preserves tradition and identity - Namibia Safari and Lodges - Gondwana Collection

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Annual Nama festival preserves tradition and identity

Avatar of inke inke - 07. June 2019 - Culture

Two women sit in the interior of a traditional rush-mat hut they erected at the Nama festival in Keetmanshoop. Photo by: Nama Festival 2019

Brigitte Weidlich

The feet of the young dancers in their colourful leather shoes move to the tunes and rhythms of the music. The row of girls in brightly coloured patchwork-style dresses and neatly tied headscarves gently move and turn; the boys literally kick up dust with their complicated off-beat steps, encouraged by applause and cheers from the enthusiastic crowd.

The youngsters are beaming pride as they receive their well-deserved applause after performing the traditional ‘Nama stap’ dance. It is a special occasion after all: the opening of the annual Nama festival in the town of Keetmanshoop in southern Namibia where several high-ranking government officials were present.

Girls and boys are performing the traditional Nama-stap dance in their characteristic colourful patchwork attire at the annual Nama festival in Keetmanshoop in May 2019. Photos by: Brigitte Weidlich

The four-day festival lasted from 30 May to 2 June 2019 and attracted over 1,000 mainly Nama-speaking people from Namibia, South Africa and Botswana, but also from other population groups and tourists.

“The idea behind this festival is to celebrate our culture, traditions, songs and heritage by coming together and listening to storytelling, music and poetry in our language”, says Dawid Eigub, chairperson of the organising committee. “It is an important platform for us, but we want to share this with all Namibians and international visitors”, he adds.

A Nama-speaking woman from Mariental, located 220 km away, expressed her appreciation while visiting the various stands at the Keetmanshoop showgrounds. “I really enjoy walking around here and finding traditional food and medicines available, as well as home-made traditional dresses, arts and crafts for sale and leather ‘velskoene’ (traditional leather shoes)”, she says.

“I see here our young people being taught how to construct a traditional hut (|haru om) from rush-mats, the way our elders did. They are getting informed about the various preparatory steps for a traditional Nama wedding,” she states smilingly.

Annual Nama festival premiered in 2018

According to Eigub, in 2017, young Nama-speakers came up with the idea to organise a large get-together for the dozen or so different Nama clans and communities. In addition, they drew their inspiration from a small but successful Nama festival in Lokgwabe, southern Botswana that has been hosted since 2016, where descendants of the famous Nama-Chief Simon Kooper live. Kooper and his men were embroiled in several skirmishes over a century ago with German colonial forces in the Kalahari Desert near the Auob River. Just before the last decisive battle in March 1908 against Hauptmann (Captain) Friedrich von Erckert near Seatsub in Botswana, Kooper slipped past the enemy and later settled near Lokwabe.

One of his descendants Nichodimas Cooper also attended this year’s Nama festival as well as the first one in 2018. “It was an amazing event. Our people (in Botswana) have lost their language and culture, so that is part of the reason why we came. Nama people in Botswana have hoped for years for a festival that would unite all Namas, and it finally happened in 2018”, he told the Namibian news agency Nampa. “In 2020 our Nama festival in Botswana will mark its fifth anniversary”, Cooper added.

These traditionally made Nama leather shoes – also known by the Afrikaans term ‘velskoen’ [ = fur shoe] were quickly sold out at the 2019 annual Nama festival. Photo by: Nama Festival 2019

Unity in diversity

At this year’s official opening in Keetmanshoop, Education, Arts and Culture Minister Katrina Hanse-Himarwa, who is Nama-speaking, said that it was important for Namibians to share their diverse cultural backgrounds with each other. “We are first Namibians and this is our common denominator before we are Nama, Damara or Herero” the Minister emphasised, “unity in diversity is important.”

Various Nama communities exist

The indigenous Nama or Namaqua also known as Red Nation and Orlam now live mostly in what today is southern Namibia and Northern Cape Province of South Africa. They used to be nomadic and share their Khoikhoi origins with the San. Their ancient language is rich in different click sounds. In the Ai-Ais Richterveld Transfrontierpark along the Orange River, this traditional lifestyle still persists with livestock farming and portable huts (|haru oms) made from rush-mats and wooden structures. The total Nama population in all three countries today is estimated to be about 120,000, belonging to some twelve groups, among them the Khaiǁkhaun (Red Nation) at Hoachanas, the main group and the oldest Nama clan in Namibia; the ǃGamiǂnun (Bondelswarts) at Warmbad; the ǂAonin (southern Topnaars) at Rooibank near Walvis Bay, the ǃGomen (northern Topnaars) at Sesfontein, the ǃKharakhoen (Fransman Nama) at Gochas. There are the ǁHawoben (Velschoendragers) at Koës, the ǁOgain (Groot Doden) at Schlip, the ǁKhauǀgoan (Swartbooi Nama) at Rehoboth, later at Salem, Ameib, and Franzfontein and the Kharoǃoan (Keetmanshoop Nama).

Nama women clad in their traditional attire stand before a traditional rush-mat hut erected at the Nama festival. Photo by: Nama Festival 2019

Several Nama groups moved across the Orange River to Namibia some 150 to 200 years ago as settlers in South Africa moved further north and occupied their land. After Namibia became a German colony in 1884, settlers increasingly claimed land from the indigenous people. The Nama uprisings started in October 1904 under the legendary Nama-Chief Hendrik Witbooi and were continued by Jacob Morenga, Chief Cornelius Frederiks and Simon Kooper.

The current Nama-Chief Petrus Simon Kooper stated at this year’s festival that the Namas lost vast tracts of lands since colonisation: “We must all understand that our ancestral land is our heritage”, he said. Chief Kooper also chairs the Nama Traditional Leaders Association (NTLA).

While the number of visitors in Keetmanshoop dropped slightly this year compared to 2018, the organisers are determined to already plan for the third annual Nama festival next year – being May 2020. 

Are you interested to participate in next year's Nama Festival and at the same time get to know Fish River Canyon? Your accommodation establishments nearby are Canyon Village, Canyon Lodge and Canyon Roadhouse

Canyon Village, Fish River Canyon area. Photo: Gondwana Collection Namibia

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