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The Topnaars - forgotten people of Walvis Bay

Avatar of inke inke - 09. août 2018 - Discover Namibia

Aerial view of Walvis Bay and the port in 2011. Once, this area was inhabited by the Topnaars people for many centuries. (Source: NamPort)

Brigitte Weidlich

At first sight, the shifting sand dunes of the Namib Desert near Walvis Bay appear hostile with scant vegetation and little to survive on. Yet a river forms their northern border and carries water after good rains inland. The Kuiseb River has also been inhabited by people for many centuries – namely, the Topnaars. They are of Khoi-San origin and are believed be one of seven Nama-speaking tribal groups.

Their survival and self-sufficiency also centred around a fascinating desert plant, the Nara, which produces prickly melons with juicy flesh and valuable pips. While the Topnaars’ living habits changed in the last hundred years due to colonisation, the Nara plant still remains important for them.

Early contact

Already in 1670, the Dutch ship Grundel anchored at Sandwich Harbour, south of Walvis Bay as the sailors noticed local inhabitants there. The locals were wary of making contact with the ship and its people. In those days the Kuiseb River still reached the sea at Sandwich Harbour. 

In 1677, another Dutch ship, the Boode arrived. The name Topnaar, is Dutch and means ‘people on the top’. A century later, in 1786 British Captain Thomas Bolden Thompson explored the Namibian coast for the British Admiralty and stopped over at Walvis Bay, by then popular among American and British whalers. Thompson kept a journal that contains a drawing of an indigenous Topnaar woman at what he called ‘Walwich Bay'. The woman wore glass beads in her hair and a brass button from a naval officer’s coat as earring. Thompson also noted that the locals there wore fur capes (locally called ‘kaross’) made from sealskin. They wore the capes with fur outside during daytime and at night they turned the fur inside to warm them.

According to local ethnologist Kuno Budack, an ancient duality existed among the !Aonin. Those who came from the interior were referred to as people of the Kuiseb (!Khuisenin). Traditionally, they were herders of small stock and cattle and were hunter-gatherers. They lived in rush-mat or bark houses along the river, and only occasionally came down to the seashore. 

The Hurunin were people of the sea, Budack wrote in his paper “A harvesting people on the South Atlantic coast” in the South African Journal of Ethnology (1983). The Hurunin lived near the sea in huts erected from whale ribs and other crude shelters, and were frequently referred to as strandlopers (people who walk along the beach). 

Bartering and trading

The Topnaars near the sea lived from hunting game – including seals, fish and sea birds. They kept some cattle and small livestock and ate mussles, ostrich eggs and eggs from seabirds. 

Jill Kinahan noted in her doctoral thesis “Cattle for Beads – archaeology of historical contact and trade on the Namib Coast” published in 2000, that the locals traded their fresh produce like fresh water, meat, goat’s milk and Nara for goods from passing ships, among them tobacco and glass bead. The beads they turned into jewellery. 

In 1973, the Namibian archaeologist Dr Beatrice Sandelowsky discovered shards of a clay pot near Conception Bay, south of Sandwich Harbour. The fragments could be dated some 650 years back, meaning that Khoi-San people – probably the Topnaars – were living along the Namibian coast as early as the fourteenth century. Ethnologists concluded that the Topnaar once lived as far north as the Swakop River (mouth) but were driven from that area by migratory Herero people. In the south, Nama tribes from South Africa drove them away from the Conception Bay area.

According to several studies and academic papers, about 800 Topnaars lived along the lower Kuiseb River and its delta in pre-colonial times. Today, about 350 of them live there in fourteen small settlements southeast of Walvis Bay, the most important being Utuseb. 

!Nara plant - more than a rambling bush with spiky fruits. (Photo: Desert Hills)

Cultural connection to Nara plant

It is rare to find communities as connected to an indigenous plant as the Topnaar of the Kuiseb River.

The thorny Nara (Acanthosicyos horridus) plant or bush has a deep tap root and has no leaves. It can grow to a height of five metres and can spread up to ten metres wide. Male and female plants are separate. Scientists established that Nara plants can live for several centuries. Their big thickets provide shelter and some shade for wild animals and birds. Insects are important for pollination. Ostrich, oryx and springbok feed on the flowers and the growing buds. These plants occur from Port Nolloth in the Northern Cape province of South Africa, along the Namibian coast up to Namibe in southern Angola. 

They are endemic to the Namib Desert. They mostly occur in the sand dunes near Walvis Bay. Nara plants produce big prickly melons with yellow juicy flesh and highly nutritious pips. The melons weigh almost a kilogramme and usually contain about fifty seeds (pips).

For many generations, the Topnaars are harvesting these melons. Some are eaten fresh, mostly the flesh is cut out and boiled for long hours. After cooling, the pulp is then flattened and left to dry. The big flat pieces are then rolled and eaten as fruit rolls. In this form they can also be stored and carried along easily. The pips are dried and eaten as a snack. They are also grinded to extract their oil, which is used for skin treatment and protection against the sun. 

Several parts of the plant are also used for medicinal purposes.

Some 340 years ago in 1677, the captain of the above-mentioned ship Boode noted in his journal that “these people had left in flight and left behind a pot with kernels (pips) from something similar to a pawpaw…”.

Ownership of Nara fields

Another unique tradition of the Topnaar people, is that families were owners of Nara plant fields. The ownership was hereditary. Fields were demarcated with beacons, showing the entitlement of the families, according to Budack. The families would harvest the Nara plants, produce the fruit rolls and sell the pips to traders at Walvis Bay who would export them to Cape Town, South Africa. 

Harvesting of Nara plants in the Namib Desert. (Photo: Desert Hills)

Self-sufficiency diminished

In the middle of the nineteenth century, several developments influenced the Topnaar community. 

Around 1840, a Nama-clan Chief Jonker Afrikaner, whose people had moved from the Northern Cape across the Orange River into Namibia, informed the Topnaars that they now fell under his jurisdiction. Jonker Afrikaner, around 1841, had roads built to Walvis Bay, (the ‘Old Bay Road’) to join the trade there. In the meantime, Namas under Willem Swartbooi had repeatedly raided the Topnaar settlements and stole their livestock. 

German missionaries wanted to establish a mission station for the Topnaars. They had to ask Jonker Afrikaner had for permission. Missionary Heinrich Scheppmann started the mission station in December 1845 at Rooibank, a few kilometres east of Walvis Bay. Rooibank was also called Scheppmannsdorf for several decades. Scheppmann wrote that he found several Topnaars impoverished living in greatest poverty “dispersed among sand hills”.

The same year, the first traders Thomas Morris and Peter Dixon from Cape Town settled with their families at the water hole of Sandfontein outside Walvis Bay and started trading. They supplied ships with goods and bought cattle from Nama clans to ship the animals to the island of Saint Helena. 

In the 1864, war broke out among the Hereros and Namas. By 1866, the Namas attacked Walvis Bay and looted the traders’ goods, even killing one trader. They also set the mission’s printing press at Rooibank on fire. 

Walvis Bay and the surrounding was annexed by the British in 1878, the Topnaar settlements (except Rooibank) were outside the British jurisdiction. The same year, the Topnaar Chief Piet Eibeb (Haibeb) signed a ‘protection’ treaty with the British in the hope that his people would be protected from Nama raids. 

In 1884, Germany annexed the territory for the Kunene River to the Orange River and called it South West Africa, today Namibia.

The self-sustaining existence of the Topnaar people eroded. Some of the men found jobs in the developing harbour town; their children went to school at Rooibank. 

Scheppmannsdorf (now Rooibank) in 1846, drawn by missionary Knudsen. (Repro: Private Collection Walter Moritz)

Living in a nature park 

In 1907, the German colonial government proclaimed a large part of the Namib Desert a national park, including the area where the Topnaars lived. They were allowed to continue hunting. In 1921, then South West Africa became a mandate and was administered by South Africa. By 1975, the administration extended the protected area and it became later known as Namib-Naukluft Park. New regulations prevented the Topnaars from seasonal hunting and some practices like burning dry Nara bushes. 

More Topnaars started to live in Walvis Bay; older relatives remained in the settlements. In 1962, a barrier was constructed in the Kuiseb delta to prevent Walvis Bay from being flooded. This affects the groundwater replenishment and Nara plants there produced fewer fruit. 

In the 1970s, the administration sunk a few boreholes along the river, leading to more semi-permanent settlement of Topnaars. 

The way forward

After Namibia’s independence in 1990, the Walvis Bay Lagoon Park was established, restricting the Topnaars even more. The newly formed Ministry of Environment and Tourism took over park management. The Topnaars under their Chief Seth Kooitjie initiated workshops from 1991 with the government and non-governmental organisations about their recognition as traditional authority, their rights to natural resources and the development of the Kuiseb Valley. 

In 1996, the Topnaar Community Foundation (TCF) was established. A year later the Nara research project was started with the TCF and the Desert Research Foundations (DRFN), which is situated at Gobabeb along the Kuiseb River. 

In the meantime, the Topnaars have a small school and a small clinic and they started benefitting from tourism. A small campsite for tourists brings an additional modest income. 

In 2000, the government officially recognised the Nara as a high priority indigenous fruit.

These days many younger Topnaar family members come home from town over weekends. Nara is still harvested but rather as a community effort than by individual families. A small enterprise at Swakopmund buys Nara pips from the Topnaars and produces cosmetics. There are efforts to preserve the Nara plants and to market their products sustainably. 

“We have been given the opportunity to protect, conserve and promote the only remaining natural resource we can claim without any fear of contradiction: the Nara plant,” says Chief Kooitjie.

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