The Richtersveld’s People: Getting to know the Nama
“The Nama people were here first…” says Brent Whittington, park manager of the Richtersveld National Park. And they absolutely were. For more than 2000 years, the Nama people have lived across vast areas of Southern Africa – and the Richtersveld is one of their last places of refuge.
When the Richtersveld National Park was formed in 1991, the area was seen not only as a sanctuary for biodiversity and ecosystem protection, but also as a cultural jewel, home to one of Southern Africa’s oldest peoples and their enduring traditions. After many years of negotiation, it was agreed that SANParks would manage the park on behalf of the local communities that owned and lived on the land.
As one of the largest surviving clans of the Khoikhoi, the Nama people have, since the beginning of their existence, lived a transhumant lifestyle. They are pastoralists, who own land communally and migrate their livestock seasonally from one grazing ground to the next, based on where and when the rains fall. Not quite nomads, as their roaming is not random, but rather cyclical, as they return to the same familiar sites each season to set up transient homes and graze their livestock.
The Nama lifestyle is remarkable, not only for the logistical feats they have overcome, but also, for its role in preserving the land from over-use. The harmonious interaction between the Nama people and the harsh and volatile environment in which they live, has ensured the conservation of large tracts of Succulent Karoo vegetation over the years. Their rich culture, and the precious botanical heritage that it has helped protect, earned the Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape (just to the South of the National Park) UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2007.
The traditions of the Nama hold strong today. On arrival at each of their new ‘homes’, they would construct traditional matjieshuise (Afrikaans) or !haru oms (Nama): portable, beehive-shaped huts, quite ingeniously made with woven reeds, to form the perfect shelter from fierce summer sun, and the sub-zero temperatures of winter. While today’s Nama villages, like Khuboes and Eksteenfontein, take on a more modern appearance, matjieshuise are still used for cooking, storage, and an extra spot to sleep.
The Nama are renowned for golden threads of music, poetry and storytelling that they pass from generation to generation. On auspicious occasions, they dance the namastap: a rhythmical, line dance-type shuffle, the women in vibrant, billowing dresses, a catchy tune blaring through an old tape recorder (sometimes a live band), and the animated faces of young and old, filled with energy for the familiar ritual.
The Nama language is an intricate mix of clicks and tones; a melody. While many Nama also speak Afrikaans, Nama language is taught in schools to preserve this integral piece of heritage.
And while one may find it a little surprising to see the Nama women dressed as if they might have emerged from the Victorian era, their long dresses with full skirts and tight waists are believed to have been inspired by missionaries who interacted with them in the 1800’s, and have become part of who the Nama are today.