Memories of Namibia
I subscribe to an online magazine called Lens Culture, as perhaps many of you do too. Today it features the work of a photographer from Namibia, Margaret Courtney-Clarke. Her powerful photos carry me back to the people (called Quena, Khoisan, San, or Kung, depending on who tells the story), the !Nara fruits they forage for, the heat and blinding light. Courtney-Clarke avoided photographing the dunes that many computer companies have made into a default wallpaper. Her interest, like mine, is not the landscape but the people on the landscape and their struggles to survive.
These two photos were made on large rolls of film in two cameras, one for color and the other for black and white, as I only had one week there in a cabin in the Gobabeb Research Center, and I didn’t want to risk changing lenses or film in that environment. As I look at the photos, I feel again the glare, the blast-furnace heat, the warmth and will of the people to survive, and the grit of omnipresent, constantly-shifting sand in every crevice and orifice of my body and my camera equipment.
The Kuiseb-river people had lived along the now-dry river for at least a thousand and possibly three thousand years, but only about 300 remained when my team showed up in April, 1994. The river people had a language of vowels and twenty-seven different “click sounds,” and they lived by foraging for a type of melon called !Nara, raising a few goats for milk and meat, and cultivating a few drought-hardy vegetables. Their homes were built from found materials—sheets of corroded metal, branches of trees, cardboard, and fragments of masonite.
We were there with a translator to document the problem of the water: European settlers sank wells to suck up ground water, dammed the Kuiseb, and installed pumps to draw up water from aquifers so they could water lawns and fill swimming pools that reminded them of life where they came from. We recorded the devastation and created a video and a report for the people in the cities and the government, naively assuming that if the descendants of Europeans knew what was happening to the descendants of the river people, the city people would at least create taps so that the river people could use a little of the water stolen from under their land. We made the film, wrote the report, and nothing happened. I didn’t know then what I know now, a concept Ibram Kendi expresses clearly in Stamped from the Beginning: “The idea that ignorance and hate lead to racist ideas which lead to racist policies is a false construction of the race problem. In fact, self-interest leads to racist policies.” As it was not in the self-interest of the city people to provide water for the people of the Kuiseb valley, they didn’t do it.
From Courtney-Clarke’s photos, I see that a few people still live near the dry riverbed that was once the Kuiseb. They are still trying to eke out a living, still foraging for !Nara, still loving their kids and trying to survive with almost no water. Her photos are more amazing than they might at first appear. I know how hard it is to set exposures in blazing light where life cowers in the shadows. She does it skillfully and with great heart.