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The Nama People

The Nama People
By Alexandra Hamlyn

Image: Children by Paul van Schalkwyk

Generations of the Nama people walked the beautiful lands of Namibia’s Desert plains for centuries – now, RacingThePlanet: Namibia 2009 competitors have the chance to follow in the Nama’s footsteps as they cross the rough country of Namibia’s wilderness.

Believed to be the true descendents the Khoekhoe people, the original inhabitants of Southern Africa, there are approximately 60,000 Nama tribesmen in Namibia.  Within this population, a further 15 tribes exist within this group known as Khoekhoe people, or “Bushmen,” famously known for their distinctive language which involves clicking sounds.  Khoekhoe people differ significantly in appearance from the other African ethnic groups such as the Bantu in the lightness of their skin tone, and also the depth of their double eyelid.  In 1657 the Nama were mentioned for the first time.  Among the Nama, every tribal group consists of a number of small units, which are patrilineal clans.  Clan structures of different tribal groups indicate intertribal relationships.  Although the term “Nama” (pl. “Namas”) has become the generally used name for all Khoekhoe people in Namibia, for historical, classificatory and scientific reasons the collective term “Khakhoen” (human beings) is also used.  The Khoekhoe people speak in a language most easily recognisable by the “click” sounds that are part of their consonant range.

There are 31 consonants in the Nama language, more than 5 clicks and a simple set of 11 non-clicks.  The “clicks” in the language, are denoted in fascinating ways linguistically such as using, “!”, “-“, “=”, “/” or even, “//” to indicate various nasal stops, influxes and glottal stops thus producing a variety of more than 20 variations on the different clicking noises.  Some words even begin with a click, and it is possible to have your name begin and end with an exclamation mark. These clicks are so much more complex than the sounds most people from the West may associate with making primitive noises to hurry a horse, and communicate the cultural and historical intricacies that have evolved out in some of the most remote places in the world.  More than 250,000 people speak this fascinating and intricate language in Namibia, Botswana and South Africa.

For thousands of years, the Nama were traditionally pastoral nomads who practiced extensive agricultural activities and herd practice, as well as a policy of communal land ownership – music, poetry and story telling are an integral part of the Nama heritage and cultural practice.  Camp 3 is named “Nama” after these people, as RacingThePlanet: Namibia 2009 passes through an area that the Nama people inhabit.  But it wasn’t always this way. The Nama people have endured a lengthy history of continuous displacement and territorial dispute. 

In the mid 19th Century, due to the Nama being resettled from their tribal territory by Colonial forces, they in turn began displacing the Herero people from their lands.  Bitter warfare ensued between the two tribes for more than half a century until they found a common enemy in the Germans and joined forces against the assault on their livelihood and water supplies that was being carried out by the Germans at the time.  From 1904-1907 the Nama, along with the Herero, were allies against the Germans in what is now known as present-day Namibia.  It is estimated that during these battles, almost 50% of both the total Nama and the Herero population perished.

The Nama were occupying the surrounding area of the mouth of the Orange River, however when diamonds were discovered in the 1920s, this area then became prime real estate was eventually appropriated under apartheid rule.  Again, the Nama were displaced and consequently, many were forced to abandon their pastoral way of life for village-style homesteads.

RacingThePlanet: Namibia 2009 competitors will have the rare chance to pass through the very lands that concern the Nama and Herero people.  And as competitors traverse the breathtaking terrain in the region, through canyons, over dunes and down valleys, remember that the winds of the Namib Desert whisper secrets of a history far more complex than we can imagine.  Rumour has it, that there may be an opportunity for cultural exchange and dialogue with these ancient people during the course of the race, where there may be a rare glimpse of the Nama culture, rich in musical and proverbial tradition.

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