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On that auspicious day on 20 July 1969, Japie’s mother went into his room in Opuwo, in north-western Namibia, and woke him up. “You will have more than enough time to sleep later on in life,’ she said as they rushed into the lounge to sit around the radio as it spluttered and crackled, eventually hearing Neil Armstrong’s legendary words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” as he stepped onto the powdery surface of the moon.

This artist’s concept features NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover. The mobile robot landed on Mars on 6 August 2012 and investigates Mars’ past or present ability to sustain microbial life. (Source: NASA)

Today, many years later, as part of the NASA team behind the Mars Science Laboratory that landed on Mars on August 6th, Dr Jakob van Zyl remembers the events that influenced his life. He is now friends with Buzz Aldrin, the second person to set foot on the moon on that momentous day, but in 1969, he was awestruck. He hung a signed poster of the three Apollo 11 astronauts on his bedroom wall, dreaming they would one day meet. His other strong memories of his childhood came from his father, Ben van Zyl, the commissioner of the Kaokoveld from 1942-1981 after whom the daunting Van Zyl’s Pass is named. Japie often traveled with his father in the Kaokoveld as a child and he remembers lying out in the open one night looking up at the glittering sky and noticing ‘moving stars’. His father patiently explained to him what a satellite was, fueling his fascination about stars and what lies beyond the Earth.

Japie van Zyl talks to the Gondwana History Team during his vacation in Namibia in July 2012

Four people helped to steer Japie onto his path to NASA and the stars. The first was his future father-in-law, Binga Louw, who offered to pay for his studies in exchange for a vow never to tell his girlfriend about the offer.  “A man with your talents has to be given the opportunity to go places in the world and I will make that happen if you need financial support,” was his simple offer.  The second person was Twakkies du Toit, a former teacher of his from Outjo. When Japie told him that he wanted to study to be an engineer and was going to apply to Telecom for a bursary, Twakkies encouraged him to apply for a bursary from Armscor instead. This he did, going on to study electronics engineering at Stellenbosch University. His mother had put him right in the days when he thought he was going to be a doctor by saying, “Doctors do not build satellites Japie, you must become an engineer to do that.”

The next person to steer him on his path northward was his good friend and boss, Dave Harrison. After Japie’s stint in the navy as part of his military service, the friends were discussing where he could further his studies and Dave encouraged him to write to the top twenty universities. He dissuaded him from the universities in the UK saying, “They will not like your accent in England, rather go to the USA.” Japie decided on doing his Master’s in electrical engineering at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), thinking Boston too cold. He soon realised after a slow start that he would have to make more of an effort than he had previously, which he did, continuing his good academic track record. When he was celebrating his success at the campus club, his professor, Prof Elachii, caught him on his way out enquiring if he was going to continue with a PhD. When Japie replied that he didn’t have the funds, the professor offered to pay for him, keeping Japie set on his course for the stars.

The Opuwo boy, who grew up gazing at the heavens went on to work for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the leading American centre for robotic exploration in the solar system. He first held various positions of increasing responsibility in the synthetic aperture radar programme and today is the associate director of Project Formulation and Strategy. He humbly says that he has ‘the nicest job on earth’, and although the Mars rover ‘Curiosity’ (dubbed by a 12 year school child) only landed on the red planet recently, he is already planning the next planetary voyage.

Young Japie van Zyl at Rockey Point Skeleton Coast

When people question Japie on these celestial journeys that cost billions of dollars while people in the world are starving, Japie replies, acknowledging that it is a valid question, that what they learn helps with solutions for the world’s challenges. One of the favourite questions he is often asked is if he believes in a higher power. To this he replies that in this field we ‘see the elegance of creation’. “This,” he says, “gives you no option but to believe.”

Japie is happy to have experienced both sides of the world, the Kaokoveld in Namibia, a country as large as California with only 2.5 million people, and the USA where he lives with his wife, Kalfie, his childhood sweetheart.

It seems that this local boy may be touching the stars but has his feet firmly placed on terra firma. His advice to others on similar quests to live out their dreams is to have an insatiable curiosity for life, something that he learnt from his father who was always looking for new roads; to surround yourself with excellence – teamwork is essential so it is important to build the best team possible; and to always stay relevant, to keep thinking ahead and moving with the times. The most important, uplifting and inspirational advice from Japie, however, is that ‘the sky is not the limit’ as we have always been told and absolutely anything is possible, even for a boy from Opuwo.

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Gondwana Collection Namibia congratulates the NTB (Namibia Tourism Board) and MET (Ministery of Environment and Tourism) for bringing the 2013 Adventure Travel World Summit to Namibia!

Below you can read the official press release by the Adventure  Travel Trade Association:

Seattle, WA – For its 10th Adventure Travel World Summit, the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) has selected Namibia – one of the few countries in the world with conservation and environmental management mandated in its Constitution – to host the 2013 Adventure Travel World Summit (ATWS) set for 26-31 October in Swakopmund and Windhoek, the first time the ATTA has placed its global gathering in Africa.

The Adventure Travel World Summit has become the industry’s marquee event for networking, discussion and collaboration around industry best practices and global tourism issues affecting adventure travel. For 2013, the ATTA will introduce a new Summit format for its 600 delegates, which will occur over a five-day period, including in-field sessions in real-world situations providing unprecedented learning experiences in a destination whose stark challenges are shared by many other destinations worldwide.

“In Chiapas, Mexico, at the 2011 Adventure Travel World Summit, Namibia boldly said, ‘let us bring the Summit home’,” said the Honorable Minister of Environment and Tourism Netumbo Nandi-Ndwitah. “Today I am happy to report that the efforts of our strong public-private partnership have resulted in Namibia being chosen as the FIRST African country to host the Summit.  We are justly proud of our tourism industry and our conservation initiatives that have made this selection possible.”

In selecting Namibia, the ATTA in part is recognizing the developing nation’s achievements in becoming one of the world’s most progressive destinations working to find the most effective balance between conservation, tourism and community development.

“Namibia offers one of the most compelling success stories in tourism today, one of joint venture tourism and partnerships between communal conservancies and tourism enterprises,” said ATTA President Shannon Stowell, who returned from Namibia in June 2012. “Namibia’s model of conservancies, joint venture partnerships and conservation is a model that we should put on display. It’s a story that should be told.  I’d previously heard the discussions, watched the films and I still didn’t understand it fully it until I came and saw it in action. Our delegates are sure to gain immense insights from their experiences in Namibia.”

Namibia, a nation committed to ensuring tourism benefits reach everyone, has a proactive community tourism policy and recently gave tourism concession rights to communities that border state protected areas. Namibia also is a nation committed to conservation and has, since its independence in 1990, expanded from 13% to an outstanding 42% of land area under some form of conservation management. Furthermore, Namibia recently established the largest national park in Africa, and is the only country in the world with an entirely protected coastline.

“As Namibians we are ready for the challenge of hosting the Summit and are thrilled to welcome the Adventure Travel Tribe to the land of endless horizons where wildlife and humans are free to roam and still experience true nature,” added the Honorable Minister. “Together with the ATTA and the overall Adventure Travel Trade, Namibia is ready to showcase to the world the spirit and essence of a nation committed to conservation, community empowerment and social and economic transformation through partnerships and innovation.”

The ATTA’s Summit conferences engage and energize the leaders of the adventure travel community with networking, business and professional development programs, educational seminars and emerging adventure destination product review opportunities. In addition to the keynotes, a cadre of experts covering core business disciplines of the adventure tourism industry will deliver two key content tracks over the course of three days, one designed primarily for adventure tour operators and the other primarily for tourism boards.

Registration for the 2013 ATWS will open September 17, 2012, at www.adventuretravelworldsummit.com.

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This morning, Wednesday 15th of August 2012, the small town of Aus in the south of Namibia awoke to a unusual weather phenomenon. It was snowing!

Have a look at the pictures below taken by Piet Swiegers owner of the Desert Horse Inn in Aus:

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To read more about the town of Aus, follow this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aus,_Namibia

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January 1905. The steamship Professor Woermann lies in the roads off Swakopmund. Leaning against the rail young Schutztruppe soldiers, bound for Lüderitzbucht, are staring at the aspiring harbour town.

From 1905 anchorage in Swakopmund was shifted from the harbour a little to the south, where a wooden jetty had been built. In 1912 construction of an iron jetty started right next to the wooden one.

From 1905 anchorage in Swakopmund was shifted from the harbour a little to the south, where a wooden jetty had been built. In 1912 construction of an iron jetty started right next to the wooden one.

One of them is Albert Plietz: “The first glimpse of the mainland was a very desolate one. There was nothing to meet the eye but the yellow sand of dunes. At that moment probably most of us wondered what we had let ourselves into. It was really saddening to see the look on the comrades’ faces. The sun was hot as hell. Hopefully the south is better, because everybody was glad that they did not have to disembark here, in Swakopmund.” This even though Swakopmund is boasting 40 houses at the time, making it a rather sizeable place compared to conditions elsewhere in the German colony.

Swakopmund was created out of necessity because the German colony urgently needed a harbour. The bay 30 km to the south, Walvis Bay, was already in British possession when South West Africa was declared a protectorate of Imperial Germany. In 1892 the Reichskommissar (commissioner) of the German colony, Curt von François, started to search the central part of the coastline for a site suitable for a harbour.

“After the way he sounded off in August 1889 it was to be expected that the Cape’s official in Walvis Bay would do anything to prevent troops and munitions from passing through in transit. He was less interested in preventing the passage of provisions for the troops since most of the provisions were shipped from Cape Town. It was advantageous for Walvis Bay that the settlers spent their disembarkation fees etc. on British territory, had to find their first accommodation and buy their first necessities there. More than ever it therefore seemed vital to me to build landing facilities in Swakopmund in the near future.” (von François 1899, p. 157)

On 4 August 1892 the crew of the gunboat Hyäne discovered a spot where the coast could be accessed – later the pier (Mole) was built there – and marked it with two beacons. This date is celebrated as the day when Swakopmund was founded. Another reason for building a harbour in this particular spot was the availability of potable water in the Swakop River mouth nearby. Von François set up a military station slightly to the north, which consisted of accommodation facilities and a storage shed put together with corrugated iron.

The surf boat and eleven Kru sailors, requested by von Francois for the landing operations in Swakopmund, arrived in January 1893. In August that year the first steamship, the Marie Woermann, called at Swakopmund with 120 Schutztruppe soldiers and 40 settlers onboard.

The lighthouse and the district office (Bezirksamt) in 1905 overlooking the pier (Mole) and harbour cranes for unloading shipments.

The lighthouse and the district office (Bezirksamt) in 1905 overlooking the pier (Mole) and harbour cranes for unloading shipments.

The Walvis Bay trading company Mertens & Sichel opened a branch in Swakopmund in 1893. The following year 19 inhabitants were recorded for the settlement. One of them, Kurd Schwabe, who was appointed station commander of Swakopmund in the end of 1893, described life between the desert and the sea in a letter to his family back home.

“My abode consists of two parlours (if you want to call them that), a larger one and a hole where I have set up my bed. (…) Windows – none, but the wind makes up for that and whistles through a thousand gaps. Every now and then I take the time to plug the cracks with tow, assisted by Schneidewind. In the absence of floorboards the floor is the fine sand of the higher lying area, teeming with millions of sand fleas. Boxes and crates serve as furniture, some of them for sitting on, others for storage. (…) Barely 20 paces from my palace towards the sea a cave has been dug into the sandy precipice of the higher level and boxed up with boards. The roof across huge whale bones, which you find scattered everywhere in the sand, consists of corrugated iron, pieces of sailcloth and scraps of roofing paper covered with a layer of sand. This is not the dwelling of jackals, oh no, but that of a father and son by the name of Unglaube. They have set up their field smithy in front of their mansion. Both are industrious and skilful, making good money with wagon repairs and similar.”(Schwabe 1904, p. 115f)

In early 1895 the Damara & Namaqua trading company arrived on the scene, built three accommodation facilities and set up its business. Soon afterwards the first zoning map was designed for Swakopmund, a postal agency was opened and a scheduled postal cart connection to Windhoek was established. Now the little settlement started to grow; in 1897 it had 113 registered inhabitants.

In 1897 construction work started on the narrow-gauge railway line to Windhoek. Each kilometre of railway that edged forward through the Namib towards east shrunk the distance which had to be covered by ox wagon. Railway traffic from Windhoek to Swakopmund started on 19 June 1902, boosting the economy. The long waiting periods for transport opportunities inland had become a thing of the past.

Soon afterwards the pier (Mole) in Swakopmund was completed. It had taken three-and-a-half year to build. Inauguration festivities took place on 12 February 1903. Steamers finally moored in the harbour now. Together with the pier the lighthouse was put into operation. Initially 11 m tall, its intermittent light was visible 14 sea miles out at sea. The German colony was proud of its artificial harbour and the railway line into the interior. And Swakopmund’s inhabitants were very pleased that they scored a water pipe when the harbour was built.

Swakopmund’s first lighthouse around 1900. In the following ten years it was raised twice.

Swakopmund’s first lighthouse around 1900. In the following ten years it was raised twice.

After the turn of the century colonial-style houses were built of stone. Previously the street scene had been characterised by prefabricated wooden structures. In 1901 the railway station was completed; the building is part of the Hotel and Entertainment Center now. Other historic buildings include Ludwig Schröder House, built for the Woermann Shipping Line in 1903, and Woermann House with its striking tower and two gables. Completed in 1905 as headquarters of the Damara and Namaqua Trading Company this building was originally known as Damara House.

Elisabeth Brock, who arrived from Germany in December 1903 with her husband, described Swakopmund with approving words: “Early on Monday, the 28th all passengers were taken ashore with the large lighter. (…) Swakopmund looks quite impressive even from a distance, and on arrival I also found it to be a very pleasant place. There are several charming buildings – the railway station, the lighthouse and the telegraph office are particularly noteworthy. A beautiful large store is being built for the Damara Company. It looks similar to the shipping line’s premises in Hamburg (…). Of course you are still wading through sand a lot but there are already quite a few cemented sidewalks and proper steps to the higher lying streets, even some facilities and gardens.” (Brock, s. 16)

Since the pier silted up more and more, to an extent where after just two years steamers were rarely able to sail into the harbour, a newly-built wooden jetty was taken into use in 1905. It soon became clear that this structure would not be able to defy the forces of nature for very long. In 1912 construction work started on an iron jetty right next to the wooden one. The new jetty was to have a total length of 640 m, but when it was 262 m long the First World War put a sudden end to construction work. Imperial Germany lost its colony in south-western Africa. Naturally, the subsequent South African administration used the deep-sea port of Walvis Bay. Swakopmund lost its importance as a harbour town and turned into what it still is today: the most popular holiday resort in Namibia.

The Gondwana History series is a selection of memorable glimpses of Namibia’s history. Collections of the stories are also published as several small volumes in English, German and Afrikaans. Gondwana History III is available since early June at the offices of the Gondwana Collection in Klein Windhoek (42 Nelson-Mandela-Avenue), all the Gondwana lodges and in bookshops.

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Defying the elements, Felsenkirche (the Church on the Rock) has been overlooking the small harbour town of Lüderitz for exactly 100 years.

The German evangelical church in Lüderitzbucht. Source: 25 Jahre deutsche evangelische Kirche Lüderitzbucht, p. 20 (DELK/ELKIN archive, photo: J.C. Hubrich)

The church is an architectural gem, built onto the granite of Diamantberg (Diamond Hill). Whether the patrons wanted to express that the Christian church is based on the belief in Jesus Christ as firm as a rock is subject to guessing. Probably Saint Peter the Apostle also acted as godfather when Felsenkirche was given its name, because Peter is derived from the Greek word ‘petros’ which means rock or stone.

When Felsenkirche was consecrated on 4 August 1912, Lüderitz was a thriving little town of some 1,100 white inhabitants, most of them German. Diamonds had been discovered four years earlier during construction work on the narrow gauge railway line to Keetmanshoop. Since then Lüderitz had rapidly developed from a modest settlement with a few barracks into a rather prosperous town with a flourishing commercial harbour. Diamond mining increasingly turned into an industry, fortune hunters flooded into the country and Kolmanskuppe was built close to Lüderitz as a result of the diamond rush.

At the foundation assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran congregation on 10 May 1909 the 42 parishioners confirmed their membership in writing. In the months which followed there were heated discussions about the costs of building a church for themselves until the opponents finally gave in to the advocates of the construction project. The church was to become the colonial congregation’s refuge in Lüderitz. On 19 November 1911 the first stone was laid with a ceremony and a prayer service: “(…) We are building this house of worship to bear witness that we have not forgotten what our prosperity and our fortune is based on; that we are aware of our responsibility to provide a haven for the sons and daughters of the German home country where heart and soul look for tranquillity and are able to find peace in God (…).” (Rust, p. 15)

The church was designed and built by German architect Albert Bause. Shortly before laying of the first stone he was instructed to save costs by reducing the overall height of the church and keeping the interior somewhat smaller. Despite the saving efforts Felsenkirche turned out as a formidable building with seating for 140 worshippers. This church has a natural air of exaltedness about it because you always look up at it from below, no matter from which side you approach.

The architectural style is neo-gothic with Victorian elements which Albert Bause probably became familiar with while living in Cape Town before moving to German South West Africa. Total construction costs amounted to 46,000 Goldmark.

A large part of the costs was covered by donations, mostly from Germany, which Pastor Alexander Metzner gratefully acknowledged in his consecration service 100 years ago. By then, within just two years, his congregation had increased to 800 members. “Associations and private individuals have generously provided for us. […] How richly the interior of our house of God is furnished; […] each single piece of the furnishings represents experienced brotherly and sisterly love, from the precious gifts of German princes and benevolent friends of considerable means to the donations which accumulated from small amounts.” (Sörries, p. 38)

Some of these gifts can still be admired in the windswept church today: the large stained-glass window at the altar, portraying ‘Jesus calming the storm’, was donated by Emperor William II. His spouse, Empress Augusta Victoria – colloquially nicknamed Church-gusta – because of her dedication to working for the church – sent a valuable, richly ornamented altar bible with a personal inscription to the faraway colony in southern Africa.    The stained-glass triptych Luther window was donated by Prince Joachim Albrecht of Mecklenburg. At the time he was president of the German Colonial Society which in turn had donated the site for the church.

The generous donors not only provided material support with their gifts but also spiritual support for the colonialists’ difficult mission. Living conditions in the thriving harbour town wedged between the desert and the ocean were tough. Either the sun beat down relentlessly or a storm was howling, flies were a pest and so were sand fleas. In a letter which Pastor Metzner wrote in connection with construction work on the parsonage in 1910 he mentioned that conditions were “the most awkward imaginable,” especially for children. “No water, no milk and subsequently a high rate of child mortality. And given the exorbitant prices a family with many children simply would not be able to make it here (…).” (Kauffenstein, p. 79)

Even though the congregation still had to pinch and scrape, congregational life began to flourish. Soon enough it all came to a sudden end, however, when the First World War broke out in 1914 and German South West Africa was invaded by South African troops. The German colonial troops were outnumbered by far and capitulated in July 1915. Administration of the former German colony was taken over by the Union of South Africa.

The pastor and the congregation were deported, most of them lost all their belongings. Part of Felsenkirche was ransacked. On his return in 1919 the pastor pressed charges for church robbery which came to nothing, however. That year the congregational council took stock and concluded that “as a result of repatriations the congregation suffered considerable losses in membership numbers. Numerous churchgoing public servants as well as many families and bachelors left the country either by force or on their own account. Rampant influenza has inflicted more losses on the congregation.” (Kauffenstein 1983, p. 82)

From 1920 diamond mining shifted further south and Lüderitz increasingly lost its significance as a commercial centre. The town had a modest fishing industry and several boat builders’ yards. There were also a few small carpet weaving mills which used the wool of Karakul sheep, then termed the ‘black gold’ of Namibia’s south. Despite these changes Felsenkirche maintained its exalted position as the landmark of Lüderitz. It witnessed the resistance that the pastor and the church council put up against the instructions received from the National Socialists in Germany, and how the congregation helped internees during the Second World War. Felsenkirche was declared a National Monument on 21 September 1978.

These days the German Evangelical-Lutheran congregation in Lüderitz has some 50 members and is part of the congregation in Swakopmund. A church service is held once a month. The centenary will be celebrated on 19 August.

Felsenkirche is open to visitors once a day for an hour before sunset (16h30-17h30 in winter, 17h30-18h30 in summer). Late in the afternoon the atmosphere is at its best when the setting sun is flooding through the precious stained-glass windows and illuminates the church with glorious light.

The Gondwana History series is a selection of memorable glimpses of Namibia’s history. Collections of the stories are also published as several small volumes in English, German and Afrikaans. The latest one, Gondwana History III, is available since early June at the offices of the Gondwana Collection in Klein Windhoek (42 Nelson-Mandela-Avenue), all the Gondwana lodges and in bookshops.

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Kalahari’s sands harbour unusual treasure. The Devil’s Claw is one such gem, known to indigenous people for centuries for its medicinal properties. Although its name stems from the claw-like hooks of the thorny fruit, it is the secondary tubers of the Harpagophytum procumbens that are harvested for their analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties.

Devil's Claw, issued in 2005, artist: Anja Denker

Devil’s Claw, issued in 2005, artist: Anja Denker

One of Namibia’s most famous plants, Devil’s Claw, called Kamangu by many ethnic groups, is known traditionally as an all-purpose tonic, assisting with ailments such as chest pains, emaciation, weakness, fatigue, urinary problems, digestive disorders and fever. The infusion is also taken as an analgesic, especially during pregnancy, and an ointment is applied to heal sores, ulcers and boils. It has become well-known in the western world in the last fifty years as a treatment for rheumatism and arthritis.

The creeping perennial with grey-green leaves and tubular mauve flowers that appear from November onwards is endemic to southern Africa, growing predominantly in the Kalahari sands of Namibia, Botswana and South Africa. It belongs to the Pedaliaceae family. The fruit is dispersed by attaching to animals’ fur and the seeds may remain dormant for decades. The cassava-like secondary roots are sliced and dried for medicinal purposes. Traditionally, an infusion is made by mixing the powdered material with boiling water. Capsules, tablets, tinctures and ointments are also now available.

In the 1950s, the medicinal value of Harpagophytum was recognised by a German farmer in Namibia and the first major commercial export of Devil’s Claw began in the 1960s. The international demand increased in the 1990s. Today, Namibia is responsible for a large percentage of the supply of Devil’s Claw, which is mostly wild-harvested by rural people. Devil’s Claw was listed as a protected species in Namibia in 1977 and permits are required to harvest and import the plant. Thousands of harvesters living in remote rural areas rely on the harvesting of Devil’s Claw as their sole cash income.

Leaves, blossoms and thorny fruits of the Devil's Claw. Photo: Wikipedia/CITES Secretariat (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harpagophytum)

Leaves, blossoms and thorny fruits of the Devil’s Claw. Photo: Wikipedia/CITES Secretariat (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harpagophytum)

A large amount of Devil’s Claw is harvested in the Nyae Nyae Conservancy in eastern Namibia. The conservancy works closely with the Ministry of Environment and Tourism to ensure the sustainability of Devil’s Claw. In the last few years, NGO funding enabled the Nyae Nyae Development Foundation of Namibia (NNDFN) to work with the Centre for Research Information Action in Africa – Southern African Development and Consulting (CRIAA SA-DC) to introduce and implement a sustainable harvesting programme. This also ensures quality of the product and prevents exploitation of the harvesters.

There is concern that Devil’s Claw is threatened by over-utilisation. Studies reveal a need for harvesting to be controlled and restricted to certain months of the year, so as not to disturb the plant during the growing season. It has also been ascertained that although the secondary tubers can be harvested, the primary tap roots must not be disturbed to allow plant regeneration and population growth, ensuring Devil’s Claw survival. Harvesting quotas and long-term monitoring of this valuable resource, which lies so unassumingly on the desert sands, are also recommended.

Resembling a weed, Devil’s Claw could easily be overlooked without its beneficial properties ever being realised. Thanks to indigenous peoples, like the San, we have been made aware of the untold treasures of the natural world.

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Among the people of Namibia various musical bows are known. Basic types include one-stringed, unbraced bows without a resonator, such as the ancient hunting bow, which is also used as a musical instrument; secondly, single-stringed, unbraced bows with a notched stave without a resonator; unbraced musical bows with a resonator; braced, mouth-resonated bows and lastly braced bows with a resonator. The okambulumbumbwa of the AaNdonga, which is also played by the HaMbukushu, BaYeyi and OvaZemba, forms part of the last group of musical bows.
Okambulumbumbwa (musical bow) player at Ondangwa airport (1975). Photo: Antje Otto, Collection National Museum of Namibia

Okambulumbumbwa (musical bow) player at Ondangwa airport (1975). Photo: Antje Otto, Collection National Museum of Namibia

The curved bow is made from a branch of the omuhongo tree (Spirostachys africana), while the string is made from sinew or wire. The bow and the string are braced together by a small piece of string whereby the string is pulled closer to the bow stave and is divided into two lengths. The resonator, which usually consists of a hollow calabash, is fastened in the center of the bow or closer to one side. It has a large hole on the one side and a tiny hole on the other, through which it is fastened to the bow. A small cloth pad is sometimes placed between the bow and the calabash to prevent rattling. A cracked calabash resonator can be mended by neatly drilling holes along the crack and sewing over the crack with sinew.

When played, the bow is usually held horizontally with the string facing away from the player. The bow stave and the open end of the resonating chamber are pressed firmly against the chest with the left hand while the string is played by striking it with a stalk of omaoloolo grass or a small wooden stick held in the right hand. Pressing the string with the first finger produces different tones, while the thumb nail works as a stop. Increasing or decreasing the pressure of the calabash against the chest can also change tones. By moving the brace slightly with the small finger ‘fine-tuning’ is achieved. The okambulumbumbwa is played by men only and is always used singly, accompanying a deep vocal drone produced by the player. Three or four different notes can be played on the instrument, and the rhythm can also vary. Although the sound is not very loud, it can be heard some distance away.

 Okambulumbumbwa, issued in 1985, artist: Jacobus Johannes 'Koos' van Ellinckhuijzen


Okambulumbumbwa, issued in 1985, artist: Jacobus Johannes ‘Koos’ van Ellinckhuijzen

Musical bows are often handed down from one generation to the next and old instruments are today highly prized. The National Museum of Namibia possesses one example of the okambulumbumbwa, which was collected by Sybil Bowker during the 1920s.

Another musical bow, played by women, is the so-called okayaya. The bow of the instrument is shaped like a hacksaw and it has notches cut into it. The string usually consists of a piece of palm leaf which is secured at the one end to the bow by a knot, while the other end is wound around the protruding point of the bow stave a few times until the tension is correct. During a culture festival in 1976 it was observed that the player had wound the end of the palm leaf around her thumb instead. The bow is played with a small stick, which is scraped across the notches. The mouth serves as resonator.

An unusual musical instrument, the so-called ekola, was only known from the AaKwanyama, where it was played by medicine men. It consisted of two or four hollow calabashes, which were glued together in sequence from big to small to form the resonating chamber. The largest calabash had a hole at the top. A curved stick of palm rib, which was notched, extended over the length of the calabashes. The sound was produced by rubbing across the notches with a short thick stick and a bundle of long very thin sticks alternately. Before 1940, the National Museum of Namibia managed to obtain a fine example of the ekola, consisting of four calabashes, which unfortunately became damaged. Another example with two calabashes can be viewed in the Swakopmund Museum. Other musical instruments used among the AaWambo include the big and smaller drums carved from wood of the omunghete tree, lamellophones, kudu horns blown during rites as well as gourd and ankle rattles.

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