Reflections on the processes, challenges and deep learning from the Hurinin Project

By Elsemi Olwage and Glenn Kasper

This blog post reflects on the One Ocean Hub’s ‘Hurinin Project’ in Namibia which is an Indigenous youth-led art-based research project on ocean cultural heritage. Specifically, the blog post reflects on the key insights which emerged from the research process, some of the challenges that were experienced, and the way forward. The ‘Hurinin Project’ started in June 2023, and it is implemented by the ǂAonin (Topnaar) youth, primarily by Mr Glenn Kasper, and administered by the Gobabeb Namib Research Institute. It is a community and youth-driven project aimed at revitalising the socio-historical, cultural, and contemporary connections between the ǂAonin community and the ocean and coastal places, including that of being the descendants of the first inhabitants of Namibia’s main harbour town of Walvis Bay (locally known as !Gomen-||Gams, or the ‘Water of the !Gomen’). Many of these cultural and social memories and past knowledge-practices related to the ocean survive only in traces and fragments.

A deep-seated lack of recognition of the ǂAonin’s long-standing connections to certain landscapes and coastal places, and their rich marine cultural heritage, tends to justify exclusionary decision-making and governance practices, both in the conservation, environmental, mining and blue economy sectors. The Hurinin project is driven by the interests of the youth in the generation, documentation, and transmission of these histories and related knowledge practices. This stems from a need to strengthen their sense of identity, belonging and pride as well as their capacity for political and community activism in creating future sustainable livelihood pathways for themselves and others.

The Hurinin Project aims to achieve its outcomes through three key activities:

  1. community-based fire events to share stories and knowledge and strengthen the local social and intergenerational fabric;
  2. the documentation of intangible (marine) cultural heritage by the youth;
  3. the making of a short film, for both outreach and documentation purposes. These activities were and continue to be supported by co-research activities of the Hub’s Namibian team, specifically through research by early-career researcher Elsemi Olwage.

In addition, and as part of the Hub’s commitment to exploring art-based approaches for research and activism, the Hub’s Namibia team recently partnered with the National Theatre of Namibia (NTN), under the artistic directorship of Ms. Nelago Shilongoh, to co-create an applied and interactive theatre play, inspired by Empatheatre’s arts-based research approach. The making and scripting of this theatre play is taking place collaboratively with interested community members and the Topnaar Traditional Authority and Youth Association. Moreover, the process itself is aimed at generating and deepening dialogue between the community, academia, government ministries, and local authorities, and to contribute to the co-research activities. The play is due to premiere in Windhoek and coastal areas in Namibia in July 2024 (date tbc).


The Hurinin Project takes its name from one of the sub-clans within the ǂAonin – the Hurinin – which were considered ‘the people of the sea’ or in colonial colloquial as the ‘strandlopers’ (the beachcombers, or walkers). Likewise, the !Gomen, another sub-clan were considered the founders of Walvis Bay. These names were reflective of the association of certain families and lineages with particular places and land-areas, but also with different (yet flexible and shifting) subsistence and economic practices within Namibia’s arid coastline, ephemeral river valleys and coastal deltas and lagoons. According to living memory, both the Hurinin and the !Gomen were those most closely associated with a now largely lost fishing tradition, primarily via fish-spearing in the lagoons and shallow waters, the harvesting of marine resources, and with coastal places where people resided historically, or kept seasonal encampments. From the late 1700s onwards, this also included trade with seafarers and whalers, and later, seasonal work in factories, or as seamen. Apart from Walvis Bay, significant dwelling places included Sandwhich harbour (Anixab), and Mile 2 and 4 just south of Walvis Bay. Other lineages lived more inland along the !Khuiseb river (the !Khuisebnin), or were closely associated the with !nara (the !Naranin), a wild and highly nutritious melon endemic to the coastal dunes and today still considered a crucial part of the ǂAonin identity and connection to place.

Thalia Animas doing historical research in Walvis Bay. Thalia is holding a photo album from a family that use to live in Sandwich harbour (Anixab) before they were forcibly relocated during the period of apartheid South African colonial rule.

Today, the ǂAonin community are most commonly associated with the west-flowing ephemeral !Khuiseb river and coastal delta which opens up in Walvis Bay. Here ǂAonin families have established 14 small settlements, spread out across more or less 80km   and keep livestock, engage in cultivation, and harvest the !nara. A large ǂAonin community also reside within Walvis Bay, where people have lived for generations and have established their homes, businesses or engage in wage labour, while many divide their time between the urban context and the !Khuiseb farms.

The ǂAonin community faces a range of intersecting challenges and an ever-changing environment and future. Most of their historical and contemporary dwelling places fall within national parks, urban municipal boundaries, or marine restricted and protected areas. These structural realities impinge on their claims to land and access-rights to resources and former dwelling and culturally-significant places. The farms along the !Khuiseb river are both within the Namib-Naukluft Park and the Dorob National Park. The ǂAonin case is unique; they are one of the few communities in Namibia that have remained dwelling in national parks, despite previous attempts to forcibly relocate them during South African apartheid rule. Still, historically, the creation of these parks together with processes of industrialisation and urbanisation have led to their access to former territories and dwelling places being restricted, or their tenure remaining legally insecure.

Larger climatic changes and the extraction of water from the !Khuiseb aquifers in support of urban and industrial development are also locally perceived to be shifting the !Khuiseb river ecology and to negatively impact future rural livelihoods in its lower valley. In addition, given the expanding urban fringes, other urban residents have discovered the economic and nutritional value of the !nara, and have gained access to these fields, making it difficult for the ǂAonin community to protect and practice this heritage.

 At the same time, many of the ǂAonin youth and families are living urbanised lives and futures, including facing challenges of lack of access to tertiary education, unemployment, and urban poverty. It is within this context that the Hurinin project was established as a contemporary engagement with the changing pasts and present of the ǂAonin community, specifically the youth.

The fire as a method and memory

Locally, the fire plays a significant role in the making of community as, according to the elders, it brings people together (“/ao-/ao aos”). Glenn Kasper and his team organised fire-based gatherings to build knowledge, cultural memory, relationships, and connection between the ǂAonin elders and the youth.  The events also strived to generate a local archive through documentation by the youth, and later, by a young film maker, Julius Mtuleni. This is for future generations to continue to learn from those who came before. These events were and are still being engaged for research purposes, through a collaborative process. In the end, four fire events were organised, and took place in Iduseb, one of the main settlements along the !Khuiseb river.

The first two events were held under the sheltering  Tamarisk tree in Iduseb known as the ‘Lydia’ tree. This tree is named after a woman, Lydia, who was held in high regard as a community leader. The tree was historically used as a meeting place to discuss community issues, and to inaugurate new leaders. The two fire events followed a similar pattern with community members gathering at dusk, sitting in a circle around a central fireplace, and with a church elder providing a blessing through a fire ceremony. “Everyone was given a piece of wood to add to the fire after he placed his, and the ancestors and God were given recognition, including through prayer”, Glenn explains. Then, late into the night, elders, and others present shared stories of the past and present. They spoke of where their families used to live, deliberated over the origins and migration histories of the different subclans, discussed the different fish they used to catch, and uses of seaweed for medicinal purposes. “One story that stood out for me was when the meaning of the word !Gomen was discussed. One person stated that the word !Gomen echoes the sound of the whale’s tail as it hits the water”, Glenn continues.

Glenn Kasper welcomes everyone at second fire event in August 2023. Photo: Elsemi Olwage.
Under the Lydia Tree at the second fire event in August 2023. Photo: Elsemi Olwage.
Around the fire at the second fire event in August 2023. Topnaar Youth flag, with a dolphin, !nara, dunes and sea logo. Motto says “an active youth group forms part of a Prosperous society”. Photo: Glenn Kasper.
Glenn and Merensie Cloete cleaning fish to be cooked. Photo: Thalia Animas.

The youth at the event were eager to participate: they volunteered and supported the task team with lighting the fire and cooking horse mackerel, angel, and snoek fish as a stew, served with maize meal porridge. In between telling the stories, warm tea was served. The sharing of food was a positive experience. “It has been a very long time since I have eaten fish,” one person said. The elders encouraged the youth to continue holding fire events to revive the ǂAonin culture. One elder said, “I’m very glad to be part of this fire event, it shows that you recognised me as an elder and not only recognise me when I die.” Frederika Kham, one of the youth volunteers, also expressed enthusiasm: “We sat around the fire till late and just had general discussions and laughter. It was really what I needed and missed. It’s an opportunity we are not getting in the towns.”

Dissent and repair

Grass-roots heritage and co-research projects do not happen in a vacuum. These two fire events were not only characterised by positive experiences. It also stirred up long-standing tensions and internal strife within a community that is both diverse and scattered. History and the past are not neutral; they are political. “There is no one story and often particular versions of past become contested or instrumentalised by different actors to serve certain agendas, to exclude or to construct competing cultural and place identities. In addition, since the passing of the previous ǂAonin chief in 2019, the community have been embroiled in a dispute over the legitimacy of leadership and succession, a dispute which stretches back to the pre-independence years. In such disputes, history once again becomes a crucial political resource. Consequently, these two fire events were perceived by one faction in the community as a threat, with many not attending, and some subsequently disrupting the second fire event to such a degree that is caused intense emotional distress. On the other side, others who felt that their voices were marginalised within local leadership and community structures, instrumentalised the events to give voice to versions of the past that they felt were being suppressed or silenced. The fire-events thus became an arena of struggle, but also a platform for dialogue” Hub early-career researcher Elsemi Olwage says.

In line with the Hub’s Code of Practice, Glenn and his team had to reassess their approach and the project was put on hold for two months. During this time, significant effort was made to re-build bridges and communication between the opposing factions, and to re-state the goal of the Hurinin Project. This included a community meeting organised by the Traditional Authority and the Hub’s Namibian team in November 2023 to allow for dialogue and knowledge exchange. This led to a degree of repair and restored trust, with Glenn and his team able to continue with the project.

“As much as these experiences were challenging, they ensured that the project was redirected meaningfully. It surfaced how the first two fire events ignited cultural heritage co-construction in context of division – a process which was, as a consequence, cross-cut with dissent, including between generations and factions, and different families. As a result, concern for repair in the social and environmental fabric emerged as a critical research question and renewed agenda for the youth involved” Elsemi says.

Performing past and present

In December 2023, a third fire event was organised, once again under the Lydia tree. This time a professional film maker, Julius, attended to document the stories that were shared and the event itself. This event mirrored those of the first two and several elders from Walvis Bay attended who had not experienced it before. It was as a positive event that included more of the community members and a moment of celebration.

In February 2024, a final fire event was organised, this time at the Topnaar Traditional Authority compound, and again with the film maker present. The last fire event was meant to ignite unity and repair amongst the community, including by ensuring the participation of local leadership. Musicians and school going learners were present, including dance groups from the diverse learners who reside at the Iduseb school hostel. The visitors, including from the Hub’s Support team (Hub Deputy Director Philile Mbatha and Programme Manager Pippin Searle), were welcomed with a traditional ‘namastap’ (the ‘namawalk’) dance by the youth, and greetings from the acting chief and senior councillors. A significantly larger crowd of people were present at this event, with approximately 80 people present.  

Glenn shares: “The late Chief Seth Matawa Kooitjie was the last one that had lighted the fire in the compound more than five years before. The lighting of the fire at this event by the current acting Chief, Stoffel Anamab, symbolised that the ǂAonin community were lightning the new fire of unity and reconciliation and foreseeing a more united clan. The elders also encouraged the youth to continue with what they are doing. Elder Mathilde Kooitjie said: “Don’t start something and not complete it. Continue with what you are doing, lightning a fire is no joke.””

It was explained by senior councillor, Lena Kasper, that the purple patchwork cloth that was placed at the fireplace indicated and symbolised that although the ǂAonin are diverse, they are one people. During this event, praise poems in Khoekhoegowab were recited, especially those connected to the ocean and places, and a local DJ created some fun and play in between the more serious moments. After the official lighting of the fire and ceremony, the music soon shifted to choral and church music, as requested by the councillors present. This was reflective of the strong and long-standing Christianised identity in the ǂAonin community.

Conversations around the fire continued until late and included reminiscing over past connections to the ocean. It was shared that the most important fish that were caught were the stingrays, steenbras, whale, and the sand-shark, the whale carrying an especially significant value because the skin and the ribs were used to construct temporary huts on the coastline during the fish season. The meat and blubber were high sources of energy. Likewise, seals skin was used to make clothes to keep people warm, given Namibia’s foggy and cold coastal weather conditions. Glenn shares: “I found interesting how the stingray fish was prepared. As it contains a lot of water, people used to place it in a cloth and dry it. Afterwards, it was cooked and re-cooked 3-4 times to soften the meat. Elders also emphasised that there was sufficient fish in the olden days. When men were catching fish, they would slowly move around, and feel with the feet were the fish were and then stopped and speared them with an oryx horn.”

Despite an overall positive experience, Glenn reflected that many of the youth and some of those present did not really show real interest in the event. On the other hand, the majority of the elders were supportive and participated till the end. Glenn explains:

“Around the fire, the conversation was sometimes a little bit tricky. The elders divided themselves in groups (different parties) and there was this tendency of every party to want to be right, and they would debate with each other. I would then intervene and say no person is right, everyone has his/her own version, so there is no right or wrong answer because it’s history, neither of us were there, but it’s what we told by our elders and what “some” of us have read.”

The fire event provided a much-needed platform for differences in viewpoints and opinions, as well as past narratives to be expressed and discussed. “For Glenn it had not been an easy journey, learning to act as a mediator and unifier. Whereas larger relations were mended, some of his personal relationships suffered in the process. Still, for him it was a journey of acquiring new skills, including learning how to navigate the complexities of grass-roots community work and project management, and doing long-term historical research. We are hoping that this is just the start for the rich ǂAonin personal and social histories to come alive through a local heritage project that can benefit the people, especially the youth, in the long-term” Elsemi reflects.

Applied theatre and research

In taking this vision forward, the Hub team at the University of Namibia (UNAM) is collaborating with the National Theatre of Namibia (NTN), represented by Ms. Nelago Shilongoh (Artistic Director, NTN) and her team, to produce an applied theatre play. This play is informed by the ongoing research by the Hub team, while the arts-based process itself is meant to deepen this research process and dialogue. The project will unfold over a period of six months and will include three contact sessions with the community.

 The first contact session between NTN, the UNAM research team and the community took place in February 2024 in Iduseb. The aim of this session was first of all to introduce the project to the Traditional Authority and Council, as well as the community members.

Secondly, this session was used to collectively surface stories. Using chalk, the NTN and UNAM team drew the !Khuiseb river, delta and coastline on the cement floor, symbolising both the ‘river of time’ as well as the emplaced histories of the ǂAonin. Community members were encouraged to step forward and use the rough map as a compass to share any aspect of their past, or present matters of concern.

 They were encouraged to draw on the floor or add any words that were important in their story, with words such as land, water, and ancestral graves, added early on.

Sharing stories through the ‘river of time’ in the Iduseb community hall in February 2024. Photo: Elsemi Olwage.

This first engagement was positively experienced by those present. It created a space where the conversation could be interactively expanded, and diverse views could be expressed. Through this process, a core team of community members volunteered to work closely with the NTN and UNAM moving forward. This will include an interactive table-read session and a later performance of the play in which the community members will be encouraged to actively participate, including through call and response methods.

This process will culminate in a first performance of the play in Walvis Bay and the Erongo region, and in Windhoek, provisionally in June or July (dates tbc). Relevant government and other stakeholders will be invited to these performances to generate discussion and dialogue, not only on issues faced by the ǂAonin community, but more broadly by marginalised communities in Namibia regarding economic and social inclusion, free and informed consent and decision-making, and human and cultural rights. It will also be an opportunity to showcase the rich cultural heritage of Namibia’s coastal communities.

Related SDGs:

  • Reduced inequality
  • Sustainable cities and communities
  • Responsible consumption and production
  • Climate action
  • Life below water