Spotlight on early-career researchers: Elsemi Olwage
My name is Elsemi Olwage, I am an early career and post-doctoral researcher currently based at the University of Namibia (UNAM) in Windhoek. I am a social anthropologist with transdisciplinary research interests in environmental humanities and legal and political anthropology. I joined the Hub in 2023, with a focus on the politics and practices of ocean culture and heritage.
What’s your greatest achievement since you started working for the One Ocean Hub?
The Hub provided me with an opportunity to work closely with the Topnaar Youth Association, specifically Mr Glenn Kasper, and the Gobabeb Namib Research Institute to realise the Hurinin Project. The Hurinin Project is a grass-roots driven cultural heritage project aimed at revitalising the cultural, social and embodied memories connected to the ocean and coastal places among the Topnaar (ǂAonin) community of Walvis Bay and the lower !Khuiseb River delta in Namibia. It is funded by the One Ocean Hub and was co-conceptualised by the Topnaar youth and community members and fellow Hub colleagues at UNAM.
Being the technical and research support for this project has been my greatest achievement. It has allowed me to delve deeper into understanding wider coastal (and colonial) histories of exclusion and erasure within this context, including its impact on decision-making and participation within ocean and coastal governance mechanisms. It has also provided key learning and growth opportunities in terms of working with diverse knowledge holders and partners, including building research methodologies that is more praxis and arts-based and inclusive. As part of this process, two short films are being produced, as well as an applied theatre piece in collaboration with the National Theatre of Namibia (NTN), in 2024.
How does your work contribute to shaping the One Ocean Hub’s interdisciplinary endeavours?
My work with the Hub has been strongly informed by transdisciplinary engagements. I have been working closely with the legal colleagues, specifically on a paper provisionally titled Customary Laws of the Sea in Africa. Secondly, my work has examined the question of social inclusion, especially of cultural heritage concerns, both within the Blue Economy and Marine Spatial Planning governance mechanisms. This is being done through ongoing collaborative academic papers as well as participation in various workshops organised by the Hub in Namibia. In my own research capacity, I have focused on tracing the intersecting hydrocolonial and environmental histories which have shaped current lived realities of exclusion and marginalisation in and around Walvis Bay, including access to land and resource rights and former dwelling places.
What opportunity has the Hub provided you to lead on innovative research? How has the Hub enhanced your leadership skills?
Critical socio-historical and heritage-based research in and on coastal Namibia, including in its coastal urban settings, is still limited. Generally, colonial architectural and epistemological, and industrial marine heritage dominates historical narratives and conceptions of the past, place, and environment in this space. This has implications for both representation and memorialisation, knowledge production, and decision-making, with the ocean and coastal zone in Namibia often imagined as empty of social and cultural relations and claims. The Hub has provided an opportunity to begin to unpack these assumptions and hegemonic representations through multiple and innovative engagements, both at a grass-roots level and through collaborative work with other scholars. A key insight generated through the Hub’s work is the close interconnection between human and cultural rights, and heritage discourses within ocean governance.
During the past year, I was given the opportunity to serve on the executive committee for the Hub in Namibia. This allowed me to grow in terms of leadership skills, especially working under the generosity of the hub director, Prof Alex Kanyimba, and advocate Dr Tapiwa Warikandwa.
What, in your view, have been the Hub’s most impactful activities?
In my view the most impactful activities have been amplifying the voices of the marginalised coastal residents to collaboratively establish and express what the matters of concern are within these marine environments. Spheres of influence and power within Namibia’s marine context is still strongly shaped by the private sector and commercial, state, and scientific interests, including through the commercial fisheries, mining, conservation, and security sectors. Building awareness and literacy, including ocean and legal literacy, regarding all Namibians’ right to meaningful participate in shaping coastal development trajectories, including ocean governance, has been the most impactful of the Hub’s activities. This is an ongoing process and hopefully a key legacy of the Hub. With regards to ocean and cultural heritage, this includes problematising the current dominance of colonial heritage (especially architectural, spatial, and epistemological) in shaping coastal narratives and marine knowledge and building more inclusive archives that narrate indigenous and creole coastal histories, knowledges and (dis) connections, including spiritual.
What are the aspects of working in a collaborative environment such as the One Ocean Hub that you value the most?
Working towards social and environmental justice in the context of post-colonial Namibia requires a transdisciplinary and praxis-based research approach. I have valued learning from other disciplines, especially the legal scholars, and being able to work on a development orientated research programme that seeks impact and methodological approaches towards knowledge co-production.
What are the challenges and new demands that early-career researchers face today?
In Namibia and southern Africa at large we face numerous challenges, with especially job and local funding opportunities for research being very limited. This translates into insecurity and short-term contracts, and to research not being published. Women face additional challenges linked to structural inequalities. Humanities-orientated researchers, including anthropologists, are also often neglected in terms of financial support, despite these fields being critical to enhancing our understandings of human-ocean relations and intersecting environmental and human-rights challenges.
What is your advice to fellow early-career researchers working on a global development project?
Working from the Global South can be challenging, given the still persistent global inequalities in funding and knowledge production. It can result in power imbalances and lack of equal knowledge exchange. One key practice can be for early career researchers to try to be involved from the start with co-writing and co-designing the project proposal. Secondly, early career researchers should contribute to and ethically align with the project’s Code of Practice. This will ensure that project partners can create a shared culture of learning and heighten long-term local impact, including mutuality in knowledge production.