I met Dalene van der Westhuizen 17 years ago, shortly after the so-called Oka Crisis which was really a Canadian – not a Mohawk – crisis. We shared a Commonwealth Fellowship, met the British Queen in Buckingham Palace, was her Mother’s guest at Cumberland Lodge near Windsor, travelled to the South Pacific nations of Tonga, Solomon Islands, Western Samoa with a layover in Fiji. One night, on the flight from Singapore to Brisbane, we sat up all night unable to sleep, talking, drinking wine. We talked about ourselves, where we came from, and where we were going. 17 years dropped like a pebble in the stream when she picked me up the other morning.
Back then, I remember telling her that we (Mohawks) didn’t want trouble. But neither were we able to ignore the massive insult to our ancestors when the neighbouring mayor threatened to bulldoze their graveyard and slash those pine trees to extend a golf course where Indians weren’t even allowed to play. At the time, I remember saying, we just reminded Canadians of something they have tried repeatedly to purge from their collective memories, like erasing files from a computer hard drive. Even computers, however, retain copies of these trashed files until they are over-written by something else. So we Indigenous types confound these attempts by dredging up these unwanted and uncomfortable memories by recovering them over and over again, and putting them back onto the desktop.
These are my thoughts as Dalene describes what we are about to see once at Wakopsmund on the Atlantic coast, about three hours drive west of Windhoek. I arrived in Windhoek after a 20-hour bus ride through the Eastern Western Cape (merci, encore, my unofficial blog editor, Basil Appollis) from Cape Town, through spectacular mountains, then into the semi-arid land that has some of the richest and most productive farmlands in South Africa. Did I mention that midnight body search at the border by SA police and customs officials? And the sniffer dogs? After a long walk to downtown Windhoek, I look forward to something – anything.
Six hours after my arrival that morning with no sleep in two days, Dalene and I are in her car heading out into the desert. The sights are stunning. She explains much about the geology and history of the places we pass. Over there, a volcanic upshoot that never developed fully. Did I know that the mountains were carved by massive glaciers that scraped volcanic rock underneath leaving other mountain ranges? Or that there was once a vast sea where now there is desert as far as you can drive in one day. Dinosaur bones of huge sea creatures are under the sands out there.
The Herero people are here. We pass some in Usakos; women in spectacular German missionary-style multi-layered gowns with wide, horn-like bonnets in vivid colours as they sway majestically down the dusty street. The San are further north in the Kalahari, the Caprivi Strip area and Botswana. As we drive, Dalene points to mountains that shoot up from flat desert. Out there, she says, is where the Hamib people live. “There is nothing out there,” she says. “Absolutely nothing. They are a beautiful, wonderful people who wander and exist where almost nothing else can.” There is admiration in her voice.
Later, at a museum, we see pictures of people with fine almost delicate features, dark copper skin and beautiful faces, and a glow that seems to emanate from within even in these old pictures. I can’t help but wonder, though, the way in which this museum deals with them as museums do with so many peoples around the world – as artifacts of a dead or dying people and culture to be preserved and displayed for a paying public.
Is this the best that modern societies offer them? Even after European societies and their Afrikaner off-spring hand over control to African societies and their new governments? I look at jars with snakes, scorpions, geckos faithfully preserved and labelled and wonder how I would look if my people had not adapted but sought to remain as they had 250 years ago. I can’t but think that we, too, would have made a beautiful and majestic bunch of museum artifacts.