Are your feet different sizes?” asks Nunke Kadimo, my San guide as she demonstrates how to make fire. “No,”
I say, somewhat bemused. “Why?”
“Because your shoes are,” comes her smiling response. “Look at your tracks.”
Strangely enough, one of my shoes has felt too tight for a while but it takes me a moment to work out what is happening. Photographer Shaen Adey and I both recently bought new hiking shoes, identical, but for the fact that mine are a size bigger. Shaen howls with laughter at the muddle up. She had wondered why one of her shoes needed constant tightening.
It’s our first visit to the !Khwa ttu San Heritage Centre, on the R27, an hour north of Cape Town, where it has established itself as a West Coast destination. Thanks to its proximity to the West Coast National Park, the seaside villages of Langebaan and Yzerfontein, and the arty town of Darling, it’s an affordable base from which to explore the area.
With its daisy-studded plains, it’s my go-to spot in flower season, and I’ve been there half a dozen times in the last few years, watched the centre develop and tried most of their activities. But the opening of their new Heritage Centre
in September 2018 has upped the ante.
The !Khwa ttu Heritage Centre project was founded two decades ago by the late Swiss anthropologist and philanthropist Irene Staehelin. “There is no group in mankind that has been written about more than the San, the Bushman people,” Irene had said. “But where are these books? They’re in the libraries, in the universities. They’re not in the possession of the people. So what we wanted to do at !Khwa ttu was restitute those stories, those films, that knowledge, those images, and then let Bushman people decide what they want to take for their heritage.”
In 1999, she bought a West Coast farm for the !Khwa ttu project, later setting up the Ubuntu Foundation in Switzerland to help support it. “Somehow I could see this place becoming a San heritage and education centre,” she said at the time. “It was a strong vision combined with the feeling that, if I walked away, I would regret it to the end of my days.”
An inspiring destination
Fast-forward 20 years and the previously dilapidated farm is a place of learning and sharing, co-owned and run for, and by, the San, with a new eco-centre as its defining landmark. As part of the skills training they offer, the management of !Khwa ttu has transformed the derelict farm, Grootwater, into an inspiring cultural and activity-based destination for the 20 000 or so visitors who pass through its gates every year.
“In the two decades we’ve been here, together with the San staff and interns, we’ve rehabilitated the land, re-wilding it with eland, zebra and various other animals,” says Michael Daiber, general manager of !Khwa ttu. “We laid hiking and mountain-bike trails, established an excellent restaurant and developed various accommodation options.”
Joram /Useb, !Khwa ttu’s heritage coordinator explains that the !Khwa ttu San Heritage Centre is a great deal more than a collection of artefacts and historical photos. “It’s a pioneering initiative, a museum that embraces the principle of community curation, led by academics and San consultants from across Southern Africa.
Academics include current museum director, anthropologist Dr Chris Low, an affiliate of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford University, who has worked with the San for almost 20 years. Largely responsible for the design of the new Heritage Centre, he is supported by a professional !Khwa ttu team, including local exhibition designer Jos Thorne, eco-community, a non-profit organisation, Gondwana Alive, and architects KLG.
“Having their own Heritage Centre brings extraordinary pride to San across Southern Africa, as well as to local people who are of San ancestry,” continues Michael. “At the same time, many San have very little idea about other San, and delight in discovering their similarities and differences.”
Telling our story
When setting up the new Heritage Centre, the team worked closely with Iziko Museums of South Africa, to ensure that they maintain the highest museum standards. And the exhibitions follow the San mandate of ‘telling our story in our own words, past, present and future’.
In the first two restored farm buildings, respectively named First People, and Encounters, themes ranging from San storytelling to archaeology, rock art, colonial encounters, and current community initiatives are presented in colourful pictures, photos, films, digital maps and artefacts. We learn how the San fit into accounts of human origins, while the cruelty the San endured at the hands of colonists is laid out with Swiss precision and technology.
In the Encounters building, the experience has San history brought into recent times, beginning with accounts of San as soldiers and of San living in challenging environments, before ending with positive stories of San initiatives taking place across the Kalahari.
The material presented in these buildings is visually striking and thought-provoking, but it’s the new Way of the San structure that blows us away. Embedded in the landlines of the ridge that looks towards Yzerfontein and the Atlantic Ocean, it is ingeniously designed to dissolve into the landscape once the surrounding indigenous vegetation grows over its curved roof.
“A major challenge is using a building to tell the story of the life of ‘traditional’ San hunter-gatherers, a life lived outside,” explains Michael. “It represents a shelter where people gather to learn and to share.” With its immersive, multimedia room, digital archive, partly cantilevered roof, geothermal cooling and heating, and essentially contemporary architecture, the structure embodies old wisdom combined with new technology, for a sustainable future.
A place of dignity and beauty
Displays present hunting, gathering, healing, village life and music, but instead of representing these themes in a Western-style of cataloguing knowledge, they reflect San ways of thinking by using San quotations, plus film, sound and smell, to knit the various topics together. A 270-degree film and a soundscape of 24 hours in the Kalahari give visitors a feel for what it’s like in the San world.
“The new building is to be the Embassy of the San,” Irene had announced at the 2018 opening of the new centre. “A place of dignity and beauty where they can host meetings.” Inside and around the building are local indigenous plants that have been significant to people in this region for thousands of years.
“The issue of using water and resources sensibly is the story of the San, it is what enabled them to survive for thousands of years in the harshest parts of Southern Africa, and is not just a story for responsible tourism,’’ Michael says when I congratulate him on recent awards. !Khwa ttu scooped a Water Sustainability Award last year, as well as Social Responsibility Award and, this year, the Western Cape’s Cultural Affairs Award for the Best Museum Project, and a gold for Best Heritage Experience.
“It is intrinsic to !Khwa ttu, which was previously a wheat farm, that we follow an ecologically sustainable model of development and support the regeneration of the land. Our building carries the eco-message of know more, need less, and look after your resources, including your community,” Michael says.
Your story too
!Khwa ttu uses borehole water and solar electricity. It recycles, reuses and repurposes resources as efficiently as possible, and encourages visitors to use water sparingly, and utilise glass rather than plastic water bottles. Suitable food waste is fed to the chickens, which supply the restaurant with eggs.
“From an employment perspective, the centre is deeply embedded in the local community, buying all its food and resources from the immediate region whenever possible,” explains Michael. “This is a critical part of presenting the San story in a wider ecological framework of living well from what is around you. It’s a message linked to ‘place-based education’, our educational philosophy in which a healthy community and healthy environment go hand in hand.”
Irene passed away in February 2019, almost exactly 20 years after she initiated the !Khwa ttu project, one she was as proud of as are the !Khwa ttu team and the San people. Whether you are local or a visitor to the Cape, looking for a solitary retreat or an active escape, a visit to !Khwa ttu will be a moving experience. Because, in the words of Dr Chris Low, “The San’s story is a story of human origins, of beginnings. As such, it is your story too.”
Pictures Shaen Adey and Karin Schermbrucker