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The other Namibia

I thought there was only one Namibia, the country I travelled around last year as a tourist. This Namibia is by day a nature wonderland and at night a place of starry heavens.

 

Liskien Gawanas on her way to an aquifer, a daunting journey on foot up a rock sentinel and a gruelling descent underground. This freshwater spring will probably have been known to southern Africa’s earliest inhabitants, the San, who left their rock art throughout these parts. In 2016, owing to a three-year drought, the aquifer had dried up. Erongo Region, Namibia. 6 June 2015. © 2017 Margaret Courtney-Clarke

Sean Sheehan

 

It has rugged environments like Spitzkoppe, a bare landscape of granite peaks with inselbergs rising in unforgiving isolation from gravel plains, and Bushman rock art from the Stone Age.

There is palm tree-filled Swakopmund, a holiday resort and living relic of German colonialism.

Half an hour away, at Walvis Bay, there are pelicans galore and glorious flocks of flamingos.

The Herero people of Namibia were victims of the first recorded genocide of the twentieth century. Later, under South Africa rule and not relinquished until 1990, apartheid was imposed on the country.

Swakopmund is on the edge of the vast and unremittingly elemental Namib Desert but visitors prefer the great theatre of wildlife called Etosha.

This is the country’s flagship national park, where you drive around between waterholes to watch animals congregating.  Etosha’s salt pan, covering a quarter of the park, shimmers magically in the sun and attracts giraffes, elephants, wildebeest, zebras and svelte antelopes like the curly-horned kudu and oryx.

The flowering wild tobacco (Nicotiana glauca) is used by local people for hunting rituals and medicinally as a poultice to treat wounds. Native to South America, it has adapted near the Kuiseb River to intercept and utilise coastal fog which occurs up to 200 days per year. The advancing sand dunes along the river – due to climate change, mismanagement and other factors – present a continuous hazard to the local Topnaar tenure farmers and their families. Walvis Bay District. 9 June 2014. © 2017 Margaret Courtney-Clarke

The photos I took are predictable enough: zebras and antelope at a watering hole; a leopard cub looking angelic; oryx that could be imagined as unicorns were it not for the extra horn.

Not so the photographs of Margaret Courtney-Clarke. She returned to the country in 2008 to live in Swakopmund.

She established good relations with the inhabitants of an illegal squatter camp and moved with women and children as they travelled from one garbage dump to another, collecting anything that will help them eke out a living.

She travelled inland to the source of their migration, remote communities where people are leaving the drought-stricken land and the encroaching mining concessions.

The scorched and people-less landscapes that visitors appreciate as background for their wildlife shots become scenes of unvarnished human life in a hostile environment.

Ashanti Gaises was born and raised in Khorixas in north-eastern Namibia and has moved south with her baby in search of work. She drags a bag of cardboard boxes from an illegal dump on the outskirts of Swakopmund. 4 March 2014. © 2017 Margaret Courtney-Clarke

Everywhere is saturated with light and it shines down dispassionately on the precarious and improvised lives of women and children.

Courtney-Clarke’s photographs speak for themselves, documentary evidence of the other Namibia, the country that tourists rarely see.

Cry Sadness Into the Coming Rain by Margaret Courtney-Clarke is published by Steidl.

(Photographs © 2017 Margaret Courtney-Clarke – supplied by the publisher)

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