Riemvasmaker festival keeps traditions alive in the wilderness

'Oom' Nelboy Bezuidenhout dancing with Anna Dawids
'Oom' Nelboy Bezuidenhout dancing with Anna Dawids

Deriet is off the beaten track, but perhaps not for long. There are plans to expand the tourism trail to this small Kunene village, home to the Riemvasmaker festival.

Four motorbikes roar through the sandy river bed, followed by a support Land Cruiser. Their riders look like aliens, complete with body armour, helmets and Go-Pro cameras. In contrast, small boys in trilby hats and girls dressed in white and red perform a Nama Stap dance in the blazing heat.

The Riemvasmaker community was deported to this arid part of Kunene, 150 kilometres west of Khorixas, in 1974 by the South African apartheid regime. They were, said the government “a black spot on a white sheet”. They were dumped in and around Deriet, which was, to quote chief Mangani, “like a zoo”. The only things in abundance were lions and elephants. The Riemvasmakers were allowed to bring their livestock, which came with them on trains and lorries. “We brought everything, except snakes,” says the chief. There were enough of them in Kunene.

But Riemvasmaker oral historian David Isaaks, senior traditional counsellor to the chief, notes that the community originated in Namibia, in the South.

They fled German imprisonment and slave labour after the Nama and Herero uprising in 1904, and settled in Riemvasmaak, to the west of Upington. Senior counsellor Laurence Adams points out that Jacob Marengo was his great-grandfather.

But the Riemvasmakers are not exclusively Nama.

They mixed with other people, including Xhosas in South Africa. Afrikaans is their common language.

The festival keeps the traditions of the community alive, and is supported by the Torra Conservancy, which provides transport and food. The tourism non-governmental organisation Tosco wants to revive Deriet as a tourism destination, starting with an information board about the area and its inhabitants.

Change started to come to Deriet in 1993 when Peter Ward, a consultant working for Wilderness Safaris, passed by the area on holiday. He realised that it would be a great location for a lodge, and the idea of Damaraland Camp was born.

The community elected representatives to form a trust that could negotiate with Wilderness.

The resulting camp is now one of the world's top eco-lodges, which brings income to the community and provides jobs to locals.

Damaraland Camp is now a joint venture with Torra Conservancy, which was formed in 1998 as one of the first four Namibian communal conservancies. The protection of wildlife has brought benefits to tourists and residents alike, but problems too.

Everybody at Deriet wants to talk about lions. The conservancy has an annual quota for game meat and trophy animals. The quota has been reduced in the recent lean years of drought, so fewer springbok, gemsbok and zebra are harvested or hunted. But Torra will be lucky to get one lion on its quota, which will bring in a lot of income. While the number of plains game has gone down due to drought, the number of predators has increased. When Damaraland Camp opened its canvas doors, there were something like 25 lions west of Etosha. Now, there may be 150, and they prey on farmers' livestock.

Farmer Jantjie Rhyn says a balance needs to be struck between farming and wildlife. Although elephants have destroyed his garden, he still struggles on. He was deported to Namibia when he was 20, but now he loves his farm.

“Why should I leave it?” he asks.

“In your heart, you know where you are coming from. That will not go away until the day you die. But you must look forward, you must grow. Now, I am a Namibian.”

Steve Felton
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