An hour outside Cape Town, on the way to popular seaside villages like Langebaan and Paternoster, a unique a place of learning and sharing, owned and run for and by the San, has opened its doors, appropriately on Heritage Day, Monday, 24 September.
The new !Khwa ttu San Heritage Centre building is an intriguing structure, embedded into the land lines of the ridge looking towards Yzerfontein and the Atlantic Ocean. Soon, the surrounding indigenous vegetation will completely cover the canopy, which represents a shelter where people gather to learn and to share.
It addresses the hopes and dreams of San all over Southern Africa: it is a place to tell their story in ways of their choosing, a place of dignity where their voices can be heard and the past can be remembered for a better future; a place to tell you who the San are.
!Khwa ttu “brings back the pride in the people, it brings back the dignity in the people, because they are telling their story in their own way. It comes from within them,” explains Leana Snyders, Director of the South African San Council.
The San here welcome visitors. Their pride in sharing their culture is inspiring and, of course, poignant. !Khwa ttu is located in an area that was once part of the vast territory of the !Xam Bushmen, who were systematically rounded up and exterminated in the late 18th century. Surviving groups of San, were hunted, researched then left to their plight, marginalised and ignored.
A vast quantity of scholarship has been carried out on the San; very little has ever been made available to the subjects of that research. The !Khwa ttu Heritage Centre seeks to address that and to serve !Khwa ttu’s mission of cultural restitution.
“There is no group in mankind that has been written about more than the San, the Bushmen people. And where are these books? They’re in the libraries, in the universities. They’re not in the possession of the people,” says founder Irene Staehelin. “So what we want to do here is restitute those stories, those films, that knowledge, those images, and then the Bushman people can decide: ‘Yes we accept this and this and this, and this we would rather not take for our heritage.’ It’s for them to decide.”
With its immersive, multimedia “egg” room, digital archive, engineering, geothermal temperature control, and essentially contemporary architecture, the Heritage Centre depicts old wisdom combined with new technology for a sustainable future.
What will stay with you for as long as you live is a wander through the exhibition spaces in the beautifully renovated farm buildings and the new building, where revelations are laid out with Swiss precision and state-of-the-art technology. Exhibitions are designed to be dismantled eventually and moved to !Khwa ttu’s satellite outposts in the remote San villages.
How did this inspiring place come to exist? In 1991, on a trip to South Africa, then-photographer Staehelin became aware of the plight of the remnant San communities and made contact with human rights groups working with them. As she says, “You can’t undo history but we can work on making more justice in our lifetime.”
“Through the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA, the San’s regional lobbying and advocacy NGO Non-Governmental Organisation), San communities throughout the region expressed the desire to learn more about their history, to practise their traditions and to promote their culture and languages,” Staehelin wrote. “They wish to give their children the chance to revitalise the traditional life, and access the necessary skills to enter the modern workforce and live in dignity. They see tourism as a means to these ends.”
In 1998, WIMSA was assisted by the South African San Institute (SASI – a San support organisation) in setting up a tourism and training project, focusing on education and training, income generation, culture, and heritage. In 1999, Staehelin joined the initiative and purchased the farm that became !Khwa ttu.
The focus here is on heritage conservation and providing training and adult education – including skills in tourism, entrepreneurship and community-based development – for rotating groups of the San youth.
As part of the skills training offered, the management of !Khwa ttu has taken a derelict farm and turned it into an inspiring destination for visitors. Over the past 20 years, the San, management and trainees have rehabilitated the land, reintroduced eland, zebra and various other animals, laid hiking and mountain-bike trails, established an excellent restaurant and developed an array of delightful accommodation options.
“The !Khwa ttu San Heritage Centre is a great deal more than a collection of artefacts and historical photos. It’s a pioneering initiative that embraces the principle of community curation, led by San consultants from across Southern Africa and academics. The exhibitions, San-led trails and guided experiences are designed to engage the body and senses as much as the mind,” explains Michael Daiber, general manager of !Khwa ttu. “They demonstrate the skills and knowledge of the San people, while also telling the archaeological story of the origins of the modern mind on the Southern African coastline.”
Visitors are welcome to spend a few nights in one of the beautifully appointed cottages, furnished entirely appropriately with elegant simplicity – or the rustic-luxury tented camp; reserve a table at the excellent restaurant and afterwards buy a swathe of exquisite fabric, art, books or crafts from the shop. Whatever you do, don’t miss a tour with a San guide. There is a wonderful tea ceremony, and click-punctuated story-telling; you can also discover The Way of the San, including how to track animals. Bring your bikes, or hire one – there are beautifully laid-out mountain-bike and hiking trails…
The activities offered at !Kwah ttu go some way towards making it self-sustaining, but more importantly they give the San trainees invaluable exposure and experience in the tourism industry.
Whether you are a visitor to the Cape, or a local, whether you are looking for a solitary retreat, or a hiking/mountain-biking weekend with friends or your family, a visit to !Khwa ttu will be profoundly affecting. Because, in the words of Dr Chris Low, the curator, the San’s story is a story of human origins, beginnings. As such it is your story too.