Does our indigenous media project “destroy” tribal people?


By Aglaja Kempinski (Staff Writer)

Let’s have a debate…

Whilst doing anthropological fieldwork in Tsumkwe I got involved with/co-founded a project which, in my humble opinion, is pretty exciting: CEDU is a grassroot organisation which is helping the Ju/’hoansi San, one of the oldest indigenous groups in the world[1], claim back their public image by producing their own media. How? We give workshops in media, computer and internet literacy and we teach anyone who is interested how to use cameras and put the finished results on the internet.

Below, is a recent example of the kind of product created:

Recently, we started a crowd-funding campaign in order to help us build a house for our project (which we need - believe me, using any computer equipment outside in the Kalahari is neither fun nor sensible). Within half an hour of launching the campaign, I received an email, stating:

“Your project destroys tribal people”.

I was pretty shocked. The project is designed by San and it has the full support of the Ju/’hoansi chief. So at first I was, as is in my nature, infuriated. But then I paused to think for a moment. In actuality, I had received reactions like this before. They were not as crass but were rather phrased like “But if the Bushmen learn how to film, are they still Bushmen?”. So rather than exploding, I gave the argument some consideration. While I might not be of the same opinion, I can see how someone would think that giving indigenous people Western tools, might turn them into Westerners and that the best option might be to just “leave them alone”. Before discussing this further with the backing of some literature, I am just going to give a quick excerpt of the mail I sent in reply:

  […] Our efforts to help the San produce their own media are in fact designed so the San themselves can keep the “West” from “destroying” them. In fact, socio-anthropological literature[2] shows that indigenous film can help particularly younger generations to find new ways to engage with their cultural roots. One of the San we are working with, for example, is making a film about her grandmother’s memories and is hearing stories she never would have heard otherwise. Another San is making a film about traditional hunting in order to get more young people excited about the hunting gathering life style again. This has had the effect that several young San, who were involved in the production learned from the older men how to make traps and bows.

Tsumkwe, the administrative center of Nyae Nyae, a region that, during Apartheid used to be called “Bushmanland”, is one of the last refugees of the San. However, for more than 50 years the government has been involved in the region dispensing maizemeal and installing water pumps. The maizemeal has led to government dependency and the water pumps have led to the San mostly abandoning their previously nomadic life style[3]. At the same time, the place is buzzing with development organisations that are all trying to turn the San into Standard Namibians.

I have been visiting Tsumkwe all my life and I am currently there for my PhD research. I am good friends with many of the people there. One thing all of them have pointed out to me is that despite the availability of government and NGO assistance, they feel oppressed and suffocated because THEIR OWN ideas and vision are never put into practice. The atmosphere in Tsumkwe means that many San feel that they are not allowed to be proud of their culture and skills but instead have to adapt to a Western frame of mind because there voice is not heard.

At the same time filmmakers are making money off the San by shooting documentaries or films like “The Gods must be Crazy” (which was also shot in Tsumkwe). The San are more often than not paid very poorly for this and never get to see the finished product.

The only way to turn this dynamic around is to offer the San the opportunity to represent themselves and make their voices heard. In our world dominated by the media and the internet this is only possible if they themselves have the skills necessary to use the internet for their own purposes.

Sooner or later Tsumkwe will have High-Speed internet. The Kids already have smartphones and tablets. Is it not better if they are given the chance to engage with this in accordance with their culture? If those, who want to keep their culture alive can use the internet for this? If instead of being a barrier between the old world and the new, the internet can provide a chance to carry the old world into the new? […]

The question is of course, can any of this guarantee that the San will not lose the battle against modernity and be submerged by the western steam train of conformity and 'normality'?

There is a nice quote by two of my favourite San anthropologists. As part of the Kalahari Debate it is a response to some scholars’ argument that the San are not actually traditional hunter- gathers but rather disempowered minorities driven into poverty by colonising others:

We wonder if we are not falling into another equally pernicious distortion, an enchantment of some scholars with the power of advancing capital and a belief in its ability to transform and destroy everything in its path (Lee and Guenther, 1993:228)[4]

While it is a different context, I believe the quote has relevance for this issue as well. Who is to say that our ways are so powerful and great that they just wipe out everything else and make people forget about what they love and where they come from?

Furthermore, if we phrase the problem of whether indigenous media can destroy indigenous people in terms of a struggle, a fight, so to say and consider the “West” to be winning, would it not make sense for the Ju/’hoansi to fight back with the “West’s own weapons”? To try and beat them at their own game, so to say?

Finally, I do not think it should be phrased in terms of a struggle of indigenous versus west, of old, versus new, of ancient versus modern. The Ju/’hoansi San, like you and I, are living in the 21st century. The only one’s who’s decision it is how to keep their culture alive is theirs. At this point, the closest thing to “leaving them alone” is to give them the tools to fight their own battles and to make their own voices heard so they can be part of whichever international political discourse they want to rather than just being the pawns of governments, NGOs and tourists. CEDU means, in Ju/’hoan, “to start something over”. And that is exactly what we aim to do: to redefine the San’s relationship with the world so they can meet it on their own terms.

So is denying people the right to effective self-representation because of us worrying that they can’t handle it an appropriate response? I really don’t think so. Frankly, I believe it’s a bit patronising (and there, I am angry again)

Personally I think one of the biggest issues when it comes to development is viewing things as black and white. I also think that our project is challenging existing problems in new and promising ways. Of course, I am biased. Why don’t you check it out yourself and tell me whether you think we are helping or destroying?

[1] If you check out the crowdfunding link, you will notice that instead of “one of the oldest indigenous groups in the world” we opted for “the world’s oldest tribe”. For Anthropologists that might be hard to digest. It’s sensationalising and a bit reductionist. Furthermore, the San are not technically a “tribe” in the strictest sense. Two things might put your mind at ease though: firstly, I checked with every San I know if the term “tribe” was okay and they did not see any problem with it. Genetic test have actually showed that the San are the oldest “race” around. Anyway, this issue is an article for another day….

[2] For example: GINSBURG, F. (1991). Indigenous Media: Faustian Contract or Global Village? Cultural Anthropology. 6, 92-112.

TURNER, T. (1992). Defiant images: the Kayapo appropriation of video. Anthropology Today. 8, 5-16.

[4] LEE, R. B., & GUENTER, M. G. (1993). Problems in Kalahari historical ethnography and the tolerance of error. History in Africa : a Journal of Method. 20, 185-235.