The !Khwa ttu Heritage Centre in the Western Cape. Picture: SUPPLIED
The !Khwa ttu Heritage Centre in the Western Cape. Picture: SUPPLIED

The !Khwa ttu Heritage Centre — the name means water hole in the |Xam language — dedicated to San culture, opened in Yzerfontein in the Western Cape on Heritage Day.

The San and the Khoi people have been inhabitants of southern Africa for at least 70,000 years. A permanent exhibition at the centre showcases their history and the remnants of their  culture.

You never get a path that goes straight through the bush. San symbols are not obvious, their world is structured in a much less explicit way
Chris Low, medical anthropologist

The land expropriation debate sparked the launch of revivalist movements and debates about the authenticity of heritage. Questions about identity and belonging has led to friction about who can claim to be a descendant of SA’s first nations.

These are tricky issues, says curator of the exhibition and medical anthropologist Chris Low, who has spent many years with San groups.

While the exhibition does not shy away from the effects of colonisation, slavery, apartheid and land theft on the San, its focus is more a celebration of their culture, honouring authentic voices.

Swiss anthropologist Irene Staehelin joined the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa 17 years ago. The organisation had established a tourism and training project focused on education, income generation, culture and heritage.

Staehelin bought Grootwater, a derelict 850ha farm near Yzerfontein, where the !Khwa ttu Centre was built. She restored the original buildings, cleared alien vegetation and reintroduced indigenous ungulates. She established the Ubuntu Foundation, a Swiss organisation supporting the development of the centre.

!Khwa ttu is the first heritage centre dedicated solely to San culture. Low says they included San communities in every decision about the permanent exhibition. This entailed several road trips to meet with traditional authorities — often in remote areas — and establishing a consultative group to ratify all decisions.

Many San community members were invited to the opening of the centre, which started with the lighting of a fire in reference to traditional practice. When destinations were reached after a long trek, lighting a fire indicated that they were good places to be.

Low says that in his 19 years of involvement with San communities he has seen many projects fail. He believes that the primary reason for !Khwa ttu’s success is that the communities had a voice in all decision-making.

The gate at the entrance to the centre is manned by a young ‡Khomani San man from the Northern Cape with plenty of charm and a winking gold tooth.

The exhibition was conceived chronologically and is spread over three buildings — two restored farm buildings and the brand new immersive centre.

While chronology may be considered old-school museum practice, Low says this was what the community wanted. The exhibition starts with the title First People, and the San tell their own stories through paintings, recorded tales, films, and background text.

There is a section on archaeology spanning a period from 160,000 years ago to colonialism. Southern Africa is considered the cradle of humankind and the centre showcases all sorts of artifacts; from arrow heads and digging sticks to 60,000-year-old ostrich shells found at sites in the Western Cape, including the Blombos Cave and Klipdrift Shelter.

Particularly intriguing is the Woer woer, a construction made of string and a wooden blade found in the Klipdrift Shelter. The propeller-like instrument, dated at 4,800 years, makes a noise when spinning. No-one knows today what it was used for.

Low says the archaeological section in First People is the key to understanding. In the past scientists and archaeologists often wrote and talked about the San without engaging with them. First People addresses this imbalance skillfully by combining the expertise of the San people and academics.

The second building houses an exhibition titled Encounters and deals with the dispossession of large swathes of land by colonists.

The highlight of the centre is the new building housing the Way of the San exhibition. Designed by architect Geoff George, the ribbed ceiling room has been described as a joining of “old wisdom with new technology”.

Dug into the side of a bank with a roof covered in grass plantings, it has the feel of an overhang cave. The egg shape of the building is a “symbolic gesture towards the role of the ostrich egg — both as a very important medicine and a waterhole”.

Low is very aware of telling the story of “a way of life which is right on the cusp of disappearing, of a people who live outside in a natural environment”.

The Way of the San exhibition was curated “to have a San voice to say everything we need to say”, Low explains. “I wanted to get away from splitting up the way the San think and believe.”

Instead of dealing separately with hunting, ritual, and play, Low brought these elements together and “let them tell their own story just through quotes”. While there are a few explanations from anthropologists, 98% of the quotes on the walls are from San people. There’s a particularly moving one explaining why the San avoid possessions. It’s a pertinent reminder of the dangers of rampant consumerism.

Low wanted “to introduce people to the San through feeling — and to a different way of living in the world”. Filmmaker Chris Bisset’s floor-to-ceiling film, accompanied by a soundscape, immerses viewers in the sounds and sights of the San’s Kalahari — from coughing ungulates and vocal lions, to rain and bird sounds.

The Way of the San is navigated along a single-file winding path flanked with Kalahari red sand. “You never get a path that goes straight through the bush. San symbols are not obvious, their world is structured in a much less explicit way,” Low explains. “It is a subtle, various and flexible world which has a lot to do with intuition”.

The intention is that the entire exhibition becomes a virtual, online centre allowing national and global access. There are  dreams of an interactive language section.

The beautiful beaded San bag collection from Botswana and Namibia, drawn from anthropologist Megan Biesele’s collection and considered one of the most comprehensive in the world, is one of the highlights at the !Khwa ttu Heritage Centre.