Working with elders

A time-line is, in effect, a journey through a person’s life. Beginning with earliest memories and knowledge about location of birth and childhood, an elder is asked to follow a line through all the places he or she has lived and worked and to describe what happened and when.

Open Channels developed this method with San elders in the Southern Kalahari in order to move away from romantic and problematic ideas of 'tradition', with its emphasis on hunter-gather systems of knowledge and land use. Instead, the time-line recognizes the reality that many San depend on an economy and life style based on seasonal employment. The advantage of focusing enquiries on the shift from a traditional way of life to one based on labour means that participants are able to talk about what is familiar and true for them.

The San, like other indigenous groups across southern Africa, have long found themselves caught in forms of rural employment that range from formal wage earning to versions of slave labour.

As an elder’s time-line develops, it becomes clear that work on farms or other forms of employment were made bearable by knowledge and use of San resources in San ways. Indigenous expertise and lands take their place as a safety net and back up to everyday life.
From these time-lines, maps have been created that set out the nature of the links to their history and lands.

The map shown here was created in 2003. It records the time-line of Hans Haneb, a Hai//om San from Etosha in Namibia. The map records where he was born in 1929 and the place where he was first taught to hunt by his father and uncle. It traces his movements across Namibia, into Angola and back again as he followed employment on farms, on the roads and later as a conservation worker. It shows where he heard officials order the eviction of San from the park in the 1950s and records his memory of how San were loaded onto lorries and driven out of the park. His story, and that of many others, has helped document the history of San relationships to the Etosha Park.


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