‘How can the rain fall in this chaos?’

‘How can the rain fall in this chaos?’ Myth and metaphor in representations of the north-west Namibian landscape

pp. 255-265, 315-317 in LeBeau, D. and Gordon, R.J. (eds.) (2002 ) Challenges for Anthropology in the ‘African Renaissance’: A Southern African Contribution, University of Namibia Press, Publication Number 1, Windhoek.

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Over the last few decades, the landscape of the communally-managed north-west of Namibia has been variously described as ‘overgrazed so thoroughly that only the large trees remain in a level plain of bare sand’; as ‘testimony to mass overgrazing’; and as on the brink of ecosystem ‘collapse’. A number of natural science studies, however, indicate that such negative statements suggest at best misunderstanding of environmental dynamics and regional land management practices, and at worst, constitute ‘myth-making’ in the name of a science paradigm which emphasises irreversible and linear deterioration processes. Given this context, this paper explores descriptions of landscape by local people. The data drawn on are excerpts of transcribed interviews conducted with Damara (Nū Khoen) people in 1999. It is suggested that many of those interviewed articulate a view of vegetation changes as driven primarily by extreme rainfall events in a way which resonates strongly with recent non-equilibrium theories of ecological dynamics in drylands. While perceptions of deterioration – in rainfall and productivity – exist in local environmental knowledges, these appear inseparable from expressions of dissatisfaction with wider socio-political processes. As such, statements affirming deterioration are inextricably linked with descriptions of situations which individuals see as exclusionary and undermining. Instead of being a simple biophysical process, ideas of ‘land degradation’ thus cogently and metaphorically describe peoples’ concerns over broader land policy, their anxieties over their lack of power to determine how land is used, and their frustrations over longstanding land claims. As well as drawing out some local opinions of environmental processes I attempt with this paper to highlight the role that anthropology in general, and oral testimony research in particular, might play in informing contemporary policy priorities.

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