More about “Whispers of the Sea”!

Written by Janet Ranson,  Artist behind the “Whispers of the Sea” exhibition


We set up the Whispers of the Sea exhibition on the top floor of the Pan African Market in Long Street, Cape Town on 4th June. Tahirih and Andisiwe, Claire and Sam Murgatroyd helped with the installation.


Participants at the NAS training – they contributed bottles of things they felt were “heritage significant” to the Exhibition as well!

We decided to place our ring of ‘treasure jars’ in the centre of the landing, to create drama as you came up the stairs. 16 jars were suspended from hooks in the ceiling, appearing to float at head height. The contents included pot-shards and beads collected on the beach near Lambasi village (donated by the collectors), a copy of a gold bell recently found, mussel shells, photographs from the research and images of precious heritage as documented in the NAS training. Each jar was internally lit by LEDs.


Andisiwe and Janet!

Speakers were placed on either side of the ring of jars, playing a selection of clips from the research interviews, edited by musician Eric Michot. These clips were edited in the original isiXhosa with English translation, fading into sea sounds, creating the effect of a multiplicity of voices, telling stories and commenting on Eastern Cape maritime heritage.


We also displayed a worn spade and hoe with worn-away blade, which had been used by some of the interviewees for digging on the beach for many years. For an extra interactive element, a rusted chest was filled with sand and ‘salted’ with beads, shells, pot-shards and chocolate coins, with visitors invited to dig for ‘treasure’ (this was not popular and won’t be repeated at future exhibitions). Alongside the usual opening night offering of a glass of wine, Tahirih set out jars of favourite childhood sweets: stars, cachous, chappies, wicks and liquorice gob-stoppers, which were enthusiastically enjoyed by visitors.


When visitors arrived at the exhibition, they were curious about the display and a somewhat puzzled over the jars, although they liked the effect. This was the intention: while they examined the jars they could hear the sound piece. Janet Ranson has observed that people are not used to listening, and calculated that they would need a visual distraction to help them take time to hear the stories.


Vuyo Koyana from the Pan African Market, the person who made this event possible!

Positioning the exhibition at the Pan African Market and partnering with First Thursdays helped attract a large and varied audience. At the opening, the space was packed, despite the cold weather and 3 flights of stairs. Andisiwe was on hand to explain the research project and the significance of the objects in each jar. We found that tourists, artists and even historians were fascinated by her tales. The recorded voices proved so effective that one visitor thought the voices were coming from the jars themselves!


Lunga, Andisiwe and Sbu – the team of people that welcomed and guided visitors through the exhibition!

People were visibly engaged and animated and emotional discussions ensued: urban Xhosa-speakers seemed delighted to see some of their culture and customs recognized in this way. Waves of visitors kept arriving, including some of the ‘who’s who’ of Cape Town’s contemporary performing arts scene, who came to see Khaya Witbooi and Jacqueline Manyaapelo’s performance (in the same space) and stayed to comment on the exhibition. It was exciting to see so many people take an interest in the research from an isolated and neglected part of South Africa.


Khaya Witbooi’s performance art piece beginning



NAS Training – A Community Workshop!

IMG_2925Written by Heather Wares – Selection from project report

As part of the agreed upon project outcomes, a five day community workshop was held in the week of the 26- 30 May. This workshop was mandated to include both a discussion around the importance of protecting Maritime and Underwater Cultural Heritage (MUCH) sites and the teaching of basic archaeological survey skills through the Nautical Archaeological Society (NAS) courses. A team of seven people travelled to the Eastern Cape to present the workshop, including a SAHRA intern who participated in the NAS training.

The aim was to integrate the oral histories gathered over the course of the project within the structured topics of the workshop. In order to create an atmosphere of interaction and gauge the level of understanding, the participants were divided into three groups who would produce mini-projects representing a heritage site which they deemed important to the community and area. The resulting projects far exceeded the expectations of the project team and illustrated the outcome of the workshop as being one of mutual teaching and learning.


NAS courses were originally designed for the United Kingdom and within South Africa shipwrecks have been a central focus for previous NAS training. While shipwrecks continue to hold importance, there is a realisation that many South African cultures attach intangible meaning to various bodies of water such as lakes and rivers. Thus, the NAS training was adjusted accordingly.

The design of the workshop was informed by the field work done over two ten day periods, giving the team an idea of what to focus on to serve the needs of the community and the project. Presentations were done on topics such as Introduction to Maritime and Underwater Cultural Heritage (MUCH), Site Types, Site Survey, The Grosvenor Case Study, Heritage and Tourism, and Heritage and Legislation. Over the week these topics were introduced, explained and discussed.

IMG_2927The overall outline of the workshop was to present the basic idea of what an archaeological site type was, why they are important to preserve and how that preservation can be done through basic archaeological survey techniques. In the design of the workshop and the integration of the NAS curriculum, the team had to keep in mind that this was the first time that most of the participants had any interaction with the archaeology. In addition, all of the presentations and discussions were translated between English and Xhosa.

Thus it was necessary for the workshop to extend over 5 days. To best satisfy the objectives of the workshop the week was structured with theoretical and practical components. The mornings were dedicated to theoretical presentations and these were put into practice in the afternoons through group project preparation. This structure allowed the participants to use what they had learnt from the theoretical components to inform and mold their projects.

The numbers of participants varied throughout the week, due to other commitments, with between 13 and 19 attendees. However, with a core group in full attendance the combination of presentations and discussions provided the participants with a new understanding of Maritime and Underwater Cultural Heritage. The participants could then relate the concept of MUCH to their local heritage sites and implement practical ways of protecting these sites for the benefit of the community as a whole.


ACHA in Paris with UNESCO





This week ACHA members are in Paris at the invitation of UNESCO for the 5th meeting of the members of Scientific and Technical Advisory Body (STAB) of the 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (the Convention). According to Article 4 (paragraph a) of its Statutes, the STAB must meet at least once every year to deliberate on aspects of the implementation of Convention that are important to States that have ratified. At this meeting, the STAB will draft resolutions for promoting public access to underwater cultural heritage sites, developing education and awareness raising programmes and cooperating with UNESCO accredited NGO’s around the world.

Public access to heritage sites is an important component for protection and management. If we want people to engage with their heritage we need them to be able to visit and interact with it. Although its would be easy to open up a heritage site for visitors, sustainable visitor management plans must be drafted and implemented so that tourism doesn’t destroy or damage the sites. The STAB will discuss ways for tourism and heritage to work together so that heritage sites contribute to the economy but are protected for the enjoyment of generations to come.

Responsible public access is closely linked to education and awareness raising programmes. Heritage sites on land are easy visit. Some maritime sites like harbours, or fish traps are also visible, but sites underwater are usually only accessible to divers. This often means that the people who live near the sites have never seen them and don’t know much about them. While laws might protect heritage, it is important that people who live near the sites assist with managing them. ACHA believes that through education and awareness raising, communities living near submerged sites connect underwater cultural heritage and terrestrial heritage to form a more inclusive heritage where sites, stories, traditions and environments make up a maritime cultural landscape that is part of the identity of the people who live in it. If people are connected to their heritage they will help protect it thereby assisting government agencies in their duties. Protecting heritage and sharing stories and histories can also contribute to creating heritage trails and museums that will stimulate tourism and economic development.

UNESCO and the States Parties to the Convention have accredited ten NGO’s worldwide who will work together with the countries who have ratified the Convention to implement training, capacity building and education programmes, awareness raising projects and management initiatives. The NGO’s provide a network of experts who can assist wherever needed. ACHA has two strong connections with the accredited NGO’s. Firstly, we have partnered with CIE – Centre for International Heritage Activities on several projects in Africa including in Mozambique, Tanzania and South Africa. ACHA is also a training provider for the Nautical Archaeology Society (NAS), whose courses are taught worldwide.

Although ACHA is not yet accredited with UNESCO, it will support the efforts of CIE at the meeting. ACHA is the only African NGO working in Maritime and Underwater Cultural Heritage (MUCH) that will be attending the meetings and, as such, will stand for African interests and promote the development of MUCH in Africa.


Press Release: “Whispers of the Sea” exhibition

IMG_20140608_091134Oral traditions bearing testimony to people’s relationship with water is explored in an art exhibition in Cape Town from June 5 to 10. The exhibition, ‘Whispers of the Sea’, opened on Thursday night at 6pm at the Pan African Market on Long Street in central Cape Town as part of First Thursdays.

It is the culmination of the Eastern Cape Maritime Oral History Project, a collaboration involving the South African Heritage and Resource Agency (SAHRA), the African Centre for Heritage Activities (ACHA) and Cape Town-based artist Janet Ranson.

‘Whispers of the Sea’ is an installation of research that focuses on maritime history and water, from the perspective of residents of a designated coastal area. It delves into mythology, historical accounts, archival records and research data to bring together local perspectives on the history of the sea.

ACHA director Jonathan Sharfman, a maritime archaeologist, says this project “explores some of the forgotten, marginalised and ignored histories of South Africa while investigating ways to implement economically sustainable, community driven heritage activities”.

Ranson created the exhibition based on the research project’s findings, working on the premise that a single bold display has more impact than an overload of information. The exhibition includes sound recordings of local voices commenting on issues of heritage, ownership, sustainability and local economics. The exhibition sound track was created by Eric Michot, a French music producer.

Project manager Tahirih Michot says: “Visitors will enter the space and hear excerpts from the research interviews and literally hearing a range of voices commenting on issues of heritage, ownership, sustainability and local economics.”

“Glowing glass jars will be suspended in the exhibition space in a circle, at eye height. This will add to the ritual mood of the space and engage the visitors’ eyes while they listen to the sound recording,” she adds.

“Each jar contains an image from the research: ceramic fragments washed up on shore, from a shipwreck, beads retrieved from the sand, photographs of the local residents, and an antique gold bell.”

Michot explains that the South African Heritage and Resource Agency (SAHRA) commissioned the research project at the end of last year. SAHRA is a statutory organisation established under the National Heritage Resources Act, No 25 of 1999. The primary objective of SAHRA is to coordinate the identification and management of the national estate which is defined as heritage resources.

According to Sophie Winton, Heritage Officer at SAHRA’s Maritime and Underwater Cultural Heritage Unit (MUCH), “This project centers around the collection of oral histories from communities living along the Pondoland coast in order to build a fuller picture of the heritage landscape in the Eastern Cape. This project forms part of the Maritime and Underwater Cultural Heritage Unit’s efforts to expand the focus of MUCH resources beyond the traditional shipwreck to non-traditional, locally applicable examples of South Africa’s relationship with water. Xhosa culture strongly emphasises the importance of oral tradition, so this research method was a natural choice.”

ACHA was appointed to conduct archival and field research as well as heritage education workshops in Pondoland’s coastal communities in the Eastern Cape. “ACHA undertook this project as the first phase of a far larger community based heritage programme. Its focus was to explore some of the forgotten, marginalised and ignored histories while investigating ways to implement economically sustainable, community driven heritage development activities,” says Michot.

“The project focused on the collection of maritime oral histories for the geographic area between Port St Johns and the Msikaba River in the Eastern Cape Province.” She adds: “It involved the review of secondary literature to create a historical context for the research and field work to gather oral histories from people currently living in the designated area. The objective of this project was to share the research findings in the form of both report as well as a public exhibition.”

ACHA, a non-profit international heritage centre based in South Africa, is inspired by innovation, people, water and identity. It intends for this exhibition and ongoing work to have a positive impact on the heritage sector by focusing on innovative, sustainable community owned heritage activities.

Its objective is to support shifts in attitudes, values and perceptions of communities in relationship to their heritage and the heritage of others. The focus is on improving people’s lives through increased awareness of their own context, sense of place resulting in a great degree of empathy and connectedness.

Whispers of the Sea runs at the Pan African Market on Long Street at these times:

Thursday, June 5, opening night 6pm to 9pm

Friday, June 6, 10am to 5pm

Saturday, June 7, 9am to 1pm

Monday, June 9, 10am to 5pm

Tuesday, June 10, 10am to 5pm


For more information, have a look at these online links:

ACHA blog about Under Water Heritage

ACHA Facebook page

ACHA website:

SAHRA website:

For more about the artist Janet Ranson

NAS Training in the Eastern Cape!

ImageA team from ACHA are heading to the Eastern Cape tomorrow to run a Nautical Archaeology Society (NAS) Training Programme. The training forms part of the Eastern Cape Maritime Oral History Project for SAHRA. The programme will be run with people living the same communities that participated in the oral history field work process earlier this year. Some of the participants are in fact the interviewees themselves!

Members of the ACHA team include Lusanda Ngcaweni (lead researcher), Andisiwe Qubekile (assistant researcher), Jonathan Sharfman (facilitator & director of ACHA), Heather Wares (trainer-in-training and project historian). The team is also joined by a number of people from SAHRA, Sophie Winton (co-facilitator), Stephanie-Ann Barnardt, Shawn Berry, Dumisani Sibayi and Nkosazana Machete.

The training will last for a week, take place in a hut close to the ocean and involve a mixed group of participants from the area! This includes people from KwaNdengane village (Sao Bento wreck), KwaRhole village (Grosvenor wreck), Cuthwini (another coastal village in the same region), Mbotyi (coastal village) and Port St Johns. As part of the training process, participants will be developing something to contribute to the project Exhibition, “Whispers of the Sea” being held at the beginning of June in Cape Town. Stay tuned to find out more about the training programme from Lusanda’s blog!

Wrapping up the Field Work!

The Eastern Cape Maritime Oral History Project group with SAHRA CEO, Peter Mokwena

The Eastern Cape Maritime Oral History Project group with SAHRA CEO, Peter Mokwena

The phase of conducting field work for the Eastern Cape Maritime Oral History Project has come to a conclusion. Lusanda and Andisiwe returned from the second phase of field work on April 4th  which was even more successful than their first trip!

Lusanda writes in her field work report, “The ocean plays a significant role in the day-to-day lives of the people living in close proximity to it. We spoke to a number of people in the coastal villages of KwaNdengane, Cuthwini and Mbotyi in Lusikisiki and Noqhekwane in Port St Johns, who told us how the sea fits in with their daily lives. We have divided these into 10 subheadings, namely: Ownership, “Nature”, Food & Income, Tourism, Leisure, Health, Religious & Traditional Practices, and Mythologies.”


Lusanda right before her big presentation to SAHRA

The holistic nature of the field work yielded engaging and at times, challenging information which was subsequently presented at 2 different forums. The first presentation was to the research team reference group on April 12th and the second presentation was to SAHRA on April 16th. The collective process of reflecting on the material that was presented to the groups led to lively and vigorous debate. It ic clear from the response of those that came to listen to the findings that the creation of a sustainable approach to heritage management is supported through the process of conducting research of this nature!


The presentation to SAHRA took place in the boardroom at the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town and was well attended!

The project now moves into the next stage of activity which will involve the creation of an exhibition and NAS training which will take place in the area that the field work was conducted!

Pot of gold

On our first day back in the field to conduct Phase Two of our research, SK and I went to Noqhekwane, a village in Port St Johns near which, we had heard, the Nossa Senhora de Belem (NS de Belem), a Portuguese ship, wrecked in 1635. The day we visited Noqhekwana coincided with a community meeting at the headman’s homestead. “Great,” we thought, “All these different people in one place”! What we were not expecting, however, is for the headman to give us a slot in the agenda to introduce ourselves and to state the reason for our presence in the village.

The headman introduced himself as Tata Belem (Mr Belem). YES! BELEM! SK and I stared at each other, four eyeballs popping out of their sockets! Could it be? Could this man, standing right in front of us, be a descendent of a survivor from the NS de Belem!? Our suspicions were based on Belem not at all sounding like a Xhosa or Pondo surname; and on the fact that most Nguni surnames end with a vowel, not a consonant. (Going through several surnames in my head, I can’t think of a single one that ends with a consonant. But I digress …)

I sat there with ants in my pants, hardly able to wait for the community meeting to end so we could take Mr Belem aside and ask him his life story. (The reference to ants in my pants in not merely a metaphor; we were sitting on the floor in the front yard, and I did feel an itch, or five …) Mr Belem handed over to me, and I told the community the purpose of our visit. I spoke about the project and our particular interest in the ship that wrecked on their shores, and what became of the survivors who were in it. I mentioned the ship’s name and enquired if Mr Belem was not in fact a descendant of the NS de Belem; or if his surname could be linked to the ship. (I told you I could hardly wait for the meeting to end so I could talk to Mr Belem alone! As it turned out, I was not able to wait. I blurted out my question in front of everyone in the community meeting.)

The answer, I’m afraid, was a disappointing “Andazi.” (I don’t know.) Mr Belem and his fellow villagers that I spoke to were aware that a ship had wrecked on their shores many many years ago, but they did not know when it happened, where the ship had come from, or what it was called. Nor, more disappointedly, was Mr Belem particularly interested in this possible connection that SK and I had made with the NS de Belem. Mr Belem’s younger sister – in her late 60s/early 70s – was also at the meeting, said she too knew nothing about a family connection to the ship wreck. I was really hoping they could lead us to a family member or an elder in the community who knew the Belem family history, but alas … these siblings are the oldest surviving members of the Belem family.

SK and our three companions walking down the hill from which we viewed where the ship is believed to have sunk.

SK and our three companions walking down the hill from which we viewed where the ship is believed to have sunk.

Feeling rather deflated, SK and I, accompanied by Ma Mtunasi (Mr Belem’s sister), Ma Mathanzima and  Ma Tshezi, set off to see where the NS de Belem is believed to have wrecked and sunk. They took us to a hill overlooking the ocean, where a rusted metal rod, about 3cm wide and 60cm long, was sticking out of the ground at a 45 degree angle (it had clearly been there for a long time). They told us that “abelungu” (white people) had stuck it in the ground as a landmark to indicate where the ship went under. Looking out on to the ocean, there was no sign of a ship wreck.

Ma Mtunasi (nee Belem) points out the location where the NS de Belem is believed to have sunk. The rusted metal rod that acts as a landmark is next to her feet.

Ma Mtunasi (nee Belem) points out the location where the NS de Belem is believed to have sunk. The rusted metal rod that acts as a landmark is next to her feet.

Everyone we spoke to at the community meeting said the ship had sunk to the depths of the sea, and that although many abelungu had tried to get to it, nobody had been successful so far. Legend has it that the ship is filled with gold (others think it may be made of gold!) and that a inyoke yolwandle (sea snake – which I imagine must be enormous!) wraps itself around the ship to prevent anyone from having access to the treasure. The question of whether any of the local community members had ever tried to reach the treasure was met with incredulous laughter and protests. None of them had actually seen the snake, but nobody doubted the abelungu’s story of the sea snake that protects the treasure.

A view from Noqhekwana village, looking out on to the sea. Just around the corner is Mzimvubu River.

A view from Noqhekwana village, looking out on to the sea. Just around the corner is Mzimvubu River.

Interestingly, the people who live in Lambasi, the region where the Grosvenor wrecked in 1782, also believe that isilwane solwandle (a sea creature) wraps itself around the Grosvenor wreck and that is why, after decades of trying, nobody has ever been successful in getting the gold that is believed to be inside the wreck. None of the people we spoke to there had ever seen this creature either, but that’s what abelungu said, and none of the locals were willing to test it’s existence for themselves.

All this talk of vessels sinking deep into the ocean made me think of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, a mystery that has grabbed my over active imagination by the horns! I wonder if – had the jet been believed to have disappeared closer to the Wild Coast stretch of the Indian Ocean – talks of treasure (in the jet) and isilwane solwandle or inyoka yolwandle protecting it would eventually weave themselves into the local mythologies to explain why it can not be found.

Ma Mtunasi, who is not afraid of (land) snakes, and kills them rather than runs away from them when they cross her path, said she had no desire to ever go anywhere near the sea snake wrapped around the NS de Belem. Her reasoning was that if trained divers, using the most modern technology, had not been able to reach the treasure because of the sea snake, she certainly had no business trying. “You don’t disturb something in it’s natural habitat,” she said matter-of-factly.

Now that’s a golden rule if ever there was one.