Complex Histories, Multiple Voices

Written by Heather Wares

IMG_5131In Venda mythology, there is a legendary drum, said to have been made powerful by the ‘God’ Mwali, which when sounded before a battle ensured the demise of the enemy. Mwali is said to have been a king who communicated with the people through a high priest. Before speaking, the drum of Mwali would sound releasing its spiritual powers. The legend goes that because of fighting among his subjects, Mwali punished the people by sounding the drum loudly, resulting in the death of many people. With continued strife, eventually Mwali is said to have left to live under the earth. On his leave, a smaller drum with the same name, was given to his son Tshilume and possessed the same magic and killing power of the big drum used by Mwali himself.[1]

In a time of human migration from North to South, it is this legendary magic and killing power of the drum that continued to surface within oral histories, explaining the force and power that leaders like Dimbanyika had when usurping territory from the Southern chiefdoms. It is also said that the original inhabitants of the country surrendered freely because of the fear instilled by the reputation of the drum for killing many previous communities merely by it being sounded.[2] Any battle lost was attributed to the drum falling to the ground, which was forbidden, or being stolen by rival chiefdoms.

IMG_4504The story of Dimbanyika and the sacred drum of Mwali illustrate how a historical narrative can be told in various ways. Venda history is complex, encompassing migration, mythology and the importance of deep rooted belief systems in the recounting of this history. It brings to the fore the importance of engaging with communities in a way that allows people to express their own historical narrative in their own way. So often histories are told through the official documentation and from the perspective of those in power at the time it is written. Although official records are useful and often a good starting point for historical research, as I found out with the research for this project, it often silences the voices of the individual community members. One of the objectives of the Lake Fundudzi Management Project was to collect these silenced narratives to better understand how the various villages regarded Lake Fundudzi within their own histories and belief systems. Was it a site of natural beauty, a site of historical importance, a sacred site or merely an important natural resource?

The approach to collecting these narratives was a relatively unique one in the case of heritage management strategies. A questionnaire was designed and then circulated in the various villages by practiced field workers. The answers were collated to provide quantifiable statistics which would inform a potential heritage management plan. To pull this off a team of individuals from varied expertise and backgrounds came together. This multi-disciplinary or multi-perspective approach created a platform from which innovative ways of thinking could emerge. As with any innovation, there were challenges which accompanied this approach. With many of the team members not from heritage backgrounds, in order to prepare the team to achieve the best possible outcome, my role as the historian providing a historical context became more central. I saw my role not only as providing an historical context of Venda and Lake Fundudzi but also how the heritage field had been involved. It is with this in mind that I first approached my role as historical researcher for the project.

It was clear from the beginning that there was a logical place to begin my digging, the registry at the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA). My first encounter with Lake Fundudzi was in 2011 when I started working at SAHRA. One of my first assignments was to assist in the organisation of a public participation workshop in a town close to the Lake. I found myself entering into the last stages of a 15 year process of the declaration of a National Heritage site. My decision to begin with official records soon sparked a second decision, to start from the present and walk my way into the past. Better to start with the familiar with what I soon realised would lead me into a complex history of migration, settlement, and most glaring, conflict over territorial ownership and political leadership.

IMG_5072Through the public participation workshop I had experienced firsthand, albeit through a translator, the complexities of the issue of ownership surrounding Lake Fundudzi. The SAHRA records painted a similar picture, most interesting were the written objections submitted in the last few weeks of the process, after the official intention to declare Lake Fundudzi a National Heritage Site had been announced. These objections revealed strong opinions of the Lake being a sacred site of the Vhatavhatsindi royal family, a place to perform burial rituals and to communicate with the ancestors. The main argument of these objections was the incompatibility of a heritage site and a sacred site, stating that no sacred site could be a heritage site as it would be disrespectful to the ancestors. This posed many questions for myself and the team: why were these objections only surfacing now after all of the proper processes of public participation and allowances for objections had been followed? Which leaders and communities had been included in the consultation process? How do I better understand the leadership and ownership conflicts of the area? And where do belief systems fit into a historical context?

These questions lead me to start looking into the human history of Limpopo in general and Venda more specifically. As I read more, I began to realise just how complex Venda history is. The history was also difficult to follow as it was not presented as a linear history on a timeline. Rather the history was told as a series of significant events and achievements of leaders. It is this which has prompted, too often, the disregard of these historical accounts in official histories as they were deemed unreliable. Another feature of historical narratives, often recounted through the oral tradition, is the intertwining of mythology and history. The story of the drum of Mwali demonstrates this well, with the defeat of the great Dimbanyika explained by the drum falling to the ground. By attributing his defeats to the anger of a God-like power, the legendary power and strength of the leader is kept intact. Without rituals and taboos followed, the magic of the drum was evoked and the power shifted from one leader to another, explaining succession.

IMG_4644A respect for rituals and taboos seemed to be a constant theme throughout my research. It is here that it is important to point out that at first Lake Fundudzi was nominated as a natural heritage site, and only later as a cultural heritage site. This connecting of environment and culture is an interesting concept, as in other parts of South Africa it is clear that these are often seen as one and the same. When looking into research papers on Limpopo, Venda and Lake Fundudzi, it seemed that the environmental importance of the Lake and other natural environments such as waterfalls and forests started to influence cultural belief systems and the rituals performed. The argument to explain this states that in order to protect the natural resource from degradation, leaders introduced taboos and rituals restricting access or over use. Understanding this connection between nature and culture, gives insight into the strong place cultural belief systems and taboos have in the telling of a history and the governing of a territory.

The purpose of this short insert has not been to recount these various and conflicting histories, there is simply not enough space to do the history justice. It has been rather to make a comment, through my own experience, on the complexities and importance of historical research in a project such as this one. Although official records are available, I soon realised that even these were limited. In order to give the project team as informed a historical context as possible it was important to delve into the way in which local perspectives were produced. Understanding the way in which a historical narrative through oral history within Venda tradition is recounted, with non-linear timelines, the use of mythology and the interweaving of nature and culture, would best serve the team in the field. In this way they would have better insight into how and why local perspectives are produced. This in turn would help the team design an effective research tool in the way of a questionnaire which could result in deeper and possibly more accurate data. Of course I had no way of knowing if this would be the case or if I had taken the correct approach. As I handed my written historical context over and met with the various team members to talk them through my research, I hoped I had sufficiently prepared them.

[1] A.G. Schutte. Mwali in Venda, 112.

[2] A.G. Schutte. Mwali in Venda, 113.

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Talking about Sustainable Heritage

20141031_121027On October 31st, ACHA hosted a round table event focused  sustainable heritage resource management. A number of heritage industry practitioners joined the event and actively participated in the discussions that took place during the morning. The purpose of the event was share ACHA’s experience during the recent Lake Fundudzi project. Lake Funduzi has recently been declared a National Heritage Site for the country by SAHRA and it is important that such a declaration is supported by an effective management plan. The purpose of this event was to explore the potential implications for sustainable heritage resource management based on the project findings and the experience of the project team during the process and to make recommendations for the site management going forward.

The round table event began with a presentation from Jonathan Sharfman, the Director of ACHA and Robert Parthesius, the Director of CIE. Their comments encouraged participants to share their personal experiences in the field with one another during the session! They were followed by a panel of presentations from the project team. Heather Wares discussed the important of creating a historical context for such work by reviewing relevant background documentation. Lusanda Ngacaweni shared her experience of conducting the field work in the Lake Fundudzi catchment area, highlighting significant practical and theoretical considerations for meaningful field work of this nature. The third presentation was by Ian Durbach, He presented his perspective on the significance of including quantitative data into work of this nature and how to go about the process in a meaningful manner. The panel concluded with a presentation by Jonathan Sharfman outlining recommendations and potential strategies that would support sustainable heritage resource management based on his professional experience in the field and work through ACHA.

Following the panel of presentations, the group engaged in creative conversations around each of the four areas that featured. They looked at historical context, field work, data and strategy. The purposed of their conversations were to make specific recommendations that would support future work in these areas going forward. It was an exciting, information rich and at times emotionally charged conversation!

“Shooting at the Moon?”

Out very first ACHA publication is being released tomorrow during our round table event in Cape Town, The focus is on shaping the heritage agenda in the country by engaging in what sustainable heritage resource management can be. The ACHA team involved in the Lake Fundudzi project funded by the National Heritage Council will be sharing their experiences from this project with the participants. We look forward to having rich and meaningful discussions with fellow practitioners 🙂

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Statistical Story telling: Lake Fundudzi

Authored by: Ian Durbach

We’ve just wrapped up the final analysis of the data collected during the fieldwork component of the Lake Fundudzi project. As some of the previous posts have pointed out, the data collection was not without its challenges. Despite these, or maybe because of them, the results we’ve found are exciting, and tell a story that is clear without being, we think, overly simplistic. From the perspective of a statistician who has worked a lot with survey data, I’ve never seen such a consistent picture emerging. Every single person we spoke to was in favour of the declaration of Lake Fundudzi as a heritage site. Ordinary people in the area overwhelmingly see it as a means of economic upliftment. They are clear that unemployment is a massive concern, and given even our simple questions around economic activity it isn’t hard to see why. Unemployment in our sample is around 80%. More than half of households have no breadwinners. More than 90% of our respondents receive government grants, often as their sole source of income.

IMG_5080Intertwined with the main thread of this story though, is the story of the cultural significance of Lake Fundudzi. Of course it is much easier to express economic needs, which have to do with visible outcomes like food, roads, and water, than cultural ones, so one has to look a little bit harder for the signs, but not too hard. Only 10% of the people explicitly said the lake was culturally important to them, but this is something of a red herring, we think. Double that number voiced concerns that development may anger ancestors, and many more said that the ancestors would not be angered, but only because it was taken as given that they would be consulted first. Half of all respondents said that previous disagreements had concerned disrespecting the sacred nature of the lake. Nearly everyone said that the lake “needed protection”.

Thus while there is an unmistakable need for economic development in an area with little other immediate prospects for achieving this, any development must be done responsibly, with a clear understanding of the significance of the Lake for people in the vicinity. Quite how this is to be done can only be decided in consultation with those living in the area. But we are hoping that we might have, found some way of starting this process, by showing leaders in the area that, despite all the past disagreements and delays in deciding the future of Lake Fundudzi, there is, among the people themselves, a remarkably consistent set of desires.

 

ACHA in Paris with UNESCO

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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.