Makalani Boys Keep Culture Rolling


By Surihe Gaomas WINDHOEK With the crashing sounds of the waves splashing against the rocks, the bellowing cries from the seals at the bottom of the beach area at Swakopmund grab your attention. If you take a ten-minute stroll along the beach, you’ll at first not notice them as they silently go about their work. Then take a walk back along the same pathway of the Mole, you’ll notice a group of six Makalani Boys sitting on the other side of the beachfront on a bench. Neatly stretched out on the wooden bench is 33-year-old Ringo !Ganeb, a rather shy looking chap with a talent for making Makalani key rings and necklaces that he sells to tourists. “This is my survival and I have learnt it from a very young age,” says !Ganeb who is originally from the coastal town of Swakopmund. Having dropped out of grade four due to grinding poverty, this young lad initially resorted to the harsh street life. However, like the rest of his peers, he chose not to resort to petty crimes of theft and burglary, but uses his God-given talent to help him eke out a living for himself and three other children. “Just yesterday my girlfriend got twin girls and I have to take the responsibility of bringing them up in this world,” says the proud father. With a small carving blade wrapped with a black rubber band, !Ganeb picks up the Makalani nut and carves his favourite designs of the country’s different wildlife. These range from zebras, springboks, elephants and rhinos to once in a while drawing and carving out fish as well. “People think doing this is easy, but it takes a lot of hard work and patience,” said another Makalani artist from Outjo showing his thumb having cut marks from the blade. The blade is normally bought at the pharmacy with proof of an identification document in case it needs tracing in the event of being used in a crime. Twenty-nine-year- old Engelhard Gawiseb came to the coastal towns years ago, hoping that the flooding of tourists to the town would help earn him money through selling the Makalani handcrafts. Yet, he feels disappointed because there is stiff competition as the Swakopmund Municipality has also allowed foreign artists to sell their wares. “The municipality wants to chase us to the area just behind the prison building, but there are no customers there and we are struggling to survive. We are not here to steal but work to survive,” said Gawiseb swinging his bundle of handcrafts. “We are even being referred to as ‘strandlopers’ (beach walkers) but we just don’t care,” added !Ganeb. It turns out that the town’s municipality wants these men to pay trading licence fees of N$130 a year for selling their wares, but the fact of the matter is that they don’t even earn that much money at the end of the day anyway. “Our business is very small. So, how can we pay for that licence, we are only here to survive,” added George Gaweseb who’s originally from Okombahe. In a day, most of these Makalani Boys make between 10 to 12 items and if clients prefer they can even engrave their names in just five minutes. Each uniquely designed key ring costs N$25, and if the client feels this is expensive, prices are negotiated down to N$15 which is also okay. While the festive season was the best time to earn a bit more cash than usual, the sellers have now entered the dry business period, where tourists have slowly but surely trickled out of the costal town. Putting down his wares on the bench for while, Gaweseb said, “We are doing this business only because we are hungry and we don’t want to steal.” By the looks of things, most Damara people are gifted in the making of Makalani designs and handicrafts and they go about selling their wares at places where people come together or where tourists pass by. The local people believe that this art derives from their ancestors of rock paintings in the north-western area where this ethnic group comes from originally. “The Damara culture is gifted with this talent and its an inborn thing from their ancestors,” said !Ganeb, placing the short leather string on top of the creatively designed Makalani nut. Yet, he feels that there is a lack of appreciation and incentive for men like him in doing this kind of business, which he believes also contributes in any small way to the economy of the country. “If a tourist comes and buys our products we are putting it into our economy, but yet it seems our talents are not promoted at all,” said !Ganeb. No sooner and to his delight, a German tourist stopped by to buy !Ganeb’s works for the second time in a day, pushing his earnings to N$25. And for !Ganeb, this meant an extra loaf of bread and some extra food for his family.