Written in the Sand South African San Institute
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UNESCO'S Division for Cultural Policies in the
Sector for Culture

Needs | Action Plan | Products & Processes | Principles | Mobilising Identity | Using CRA


Mobilising Identity

The soft approach to empowerment

There is an onus on practitioners of Cultural Resources Management to make our work transparent and replicable. Our practice deals with one of the most intangible, yet fundamental areas of culture, that of identity. In the preparation of this report, the Division for Cultural Policies within the Sector for Culture of UNESCO asked whether we could specify the indicators attached to our work, the risk assumptions, and the modes of verification. These are important tools in the monitoring and evaluation of any development project. These elements figure in the implementation of our work, for example, in specifying how many workshops we run, how many interviews are conducted, how many maps are produced, etc. However, these planning and monitoring tools did not feature prominently in the piloting of the CRA.

The CRA is distinguished by its ‘soft’ approach. The work has evolved based on a cycle: doing, reflecting and adjusting. We assumed that there is a relationship between the ‘soft’ elements such as identity, community, and self-respect on the one hand, and economic transformation, income opportunities, management of quality of life on the other. Somewhere between these lay the dispersed and threatened cultural resources of a once vibrant indigenous knowledge system. As ‘the community’ (i.e. in all its diversity and contradictions) moves through the next stages of its resettlement and development, there will be dynamic interactions between questions of identity and economic opportunity. The choices made will determine which cultural resources will be salvaged and which will fade away.

Throughout our project, we have been cognisant that we are dealing with complex psycho-sociological phenomena that we cannot control. We used our knowledge of sociological experiences elsewhere to anticipate what we would be seeing and experiencing in the southern Kalahari. We drew on the rich and sometimes traumatic experience15 of Canada’s First Nations to inform us that there is much more to sustainability and self-determination than just securing access to land. Managing identity and its underpinnings is critically important for the processes of reconstruction and reconciliation. Regaining control or even just awareness of the alienation of identity during colonisation creates opportunities for community members to process anger and trauma that would otherwise remain a silent poison within the society.

In a way our intervention can be compared to psychological therapy: the methodology and the outputs are more evident than the internal processes of each stage. When we initiated the very first step of the work, i.e. discussing language and language rights with the leadership, we did not know whether there would be a positive interest. There was a resonance and this took us a step forward. When we began to spend time with the elders collecting information about their lives and knowledge, we could not know to what degree this would capture the interest of the youth. That resonance is now happening and is guiding us in shaping the next interventions. This ‘healing’ process is critically important for language maintenance and revitalisation. Also, trauma, guilt and stigma all impact negatively on language learning. By processing the negative associations around the culture and identity, we are removing filters that inhibit natural language acquisition.

Following our first formal presentation on the history of the San of Gordonia, San field worker, Magdalena Kassie, described the sensation as ‘coming out of darkness’. It was so dark she had not even noticed she was moving around without sight until she had access to this information and suddenly her world was transformed; new opportunities and meanings became apparent.
Much of the real impact of this early phase of the project has been out of our grasp and our gaze. We do not know the details of discussions between youth and elders. We only have a shadowy image of what it feels like for San youth to be reconnected to their heritage and to be given an opportunity to rebuild their self-image, and to understand their parents and grandparents from a different perspective. We could venture to say that it is not really for us to do that type of evaluation. As San youth find their voices and grasp new intellectual tools, they will make their own commentary on these changes.

Thus far, the primary indicators have been the responsiveness of members of the target constituencies. Our energies were redirected to those areas where elders and youth have responded energetically, taken leadership roles, and initiated new aspects of the work.

The short-term evidence of our impact is the enthusiasm of the elders to communicate their knowledge, and the willingness of the youth to learn. Youth who could not speak a word of N|u when we started the project, can now hold basic conversations, pronounce and write words and sentences. The ancient language is starting to experience a renaissance as part of an identity of a new generation. The medium term impact must be demonstrated through the building of sustainable community based institutions to manage and conserve traditional knowledge systems. As the community moves from this ‘soft’ area into more concrete projects (e.g. teaching animal tracking skills, working with mythology and history, recording genealogies, creating interactive cultural heritage centres) the measures will become more explicit. Ultimately, the real proof of the work will only be known by future generations. As words and ideas move across a great time gulf between the mouths of elders to the tongues of ten year olds, we can see that a re-tooling, re-cycling and renaissance is underway.

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