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Smart tourism breathes life into Namibian desert mining town

by Isabel Parenthoen*

Having lost their only income source when the Uis tin mine shut down, a community in the Namibian desert is slowly being resurrected by locals using innovative tourism.
Discovering the tourist appeal of a pre-historic cave painting in the nearby D‚ureb mountain, a group from the community set themselves up as guides, attracting foreigners to their tiny settlement in the desert.
Namibia's highest mountain, the granite sides of D‚ureb rise up like a giant fortress in the middle of the desert, housing a long unexploited treasure whose tourism value the community stumbled upon in their darkest hour.
"It was very hard to live. The mine was the only source of revenue", said Alfons !Uwuseb [Eds: correct], 36, who now proudly bears the title of "Mountain guide of D‚ureb".
Better known as Brandberg, or the "burning mountain" as it was renamed by the German colonists, the now inactive volcano gets it name from the fiery colour it often takes on as the sun sets.
This imposing site once sheltered the ancestors of the Damara, one of the people of Namibia, a group of hunters and pastoralists who left behind cave paintings — touching testimonies to their life.
Water used to flow down the sides of the mountain, providing an oasis in the desert where the Damara could keep their cattle and hunt as animals were drawn to the water.
The most famous of these is the White Lady, which piqued the attention of anthropologists and a few tourists finding their way to the mountain some 30 kilometres (18 miles) from Uis.
Even after the main mine shut down in 1990, sparking an exodus from the town, they didn't at first see the potential of the cave painting to help them earn a living.
"We were wondering: what are the white people coming here for? We didn't realise the opportunity to reduce poverty", said !Uwuseb.
It was only when a group of South Africans pressed !Uwuseb in 1995 to recount the Damara version of the White Lady's origin that they realised they could make money by helping tourists.
Discovered in 1918 by a German prospector, the painting nestled in a rock shelter of D‚ureb, a 40-minute walk to the middle of the mountain where the long white human form rises among half-man, half-animal spirits.
A monk, Henri Breuil, saw similarities to Cretan paintings and deduced that the figure was a white woman.
The Damara offer a simpler interpretation.
"It was a witch doctor conducting a ceremony to cure a sick person. The Gamab — which means the men who can heal, make rain and bring good fortune — painted their bodies with a white powder made of crushed bones," said !Uwuseb.
The mountain guides of D‚ureb have joined some 50 other communities in a local initiative which the Namibian government has encouraged since 1995 — to devolve authority over wildlife and tourism to local residents.
In these conservancies, which now cover some 15 percent of the country, the rights to exploit the resources are transferred to communities, increasing their income and increasing wildlife and conservation areas.
Training in history, geology, astronomy, management and ecology is provided thanks to a semi-private foundation.
The Namibian government, in a report published by the tourism ministry, said the project is "effective as a rural development strategy generating income for local communities, and providing new skills and expertise".
On the whole, conservancies provided an income of 26 million Namibian dollars (three million US dollars) in 2006, compared to 600,000 Namibian dollars in 1998, of which more half comes from tourism and trophy hunting.
With Uis now attracting groups interested in ancient cultures from as far away as Europe, the town has begun to rise from the ashes, with almost 10,000 people who left after the tin mine closed now having returned.