An hour outside Cape Town, on the way to popular seaside villages like Langebaan, Yzerfontein and Paternoster, on a hillside covered every Spring in Namaqualand daisies, lies a destination that should be on every visitor’s itinerary. Those who stop and stay here for long enough to discover the teachings available at this unique place, leave forever changed. For this is !Khwa ttu: a place of learning and sharing, owned and run for and by the San.
The San here welcome visitors. Their quiet pride in sharing their culture is inspiring and, of course, poignant. These are a First People, experts say THE First People, overwhelmingly researched then left to their plight, marginalised and ignored.
In 1999 WIMSA, the leading advocacy group of the San, partnered with Ubuntu Foundation, a Swiss non-profit foundation, to help address the problems of the San. !Khwa ttu is the result of that partnership. The focus here is on providing training and adult education – including skills in tourism, entrepreneurship and community-based development – for rotating groups of the San youth.
As part of the skills training they offer, the management of !Khwa ttu has taken a derelict farm and turned it into the most inspiring destination for visitors. In the 15-odd years they’ve been here, together with the trainees, they’ve rehabilitated the land, rewilded it with eland, zebra and various other animals, laid hiking and mountain-bike trails, established an excellent restaurant and developed an array of delightful accommodation options.
The next phase in !Khwa ttu’s development will be launched on Heritage Day, 24 September, and will serve !Khwa ttu’s mission of cultural restitution. A vast quantity of scholarship has been carried out on the San; very little has ever been made available to the subjects of that research. The !Khwa ttu Heritage Centre seeks to address that.
An astonishing structure, the Heritage Centre is embedded into land lines of the ridge looking towards Yzerfontein and the Atlantic Ocean. In short time, the surrounding indigenous vegetation will cover the canopy, which represents a shelter where people gather to learn and to share. With its immersive, multimedia “egg” room, digital archive, partly cantilevered engineering, geothermal cooling and heating, and essentially contemporary architecture, the Heritage Centre depicts old wisdom combining with new technology for a sustainable future.
It addresses the hopes and dreams of San all over Southern Africa: it is a place to tell their story in ways of their choosing, a place of dignity where their voices can be heard and the past can be remembered for a better future; a place to tell you who the San are.
“The !Khwa ttu San Heritage Centre is a great deal more than a collection of artefacts and historical photos. It’s a pioneering initiative that embraces the principle of community curation, led by San consultants from across Southern Africa and academics. The exhibitions, San-led trails and guided experiences are designed to engage the body and senses as much as the mind,” explains Michael Daiber, general manager of !Khwa ttu. “They demonstrate the skills and knowledge of the San people, while also telling the archaeological story of the origins of the modern mind on the Southern African coastline.”
It is imperative that !Khwa ttu becomes self-sustaining. You can help. Donations are gratefully received. Book a few nights in one of the beautifully appointed cottages, furnished entirely appropriately with elegant simplicity – or the rustic-luxury tented camp; reserve a table at the excellent restaurant and afterwards buy a swathe of exquisite fabric, art, books or crafts from the shop. Whatever you do, don’t miss a tour with a San guide. There is a wonderful tea ceremony, and click-punctuated story-telling; you can also discover The Way of the San, including how to track animals. Bring your bikes, or hire one – there are beautifully laid-out mountain-bike and hiking trails…
What will stay with you for as long as you live is a wander through the exhibition spaces in the beautifully renovated farm buildings and the new Heritage Centre, where the reality of cruelty and intrinsic revelation are laid out with Swiss precision and state-of-the-art technology. Exhibitions are designed to be dismantled eventually and moved to !Khwa ttu’s satellite outposts in the remote San villages.
Whether you are a visitor to the Cape, or a local, whether you are looking for a solitary retreat, or a hiking/mountain-biking weekend with friends or your family, a visit to !Khwa ttu will be profoundly affecting. Because, in the words of Dr Chris Low, the curator, the San’s story is a story of human origins, beginnings. As such it is your story too.