Up along the west coast of South Africa, towards its border with Namibia, lies the Kamiesberg (or Kamies mountain), about five hours drive on the N7 from Cape Town. The mountain range is in a semi-desert area, the largest and most sparsely inhabited province of South Africa. For millennia the mountain has been an oasis for the Nama people who lived in the area way before colonial expansion driven by greed for land, copper and diamonds, encroached upon their land. My curiosity has long been piqued by this mountain and the town, Kamieskroon, that lies at its foothills, and that I share a name with. It has taken me decades to visit this area.
This has been partly because of an innate fear that I have of travelling to small towns in South Africa that are generally more conservative. I imagine arriving in a place where the old apartheid flag may still be hanging behind the bar and I will be viewed with suspicion because of the colour of my skin. It’s the same feeling of not belonging that I couldn’t quite shake off when I visited the deep south of the USA a couple of years ago. Perhaps racism sinks deeply into the architecture of a place, and the buildings remember.
My work over the last few years has revolved around understanding identity, race and belonging within South Africa’s history of colonialism, slavery and apartheid. The search for my own roots has been impeded by the colonial archive that has recorded the personal details – births, deaths, marriages – with little consideration for correct spellings, with randomly assigned racial classifications, and often with incomplete information. This has been complicated by the official disregard for any ceremonies performed according to Islamic rites.
Examining archival documents related to my last name, Kamies, from the 19th and early 20th century has been an education in colonial and apartheid labelling. Kamies appears both as a first and a last name in earlier records, as well as the name of an enslaved person in estate documents. I have also found the documents for someone called Kamies van Amsterdam who lived on the east coast of South Africa in the 19th century, indicating some link to the Netherlands, and one for Kamies van Bougies (in South Asia).
Over the period in question the language on the forms changed from Dutch to English and Afrikaans. Early official forms do not always note the “race” of the person, but later forms show the obsession for classifying people into boxes, already in practice before the official onset of apartheid. The following categories are noted: Hottentot, Griqua, Cape Coloured, Malay, Cape Malay, Mixed, Fingo and Batlaping (the last two I had to look up).
Where occupations have been listed, I have found labourers, farmworkers, domestic servants, a fruit and vegetable hawker, a fishwife and two shepherds, as well as a shoemaker, dressmaker, carpenter, upholsterer, and a mason. These occupations are another indication of how colour determined the level of education and occupation in South Africa both before and during apartheid.
The amount of information in the records varies greatly from death certificates that list information about the deceased person’s parents and children, to certificates with little more than a name and a cross in lieu of a signature from the relative reporting the death. The erasure of history is evident in the often-dismissive way details have been recorded. The fact that Kamies is from the Muslim side of my family only lends itself to more official blankness since Muslim marriages were not considered legal throughout colonialism and apartheid. The official European colonial narrative that was later perpetuated by apartheid, was that of a denial of the genealogy of its subjects and therefore a denial of any significant existence before colonisation occurred.
It was against this background, then, that I set off with my travel companions at the beginning of April, roughly following the 17th century route of a Dutch expedition in search of copper, but with our eyes, ears and hearts wide open to learn from the people and the land that we encountered.
Toponymicide is a new word that I learnt from one of the books* that accompanied me on this journey: the erasure of indigenous names of the landscape as part of that larger ecology. Indigenous names were corrupted by travellers who interpreted the people and the land through their own colonial lens, conveniently disregarding the fact that the land had been inhabited by people with their own history, their own language, and customs and traditions. Mountains and rivers have been named for Europeans who in many cases had never even set foot in the country, erasing not only the original names but also the history that accompanied it. In other cases, indigenous names have been corrupted and given a Dutch flavour.
And so, I suspect, it is with the mountain whose name I share. The Nama people, who occupied this area more than a thousand years ago, called it Th’amies and Xheimes, the mountain of water jumbled together, or the mountain with fog, from the root //ams, for water. This is so descriptive of the area where they settled in the warmer months to benefit from the cooler climate and the summer rainfall on top of the mountain. I suspect that a Dutch explorer unfamiliar with the name (and unwilling to try to say it) decided that it sounded like the name ‘Kamies’ he was more used to. And somewhere among these theories lies the truth, as a resident of the area observed when I asked her how the mountain got its name. Perhaps it doesn’t matter that we don’t know exactly how it happened but rather that we acknowledge that there is far more to our history than one dominant colonial narrative and that we learn to pay attention to all the voices in our past, with our eyes, ears and hearts wide open.
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*Rethinking Africa: Indigenous Women Re-interpret Southern Africa’s Pasts. Edited by Bernedette Muthien and June Bam. 2021.