Namibia’s living museums face uncertain future amid COVID-19 pandemic

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Mafwe Living Museum.The Mafwe present their old, almost forgotten culture. (Image Courtsey of Museums Association of Namibia)

The outbreak of COVID-19 has put the existence of Namibia’s living museums in jeopardy as they struggle to stay-afloat with no income coming in from international tourists.

Just like all country’s in the world, Namibia’s tourism sector has been affected by the outbreak of COVID-19 with zero international tourists since March.

This has affected the country’s living museums which get about 96 percent of income from international tourists.

Elizabeth Yalezo has been part of the Mafwe Living Museum in the northern Zambezi region for the past 10 years teaching tourists about the local silozi culture.

She made a commitment to uproot her family and live at the museum doing what she loves but the outbreak of COVID-19 is threatening her livelihood.

“We have had no income for the past four months, we are hungry,” Yalezo said.

Previously when Namibia’s tourism industry was booming, the museum would sometimes make over a 100,000 Namibian dollars (about 5,682 U.S. dollars) a month, which would be shared among the 45 members.

“We used to make a lot of money but once it is shared between all the members it is not a lot. Unfortunately we have not been able to build up reserves in previous years. we have all been surviving from hand to mouth, thus we are starving at the moment,” she said.

The Namibian government gave aid of 750 Namibian dollars to Namibians who lost their jobs because of COVID-19 but unfortunately this was not applicable to communal projects.

The situation has been made worse because even though local tours were allowed after the countrywide lockdown, the Namibian economy is so weakened that there are hardly any people travelling.

“If we were at least getting local visitors it would have been better but there are no visitors coming. We really need assistance,” Yalezo said.

The living museums in Namibia are exceptional traditional projects where visitors can learn about the cultures of the different tribes in the country.

The museums were established with the aim of preserving the country’s traditional culture while also fighting poverty in rural areas through income generated from the museums.

At the living museums, tourists get a chance to experience interactive learning of different Namibian cultures where they live at the museums for a couple of days seeing how the tribes live their lives.

According to a representative from Namibia Living Culture Foundation Sebastian Durrschmidt, the living museums have done very well for surrounding communities in terms of income generation and exposure.

He said, the museums are the only employers in the six villages where they were developed and the loss of income also means a subsequent collapse of all income for the remaining village communities.

“Over 2,000 lives are at risk of losing income and their livelihoods. The living museums are at the brink of collapsing if tourism does not start soon,” Durrschmidt added.

Statistics from the Living Culture Foundation show that during 2017 and 2018 when Namibia’s tourism was at its peak, all six living museums were visited by about 30,000 tourists.

“A high number of visitors means a good income for the communal living museums. The income will not only provide food security but also school fees. Some invest in livestock and vegetable gardens,” Durrschmidt said.

Rimunatavi Tjipurua, a manager at the Ovahimba Living Museum, said life at the communal museum had become unbearable and sad.

Namibia this month opened its borders to international tourists but with the surge in cases where the country recorded over 1, 000 positive cases in just two weeks, the tourism sector is doubtful that tourism will pick up anytime soon.

The country has far recorded 2,802 COVID-19 cases and 16 deaths.

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