A Moment in Time. Glimpses of Namibian Life

The images depicted in this book lovingly describe a rapidly changing way of life in Namibia
Volkmann, Mary Jane
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A Moment in Time. Glimpses of Namibian Life

Author: Mary Jane Volkmann
Publisher: Gamsberg Macmillan
Windhoek, 2000
ISBN 99916-0-096-5
Hardcover, 25x22 cm, 66 pages, 30 colour plates, 1 map

Author’s note:

Books require close collaboration with the author or editor. I have illustrated a biology textbook, geological publications, reading books for schools and a few small books of stories.

Late in 1991 I was offered a commission by Gamsberg Macmillan Publishers to do a book of paintings depicting interesting aspects of life in Namibia before the sudden and rapid developments taking place completely changed the lifestyles of the people.

I was asked to do 30 small and accurate paintings as realistically and as detailed as possible. These paintings were to serve both as collectible artworks and as historical documents.

Having visited and worked with fellow members of the Baha’i Faith in outlying areas as well as having accompanied my husband Walter (who is a land surveyor and geodetics expert) to the remotest areas of Namibia, I had a wealth of information from which to work.

The original paintings are opaque watercolours, are 14 cm by 19.5 cm and are now owned by a corporation and on permanent display in a private museum in Namibia.

The book itself won an Honourable Mention at the Mbapira Book Awards in Windhoek in 1998.


by Robert Ponzio

Mary Jane Volkmann worked for 4 and a half years producing the watercolor images in this book by commission of the Namibian Government.

The images depicted in this book lovingly describe a rapidly changing way of life. Each image has personal commentary that further places them into context of the people she so lovingly portrays.

If you can get it, this book is a wonderful example of an artist acting as observer who reveals a true sense of an exotic land. Extremely well done and rewarding for the reader.

Please visit her homepage: www.maryjanevolkmann.com


Today, after working for four and a half years, I finished the last paintings for this book. I have mixed feelings about stopping now, as there is always another corner to explore, another fascinating aspect of life here to see, reflect upon and share. And with development pushing roads and projects into the remotest comers of the country, lifestyles are changing so rapidly.

That was the idea behind the commissioning of these paintings: to try and capture a glimpse of Namibian life at this moment in time. Having spent the first twenty-four years of my life in urban America, about the only things I can think of that affected the way I lived were the introduction of cassette tapes, calculators and computers. What must it be like for someone living in a remote village that suddenly gets a tarred road, running water, electricity and shops selling every choice of commodity, and all within a few years?

What happens to the customs and community life which have evolved around the fetching of water from the deep community wells, for example, that are no longer needed? Or the songs, rhythm and dance of the women in the communal pounding of the mahangu (millet) or mealies (corn) when mills take over? I wonder what happens within the traditional rural family when the woman no longer needs to ask her husband to supply her with a heavy hardwood hand-made pestle to grind the grain for their evening meal and instead asks him for money to buy meal from the local shop.

And I wonder what happens in that family and in their community if that same husband must tell his wife, ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t have a job so I can’t give you any money.’ In the rural areas of Namibia one sees traditional homes in some of the most idyllic settings. The family has handed down through the generations its customary way of building. Children have been taught how to walk carefully through the bush avoiding wasps, snakes and animals in order to look for straight timber for construction and the best grass for thatching.

They have been taught how to use an axe, construct, mix clay and build walls. Now, with the increasing pressure on the environment caused by the drought of recent years, coupled with the over-use of natural materials by the rapidly expanding popu- lation, one sees more and more cement houses being added to kraals (traditional homesteads), shops being built in remote areas and housing development projects springing up around the country.

The family that once was dependent on its members and on the resources found more or less in the immediate environment suddenly becomes dependent on supplies of materials, whether purchased or donated, and imported skills over which it initially has little control. How does this change redefine family and community traditions and relationships?

I arrived in Namibia (then South West Africa) in 1979 after having been introduced to Africa through five years of living in the tiny, peaceful, green Kingdom of Swaziland. What a contrast! I hadn’t been warned about thorns and the first time I stepped out of the car along the roadside a nice big one went right through my sandal into my tender foot! And it was so dry! Also, because of the war going on at the time there was a lot of suspicion and people were cautious. Many areas were either not safe to travel in or required permits to enter.

One of the first people I got to know, who is a relative of the Kwanyama royal family, gave me an interesting insight. He said that when a man in his family wanted to marry, he would take his bride-to-be home to the village to meet his mother. Once there, the three of them would go for a walk through the bush. Along the way the mother would exclaim, ‘Look! Look there!! See the hare! Do you see the hare? ‘(There really wasn’t a hare.) Whereupon they would await the response of the bride-to-be.

If she answered, ‘Where? Oh, yes!! I see him!!’ they would know she just wanted to curry favour with the mother! I understood from his rather pointed story that winning trust in traditional Namibia is a lengthy process of being watched and tested, especially for an outsider. [...]