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THE TOPNAAR PEOPLE OF NAMIBIA                                   

The Topnaar live in the region surrounding the seasonal Kuiseb River as it winds its way through the Namib desert to Walvis Bay on Namibia’s central coast.  There they have settled into a life of herding, farming, and gathering food from the bush as they have done for thousands of years.  The Topnaar are also known as the Aonin, and are one of 13 groups that make up the Nama people.   

The name Topnaar is an Afrikaans word meaning “people of the point or extreme” in direct reference to the forbidding landscape they inhabit.  The name also contains influence from the local Nama language, with an apparent acknowledgment of the people’s unique connection to the !nara plant. 

The !nara is an amazing plant native to the dunes that parallel the watercourses in what is one of the world’s oldest deserts.  The taproot of the !nara can bore up to 40 meters down to find moisture, and once rooted its tangled branches form a thick crown that stabilizes the shifting sands around it.  Plants augment ground moisture with condensation from the fogs that blanket the areas in which they are found.  The unique adaptations of the !nara allow individual plants to live for over 100 years in this harsh environment.   

Every part of the !nara’s melon-like fruit is used in some fashion.  The husks provide feed for livestock, the nuts form a protein-rich staple of the Topnaar diet.  The fruity flesh of the melon can be dried and stored for several years.  The !nara is also thought to have medicinal properties for everything from stomach ailments to sunburn protection.  In recent years the melon has become an important export to neighboring countries like South Africa.

The Topnaar’s ancient culture- so in tune with, and dependent upon, the desert in which they live- is being challenged on many fronts.  The formation of the huge Namib Naukluft park in the 1960’s has restricted their movement and severely limited the ability to hunt and harvest in their traditional lands.  Additionally, population growth in Swakopmund and Walvis Bay has begun to lower the water table.  This directly threatens the local water sources of the Topnaar and the survival of even indigenous plants like the !nara. 

At the Topnaar Education Fund we believe we can make a difference, one child at a time!