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Karoo Stories: Narratives from Gariep and Van der Kloof dams

As we drove past the Lake Gariep reservoir, formed because of the Gariep Dam wall, Toni Richard Poni points to the farm he grew up on. The farm, underwater since the reservoir formed, looks like any other patch of water, unremarkable in its normalcy, shimmering in the late afternoon light just like all the water around it. A week later, when we get close enough to walk to the reservoir, Toni points out the subtleties I missed — the small island that juts up was actually a hill that flanked the farm houses, those mountains on the side divided the farm between two provinces, the farm-owners' homes were tucked over there, to the left . It was a poignant reminder that almost 50 years after the reservoir filled, there were stories still there, just under the surface.

Toni Richard Poni points out the site of his farm

This was not at all what I was expecting. When I began my journey into the Karoo a few weeks back, I hoped to speak to only a few people, fully aware that Gariep and Van der Kloof dam — the pillars of the Orange River Development Project – were built almost two generations ago. But with the invaluable help of famers and municipal employees in the Colesberg district, a story emerged, one of displacement and trauma, but also of new beginnings. Lungile, the curator of the Colesberg Museum, is largely responsible for this — he tracked these individuals down and translated their stories from Xhosa and Afrikaans to English.

The story Lungile and I found was dispersed in the towns and townships of Kuyasa, Colesberg, Norvalspont, Venterstad, Gariep and Petrusville, all of which circle Van der Kloof and Gariep Dam. Many farmworkers settled there, leaving the life of the farm behind to build new lives in the segregated townships that were a feature of apartheid life. Some of these farmworkers, who were very young when the dam was built, found work on the dam, and then took their newfound skills to construction jobs around the country.

We heard many stories of upheaval, and I came to realize that the dam project was a project of its time. Restrictive pass laws, requiring all blacks to carry identity documents with their ethnicity, hindered the free movement of many workers we talked to (and were almost always derisively referred to as the 'Dompas' or Dumb Pass). Some dam jobs were reserved for blacks in the Transkei and Ciskei, segregated and economically-depressed homelands that the apartheid government set aside to cordon off blacks. However, this policy limited work opportunities for blacks who lived closest to the dam, so a few people we spoke to changed their names to 'coloured' surnames in order to find work. Some families spoke of rushed removals off their farms, with only hours notice, possibly because of the devastating floods that overtook the Orange River in 1968. Some spoke of how the dam allowed for a new beginning by giving them the chance to move to a township and be in a larger community. Almost universally, the snapshot of around 20 farm and dam workers we spoke to mentioned how the bones of their ancestors remain inundated, buried by the reservoir. One mentioned how her ancestors were complaining that they were cold underwater, and wanted to be moved.

Wakhanda Boots Martins looks out over his property, with Coles Kop looming in the background.

In particular, we interviewed a few members of the Poni and Phongolo families, both of whom resided on Rietfontein Farm. "It was like a town," Christina Phongolo told us, with a few shops and houses, and her family loved it there. Toni, who was around 17 when the dam was being built, hated his life of labor on the farm – the early morning work as a child and extremely low pay. But the farm offered open space and livestock and free meals, which many interviewees wistfully recalled. Unemployment and a lack of job opportunities is rife in the townships today, especially among young people.

The Poni and Phongolo family gather for a group shot in Venterstad, near a corner of Lake Gariep

I was only able to speak to one farmer on camera, David Southey, though I'm hoping to speak to more. David married Kathy, who's father was one of the main engineers on the Gariep dam. Kathy and David described a wonderful boomtown that sprung up when the dam was being built. International consultants and engineers set up shop in the area, and this sleepy slice of the Karoo came alive with restaurants, golf tournaments, tennis clubs and dances.

Many families asked us to give them the final report when we were done — some wanted to use it to seek compensation for livestock and land losses. Since the final report won't be done for a while, we instead held a small exhibition at the Colesberg Museum. We put up the photos we took and screened a short film based on their interviews. Lungile and I purposefully omitted details like name titles or exposition about the Orange River Project, since most of our audience was familiar with the project and each other. Over the next few months, I'll share some more of these narratives and stories.

The Poni and Phongolo families settles in for a meal after the exhibition at the Colesberg Museum

I worked as a fact-checker before this fellowship, and I admit, I find it hard to square away the 'truth' in everyone's interviews. There are gaps and inconsistencies in people's stories, and timelines don't always make sense. The goal of this project is to capture people's 'lived experiences,' and I've realized those experiences can be messy. Memories fade and experiences weave together over time, especially ones of trauma and loss. Recording life narratives may be less about combing over every detail, more about listening for and appreciating the heart of the story.

Ishan Thakore, a multimedia storyteller and journalist, is creating a series of short films to portray a nuanced portrait of the human benefits as well as the costs of large-scale water development in South Africa. Follow him here on the Voices blog, on Twitter and on Instagram.

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