Please note another warning on the ensuing content -- lots of indigenous nudity, so if that offends you, please do not proceed.
The coolest thing I saw in all of Namibia was the scene at a gas station we stopped at in Opuwo on the way to Epupa Falls in Kaokoland. The primary traditional tribe in this region is the Himba, but others make their home here as well. We all got out of the vehicle to stretch our legs. While our guide was dealing with filling the gas tank and buying supplies at a convenience store, and most of the others were conversing with a hawker who sold necklaces to the few tourists who stopped into the gas station, I was fascinated with the scene around me and stood silently, almost invisible, against one of the gas pumps, where no one paid any attention to me. It was not a place where it would be appropriate to take photos, so I have none. But I’ll never forget it because I’ve never seen anything like it – such a mixing and amiable mingling of people dressing according to their traditional culture and ones adopting completely Western attire. Typically this choice of fashion is indicative of an overall mindset, and Western and traditional don’t always mix so well. But walking in and out of this small grocery store at the gas station were (a) barefoot Himba people in completely traditional dress with their red-ocher skin and elaborate hairstyles; (b) people from the Herero tribe whose traditional dress was clearly colorful fabric and large cloth hats in the shape of bullhorns or a banana – one woman got into her little pickup truck and her hat was so wide that the tip stuck well out of her window, she tried to roll it up but could not proceed beyond her hat; (c) people of an Angolan tribe (we were very near the border) with long hair separated into many narrow braids; (d) native people dressed completely in Western garb with shorts or jeans, a shirt and shoes, and close-cropped unremarkable hairstyles; and (e) a sprinkle of white people, which at that time was only our own small crew of seven. It was truly a glorious cultural mixing pot. I was so enthralled with that scene I really hated to get back in the truck and leave.
Before I left for Namibia, in a conversation with my friend, Laura, a regular traveler to Africa, I had just returned from Iran and was soon to leave for Namibia, and I was talking about the discomfort of having to be so covered up in Iran with the long pants, long-sleeved shirt and headscarf and how other women wore a full black chador; Laura said, “And when you go to Namibia, women will be pushing shopping carts around topless.” Indeed, having visited these two countries back to back was quite hilarious to witness the difference in women’s “modesty.” This is precisely why I am passionate about traveling the world … the differences among both geography and humanity are so monumental, so fascinating, so stunning in their polarity, I simply can’t bear not to discover and witness them myself.
But the traditional cultures in Namibia are at a crossroads -- with tradition on one side and modernization, which in my opinion is basically synonymous with homogeneity, on the other. Both the Himba and the San can earn a living by showing their traditions to tourists … as I showed in my post about the San living museum, and we were in Kaokoland to photograph the Himba – this is accomplished by finding someone who knows a local chief and can strike a deal in which the tourists bring specified gifts in return for being allowed into that clan’s kraal to photograph the people inside as they basically just go about their daily chores. So it’s different than the living museum the San have created. Nonetheless, in my opinion, these opportunities are valuable to the locals. They provide desperately needed income in endemically impoverished regions, and I think there is inherent value in preserving traditions even if they eventually become only for show, this is better than losing them altogether. At this unique moment in time, the Himba who choose to keep the traditional lifestyle are doing so for themselves, their own free choice of lifestyle which they simply allow visitors to glimpse.
It’s hard to know how to feel about this crossroads … how to give people on each side their rights and dignity, and my respect and support. Right or wrong, I admit my prejudice against the shedding of traditional culture. So you will nearly always find me enthusiastically portraying the traditional, though occasionally I turn perhaps hypocritical in disagreeing with some customs I find intolerably barbaric.
Anyhoo … let’s get on with some illustrations of the different lifestyles the Himba engage in. First, the traditional – where we were allowed inside one clan’s kraal. We had a translator, a local Himba lady who no longer lives in a kraal or dresses traditionally, and works in the local tourist industry (in a hotel and as a translator/guide). As we walked around, she explained to us what we were witnessing, so we weren’t just stumbling ignorantly around the kraal, which is good because it was important to know, for one thing, not to step over a fire – they’re sacred to the Himba.
The first people we met were the chief and the eldest of his three wives. The chief was basking in the sun in a chair, and his wife was weaving a small basket from dried grass. Notice her elaborate hairdo. The long clay-packed braids with the tufts of hair at the bottom are part of every woman’s hairdo, but the rest of it, the formations on top of their head, are designed by each individual according to their fancy as they grow older. Really fascinating.
This gal was making a porridge with mealie, a type of corn flour, over a fire. The flour is one of the gifts we brought, along with Vaseline … in the past the Himba used a natural emollient to mix with the red clay to make their skin coating … that beautiful red coating that makes their skin look like silk. Now, it’s easier just to mix in Vaseline.
Here you can kind of see the elaborate nature of the women’s skirts. They’re made of stiff, hardened cow hide shaped into various patterns. They don’t really look that comfortable, actually, even though they are beautiful. But then, these are people who sleep on hardened cow hide mats rather than soft hide mats, and instead of pillows, rest their head at night on wooden neck rests. So I guess they have a different definition of comfort.
This is one of the daughters of the chief – everyone refers to her as a “princess.” Certainly an exquisite girl. These aren’t the best pics of her, I had amateur problems dealing with the lighting. But you get the idea how stunning she is. I have a string of photos of her when she's outside, looking askance one direction or another. It startled me to find the shot, second below, of the princess suddenly looking toward the camera for one frame in the middle of the series. In the bottom photo, she is sitting inside her hut.
And I totally adore the men’s traditional hairstyle. In the second photo, you can see they even make little caps for their braids. Ran into those chaps while in the “modern” village and the fellow in the first photo we met inside the traditional kraal. The other guy featured doesn’t have the traditional ‘do, but I loved his smile and friendly disposition.
And of course, the children … how dear they are. I don’t have much in particular to say about them, so I’ll simply present a bunch of pics for you. The first photo, though, does particularly amuse me, because somehow to me these kids in this pose look like they are a superhero team of veteran hero and sidekick, like a Batman and Robin … having just thwarted some evil plot and now looking off into the distance scanning the horizon for the next villain to vanquish.
I don’t know why this photo turned out so grainy, but in any case, I love it. A Himba kid inside the traditional kraal to whom I gave my sunglasses to try on ... just looks like such a badass.
So at this crossroads in time and choice of lifestyle, it was encouraging to see children on both sides playing together. The people who have crossed the tracks and live now on the other side, outside a traditional kraal, dressed in Western clothing, still live nearby (they haven't all just moved to cities). In this case, there is a village right next to the small swath of tourist lodges along the edge of the Kunene River at Epupa Falls. We couldn't go back to the traditional kraal in the afternoon, which disappointed me, so our guide arranged for a local to take me and a couple others for a walk through this "modern" village nearby, where the children were at first willing to be in front of the camera lens, but soon were all-out clamoring for the attention.
This girl in the foreground, below, floored me with her poise and beauty in this shot, for such a young child. At first she seemed a little shy, her smile reserved, until her mom asked me to take a photo of them together, and then she opened up a generous smile. Her little pal was quite the silly jokester. Nearly every photo I have of the girl in the background, she is making some silly or hilarious face ... this (and the photo above) were her few calm moments.
But now comes the conundrum of the crossroads, something I’ve struggled with for as long as I can remember. The first time I really confronted the issue was when I read Vine DeLoria’s book, The Noble Savage. It shocked and disillusioned me … my own sense of what I thought was right -- my sense that tradition trumped everything, its cultural value surpassed the value of everything else. As a general rule, my travel blog is for sharing what I see and hear (learn) while traveling, not for long discourses on cultural and anthropological theories or the complexities of wildlife and habitat conservation. But they are topics of interest to me. So let’s just stick to the visual presentation. I'll comment only that I personally found it hard to appreciate the "modern" village as much as the traditional kraal.
First, here are a couple domestic animals we ran into … a pig at the water’s edge, and a photo I just really love of a lone chicken strolling down the road (rather than across it). Does anyone ever ask why the chicken walked down the road?
This is a scene from the non-traditional village. In the second photo, if you can’t quite make it out, the mound beside the trash can is a mound of beer bottles.
These people offered us a drink of their homemade liquor. “Take just a tiny sip,” the guide said. At first I thought he said that for my own benefit because it was strong; later I considered it was probably because it might have been rude to drink too much of their hooch which had been offered for free. It tasted better than I thought it would.
Our local guide told me alcoholism is a big problem for Himba people who leave their traditional kraals. One unfortunate upshot, for example, is that crocodiles live on the banks of the Kunene River and he said it’s not uncommon for locals to get eaten because they’re so drunk they do ridiculously dumb things like try to swim across the river, or they fall out of their canoes because they’re too drunk to paddle. Why more of a problem for those who leave the traditional setting? Largely because of unemployment. Once they leave their traditional lifestyle of keeping livestock, they don't always find something else to do, so I guess boredom comes into play.
The marula tree grows across southern Africa and the fruit is often made into liquor. In fact, my favorite liquor in the whole world is amarula made in South Africa. It's a cream liqueur and delicious on ice or poured on ice cream! Anyway, I've even heard of animals getting drunk from eating overly ripe marula fruit. The local fellow told me that the Himba use marula oil (made from the fruit seeds) when pregnant women are not feeling well or worry they might be having problems with their baby ... they rub the oil on her stomach.
The woman below is not Himba, she’s from an Angolan tribe; and the man below was very accommodating when we asked to take his picture. I just love friendly people. Should I ever run into you on the street and you ask to take my picture, though it wouldn’t make a good one, I will always agree. :)
So my visit to the Himba culture, both traditional and changing, was brief, but it was an experience I'll never forget. The primary reason I wanted to go to Namibia was on account of the traditional cultures still existing. That ended up in meeting the Himba and the San. Originally I had thought to make this post about both Himba and San "at the crossroads" because the San of course are dealing with change, as well. But I think that would make this post overwhelming ... there are already 34 photos! So will save that bit for another time.