The juxtaposition of colonialism, indigenous traditions, and modern global economics makes for an interesting social landscape across Namibia.
Subsistence pastoralists and small tradesmen in villages on the edges of the Namib desert, continue to live as earlier generations did in the previous century without drastic change. Bakeries in small towns, operated by German settlers whose forefathers arrived in the late 19th century from Europe and other African colonies of the time, still sell decadent Schwarzwald Küchen (Black forest cake) today. On streets named “Bismark”, smalltime Internet cafes run by Africans double-up as loud dance clubs after dark. Ranches, owned and operated by Germans and Afrikaaner families since the 1800s, send top cuts of beef to EU markets. Chinese companies install modern telecommunications infrastructure around this largely empty country and upgrade its roads. Indian businessmen negotiate deals for all kinds of sales and business in the hotels of Windhoeck. The younger generations of Namibians—of all races—are increasingly involved in international mining and tourism.
My visit to a Himba homestead on the border between the Damaraland and Kaokoveld regions of northwestern Namibia fit right into this tableau of tradition and modernity. The Himba are an indigenous tribe who have lived here for centuries.
For a start, the homestead is located on a German settler-owned ranch, in close proximity to the main house. And while the Himba continue their traditional pastoral life, here the modern twist is that the men peel off periodically to industrial and meat processing plants and urban centers in search of paying jobs, while the women stay back, raise children, and keep the cattle.
My visit to the traditional homestead with a group of German tourists is prefaced with a preparatory chat over tea and cookies with the rancher’s wife who, coordinates the entire tourist operation with her Himba neighbors.
“The Himba were here, in this area, when my husbands’ grandfather farmed this land decades ago. He saw no reason to drive them off,” she said. Today, descendants on both Himba and German sides of those original families, keep things as they used to be. “They have lived there, and we live here, and that is how things are.” It appears to be a mutually agreeable situation, for the most part. “We do run into problems sometimes with the children who want to play in our yard, and we have to frequently talk to them about the trash.” Neighbor issues. I can relate. The habitual recycling offenders in my own building in Arlington VA, are incorrigible.
The South Afrikaaner wife of the descendant of the original German landowner, rather enterprisingly, approached the Himba women and suggested that while their men were away in the cities and factories, they could make some money of their own—simply off their identity and way of life. The Himba women were only too willing to tap into the country’s burgeoning tourist trade, and capitalize on visitors’ interest in indigenous culture. “When we talked about tourist stops here, they were very happy with the idea,” noted the rancher’s wife.
Fortified with background on the Himba and German history and relationships in this area, and tea, we walked down a garden path which grew into a trail about 300 feet away. As we approached the small circular settlement of mud huts, the women came outside, several with babies hoisted on their hips, and greeted us pleasantly. We did momentarily, quietly, gasp at the stunning encounter with statuesque, topless women, whose bodies and hair were distractingly striking. It was a sight to behold, as we must have been for them, a hapless group of slightly disheveled people with damp hair and crumpled shirts.
The women cover their skin and hair in red ochre-colored mud mixed with butter fat and other local, aromatic herbs. The combination protects their skin from the harsh desert climate. The mud is a strikingly rich hue of red. They look embalmed, soft, and oiled. Their skin certainly looks supple and I was told does not wrinkle with age.
I am given to understand the women never actually immerse in water to bathe. Given their desert setting, the adaptation seems suitable. The Himba women smell earthy, and perhaps organic, like the clean comforting smell from my garden pots when I water them. Redolent, I think to myself of natural surfaces, of proximity to soil and animals. My senses are tingling with the realization of the depth of our differences as human beings, the Himba, and us. Here is an odorific reminder of how dissociated we moderns are from the natural world, as we wash off and mask human body odors with all kinds of scented potions. We reject the essential animal in us. We strive to remake ourselves into aromatic bouquets of synthetic chemicals.
We go around the little village, greeting and admiring the ladies, the jewelry of beads and shells stacked around their necks, and their vigorous babies. Many are breast feeding on the fly, and the babies seem as content as can be at their mother’s side. The women wear their hair in thin plaits that hang down the back and sides. Although the women are topless they wear traditional leather skirts and ornate leather and bead accessories.
As part of the exhibit, the Himba women laid out beads and necklaces they made and we went around making the obligatory purchases. Some of the Himba women are working in the kitchen garden plots nearby. I learned that family organization and cattle possession are along matrilineal lines; these women control the inheritance of cattle and are central figures in marriage allegiances and social identification.
The Himba women’s physicality is bold. Their body language comes through unfiltered and direct. The women move with grace, confidence and with a certain elegant carriage. The honesty of physical expression strikes me. The Himba women’s bold poise represents both the beauty and strength of womanhood. The entire body seems natural and sexual together, the same elegance of sexual maturity and child bearing extended to hoeing their vegetable garden patches, pulling cattle, cleaning seeds and grain, and resting.
No stigma here, of breasts as sexual therefore repressed from view or revealed suggestively. The contrast with the portrayal of women in modern society and Islamic society in the middle-east strikes me. The physicality in general I observed made me witful about how much of that we have lost in modern living.
In large, modern cities we live largely individualistic and anonymous lives, barely recognizing our neighbors. Perhaps out of necessity, we hold ourselves rigid, closed off from others outside the privacy of our own four walls. We use words, euphemisms, and slanted obfuscations to communicate over our physical presence and expressions. As adults we have largely lost our body-freedoms from childhood. Our body’s expressive range becomes curtailed, and our body wisdom is increasingly shut down. Gut feelings? Downplayed. We are educated to diminish the small but irrepressible signals our body gives us about its ‘unease’, and rely on medical evidence and doctors’ diagnoses about our bodies, by which time ‘disease’ has often set in. (No wonder so many people have chronic pains, illnesses, and sicknesses—manifestations of long-ignored signs of imbalance in our bodies.)
In the much smaller circle of a Himba society, psycho-social ills can hardly be buried and manifest as negative energy in the body. Life is communal, not individual. This is not a sedentary society where people are trapped in chairs, this is a body of constant motion, of constant work, relationship with others, communing with children, and constant dance.
The Himba’s huts are made with wooden poles plastered with a mixture of dried clay and dung. Nearby are little thatched ramadas where the women pick through seeds and prepare food, store utensils, and lounge with their children out of the sun.
The little Himba children lost interest very quickly in the stiff adults walking around, examining bead necklaces. They played around the cattle pens. You had the sense there was a close understanding between the animals and the children, a connection built on the empathy and playfulness of children and animals together.
The constant proximity of animals and children probably introduces bacteria into the children’s guts some of which promote stronger immunity and some of which causes other intestinal issues. Some of children’s malnutrition in African settings where children are close to animals is attributed to the gut bacteria that prevent proper nutrition absorption. Yet these children, animated, vibrant, tugging at each other, and tumbling in sheer childhood delight do not seem to me to be in the least ‘impoverished’. They are surrounded and raised by women who are proud of their culture and wear their culture as a means of creating their own livelihoods. I just hope their education brings them awareness of what they have in their early bonds rather than take them away from it.
This was admittedly a somewhat awkward anthropological encounter with the Himba on their home territory. It was simultaneously authentic and somewhat affected with a mutual expectation of profit. We wouldn’t have met these women in their homes unless we had been tourist bussed there, under a tourist contract. Yet they welcomed us as a source of income. The put-on hospitality and initial cultural barrier quickly melted as we spent time with each other. I felt slightly voyeuristic, but I was certain and comfortable that our interaction was mutual. We had met as a result of a small thread of colonial history, their traditions, and our modern economic realities.
It was quite alright really. We had met as human beings from two different cultures. I felt moved by their smiles, graciousness, the universal language of mothers and babies, their commanding and open body language, the way they carried themselves and their way of life. I felt my eyes were opened for having witnessed this traditional way of life, albeit in a thoroughly modern context.