We followed John around the grocery store as he loaded the cart with sugar, salt, cooking oil, maize meal, soup packets, matches, petroleum jelly, tea bags, and hard candy. Everyone here knows what’s happening, I thought. We’re traipsing around with a uniformed tour guide who’s hefting 10kg sacs of maize into our cart without blinking. What do these people think of the white tourists who take food to the Himba? Do they resent us or the people that we’re going to visit? Do they appreciate the money tourists bring to this corner of Namibia? Are we quickening the destruction of a traditional way of life by showing up in a village and providing foodstuffs the residents can’t otherwise afford? Am I being a responsible tourist by paying a guide to take us out to a village?
At the register, a bare-breasted Himba woman joins the line behind us. John is selecting small packets of headache and cold medicine. I’m trying to soak in the moment, creating a mental picture of the scene without staring. It isn’t every day I see so many differently attired ethnic groups in one place. A Herero woman is in the next checkout aisle, her conservative Victorian-era dress and hat contrasting the animal hides, bare breasts, and ochre-dyed skin of the Himba behind us. A little further off I can see a Zemba woman in what looks like a sports bra and mini skirt, her abdomen exposed below her brightly colored bra. When I walk by a few minutes later, I realize the skirt is leather and she sports handmade bracelets on her wrists. All around are people in “normal” dress: long pants, short-sleeve shirts, hats to keep the sun off their faces. It’s a scene one encounters on the streets and in the shops of Opuwo daily. But one that I would be rude to capture on camera. So all I can do is try to preserve the moment and hope that the notes I’ll scribble in the car as we drive away will be enough to jog my memory. When our bill exceeds the N$300 we agreed to spend (about $19), John looks to us for guidance. We remove the bag of candy and the third kilo of sugar, happy to contribute less to the woes of a people who may never have heard of a dentist.
Although the Himba make up less than 1% of Namibia’s population, photos of the traditionally attired women appear in countless tourism brochures, marketing pieces, and postcards around the country. The women typically wear nothing more than animal hides and handmade jewelry. They coat their skin with a paste of ground ochre and fat. They braid their hair, add extensions, and wrap the braids with a clay ochre mix that stays in place for four months. Water is incredibly scarce so bathing isn’t common practice. Sheepskin pelts, goatskin, and cowhide leather are used to make skirts, hair accessories, belts, and sandals. An erembe like the one worn by the tallest woman in the photo below indicates that she is married. The other women have smaller headdresses and have likely been married longer. Most metal bracelets and jewelry are obtained through trades with the Zemba but the bracelets worn around the ankles are Himba made. When all jewelry is accounted for, a Himba woman may be wearing up to 12kg (26.5 lbs) of decoration. But no shirt.
I suppose I should back up here and provide some information on who these people are and why I was visiting them. I’m not an expert so on this so if you know more than I, please correct or educate me in the comments. The Himba are polygamous, semi-nomadic people who count their wealth in cattle, live primarily in the northwest of Namibia, and once broke off from the Herero. Today, the two ethnic groups can communicate without problem and both can understand the language of the Zemba, who have recently started moving into Namibia from Angola. A Himba woman living near Opuwo can wind up married to a Herero man (or vice versa), an event that would require her to change her style of dress overnight. To give you an idea of the contrast in clothing styles, check out the woman in green in this photo:
The Himba live on the land, the men tending to goats, sheep, and cows while the women handle all other tasks of daily life. In years when the weather cooperates and where the land wasn’t rendered infertile by overgrazing cattle, the women grow squash, watermelon, corn, and other fruits and vegetables. Chickens rest in the shade below homes built on stilts. A meal of sour milk fermented in a calabash gourd is common and meat is rarely consumed more than once a month. A groom’s family typically pays three cows to a bride’s father. Girls can be promised in marriage well before puberty although the wedding itself waits until she comes of age. Legally, this means 18 or 21 depending on who you ask, and she must have the freedom to refuse. Whether those rights are actually recognized is something I’ll leave you to speculate.
Seeing how different people live – and have lived for hundreds or thousands of years – fascinates me. In Myanmar, it was incredible to visit tribes near Kyaing Tong, to sit with the shaman and his wife and learn about why their teeth are black by choice. There, the people were welcoming, willing to answer our questions, and ready to sell us textiles or anything they could. I felt a little odd about showing up with cameras and a guide but reminded myself that learning about how other cultures live, as long it’s done respectfully, can be good for everyone involved. Yet there, I don’t recall being asked many questions. We were the ones doing the learning. In Namibia, it was often hard to get a question in. The children immediately crowded around, reaching hands into our pockets, fingering our clothes, our bags, any item they could get their hands on. They weren’t trying to steal, just curious about what all these things were. Once we’d secured permission to walk around, they accompanied us everywhere, gripping our hands and touching our white skin. The children didn’t speak to us directly but they kept us busy until one of the chief’s wives invited us into her home.
Inside, she interrogated us about our lives, why neither of us has children, how long it took me to reach her village from my country, how long it took us to drive from Cape Town, whether we could take her with us to South Africa and make money by allowing people to take her photo. That last one surprised us, especially as she later sidled out of any photo in which she could be spotted. The chief had given us permission to photograph him, the village, and all of its residents but we continued to ask permission of those who would be in a shot. All requests were granted but often the older women quietly disappeared from the frame. Like children everywhere, these boys and girls loved seeing their photographs and eventually I had to pry the camera from their hands.
I wanted to sit down with their mothers to ask about their hair, their jewelry, and everything I felt I could ask without offending. The women were chattering away and our guide laughed along with them. No, the hairstyle doesn’t itch nor is the clay in their hair heavy. Yes, headpieces are removed for sleeping. Yes, they make everything they wear. Yes, they will get a ride to Opuwo if medical attention is needed. Much of what’s recounted in this post I learned from asking questions that day. Before we left, one of the women began grinding ochre, inviting us to record her doing so. Then she smeared a bit on our arms and my friend’s cheek. We joked about whether there was time to braid my hair. She suggested we pose for a photo together and then returned to her grinding and chatting. In the hours we’d been there, the sun beating harshly down, no one took a drink of water.
According to the chief we met, the old ways are dying and every year, more young people move into town, abandoning the tribe and its customs. He appreciated the food we brought and the medicine that would alleviate some of his wife’s arthritis-induced pain. But he’s sad to see his way of life disappearing. I wonder how many of the children I met that day will raise their own in the Himba’s pastoral ways; whether any will find her way to a school and wind up a doctor or engineer. And I wonder when the day will come that the Opuwo supermarket is filled only with people in western dress.