Then and Now: The Herero

In the afternoon of the same day we met the Himba, Weston, the owner of the campsite we were staying at in Opuwo, took us to see the Herero tribe. Though now they are easily distinguishable, the Herero and Himba are the same ethnicity, at least originally.

Spiritual Trifecta

Before the colonists arrived in Namibia, there was the Herero tribe: bare chested, ochre dyed, animal tending tribes who shared one language and one culture, tradition and beliefs.

The Herero believe in one god, Mukuru, but also place a great importance on the ancestors. There is a sacred fire near the centre of each village where about once a week the fire keeper sets it alight and communicates with the ancestors and Mukuru. The Herero also believe in omiti or witchcraft and make use of witch doctors.

herero sacred fire
The sacred fire in a Herero village

A Brief History

The Herero entered present day Namibia sometime around 1600 and later when the Nama people arrived, they began to war with them. Much later the Germans arrived, and in an attempt to put down an uprising by both the Herero and Nama, genocide was committed against the Herero people. About 65,000 of the 80,000 Herero perished after being pursued into the desert, away from the last watering holes.

herero boys
Two Herero boys on the steps.

At some point, some of the Herero fled to Angola where, without their livestock, they turned to begging various Angolan tribes for provisions to survive. In Angola, one tribe’s word for beggar was himba, and the name stuck. When large numbers of the new Himba returned to Namibia they found that the Herero who didn’t flee had abandoned many of their customs.

A New Culture

herero woman sewing dress
Herero woman sewing a traditional dress.

The women, of whom many worked as servants and housemaids to German families, adopted their own version of their madams’ dresses. They wear up to seven slips under a finely pleated dress and apron. Because the Herero did still tend cattle and count them as a measure of wealth, the women fashioned their hats to represent their pride and dependence on cows and shaped them into horns.

The Herero also adopted a square and rectangular housing design, but some retained the same method of construction featuring dung. Their villages still center around the sacred fire and while witchcraft and animism are still practiced, most Herero identify themselves as Christians.

herero house
Moreno with Herero boys and grandmother

So the Himba are the real Herero culturally, but the Herero managed to retain the name of their people despite embracing some western values and identity.  Don’d be shy about referring to the Himba as such though, they are fiercely proud of that name and what it identifies with.

Today the Herero and Himba and basically all of Namibia’s many ethnicities get along well and there is no longer any serious conflict.

A Day in a Traditional Himba Village

To visit or not to visit?

Weston, who owns the Orreness Campsite where we had spent the night, agreed to take us on a tour of a Himba village.

We had read about the Himba, a tradition people who walked around bare-chested and covered in red ochre, but had some deliberation about going to see their villages.  I pictured a scene in my head of bus loads of white tourists shoving long telephoto lenses in the faces of traditional people.  The term human zoo comes to mind.

I raised our concern with Weston, himself a Himba man, and he assured us that while there are some “hollywood” villages, he would take us about 30kms to some more traditional ones.  The people in the villages we would go to are actually “honoured to have guests from all over the world come to visit their homes and villages” said Weston, adding “a village without visitors is not a village”.  We were satisfied and set out.

Do as a Good Guest Does

himba shopping
Our shopping cart filled with provisions as a gift to the Himba.

Stop one was to a grocer to buy some gifts.  Its customary and good manners to not show up empty handed.  We buy two sacks of something akin to cornmeal, cooking oil, bread, tea, sugar and a small bag of sweets for the children.  The provisions are to be divided equally among the whole village by one of the chief’s wives.  We drive along a dusty road and stop in at several villages to see if there are any people there to visit.  The first village is empty save for two old women who tell Weston that the next village has more people in it.  The Himba are semi-nomadic and follow their cattle, sheep and goats to water and pastures.  The next village was about half occupied.

Getting to Know Each Other

We arrived and Weston instructed us to wait in the Landy while he pays respect to the chief, in this case the chief’s first wife, and asked for permission for our visit.  We were granted that.  Asking is just out of respect, much as you’d say hello and ask to come in rather than barge in on a neighbour.

herero chief
“The Boss” Himba  chief wannabe

To begin, we visit the elderly first wife of the chief to show respect. She thanks us for visiting and asks some questions of us:

“Are we married?  How many children do we have?  How many wives do I have?”  The Himba are polygamous.  “How old we are?  Where we are from?  And what is Canada like?”  She was genuinely curious about her visitors and most interested in how it is possible for Kat and I to live together and yet have no kids. I sheepishly informed her that “We are quite careful” and left it at that.

Weston took us next to meet two women who were happy to show off their cow skin skirts and leather aprons.  We are shown their ankle bracelets which serve to indicate if a woman has had children and how many.  They also wear a leather headdress which identifies a woman who has arrived at child bearing age.  There is a lot of thought and work put into their clothing and seeing it up close was quite interesting.

The Himba Shower

Next we are invited into a home to watch as one of the younger Himba women is preparing to colour herself.  The Himba are easily recognizable by their reddish skin colouring.  The woman sits on a cow hide in her dark but refreshingly cool hut made of sticks, mud and cow dung and is grinding ochre with stones into a fine powder. She then mixes the red powder with butter fat and rubs it into her skin and hair.  She instantly becomes shiny and bright reddish brown.

Himba breastfeeding
Young Himba woman breastfeeds her toddler.

This covering serves to protect the skin in such a dry climate, keep them clean and defend against mosquitos.  She then places some small pieces of a plant root found locally onto a tiny smouldering pile of coals from the night’s fire and the hut is filled with incense.  She bathes and deodorizes in the smoke.  The Himba think its ludicrous that we whites bathe with water so often, spray prefume and roll on deodorant.  Now she is clean and put together for a day in the Himba village.  Her one year old grabs hold of her breast and has a suckle.  His face is covered in red when he’s finished.

Little Adults

himba baby
Moreno with a Himba baby.

Something that stands out to me in the Himba village and in many places in the developing world is how well behaved the children are.  Its rare to hear a child cry and when they do its often due to a legitimate pain or as a very brief way to let mother know the child is hungry.  Once a Himba child is old enough to walk, he is already immersed in the responsibilities of tending to livestock.  Boys as young as five already take small herds of kids or lambs out of the village corral and to far away pastures.  Boys around ten can be seen many miles away from their homes with larger herds of larger animals.

himba hair
Himba children’s’ hair styles.

Only about 30% of Himba children go to school, but after seeing how their culture works and how they live within their means, I find myself questioning whether they could actually benefit from modern schooling.  How many ten year olds in the west are as practical or responsible or even as happy as a Himba boy with his animals?  Sure our children in Canada are tech savy enough to bypass the parental controls on the family computer so he can post to facebook, but can he plough a field, monitor 50 animals or fix the village water pump?  The children of the Himba seemed satisfied in life.

We are From a Cold Country

When we leave the freshly coloured woman’s hut we are invited to sit with some of the other women under a shade.  They shake hands and we all introduce ourselves.  Right away they comment to each other and Weston translates, “Kat’s skin and your skin are so cold”.  We laugh and tell them “We are from a cold country”.  They laugh back and tell us we “must let ourselves be warmed by the African sun”.

himba women touching
Himba women touch Kat to see if she is cold.

Sitting with the women and a few children is a highlight for me.  They seem quite casual and nonchalant.  They ask genuine questions like “Did your parents use something to pinch our noses as children so that they would grow so narrow?”  They are very interested in Kat’s piercings and ask if they hurt.  The Himba don’t pierce.

kats tongue
Kat showing her piercing to the Himba women

We are asked again how many wives, children, age and I’m even asked if I would like to marry a Himba.  The one next to me confesses a crush on me.  We share many laughs through translation and hand signals.

himba concubine
Moreno’s Himba concubine, just kidding. [Kat’s edit: Himba-Selfie!!]

Week 6: Damaraland – Africa Anticipated

This week in Namibia we head north through the Skeleton coast up to the Angolan border.

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Skeleton Coast

After leaving creepy Mile 108, we finally made it to the infamous Skeleton Coast. We didn’t have reservations to stay within the park, so the guard had to turn on the generator to turn on the phones to call the lodge there to make sure there was room for us! He also made us take a package to give someone there, it was all very mysterious.

The Skeleton Coast is ‘infamous’ because of all the shipwrecks, but it was a bit of a disappointment. We actually only saw one, but assuming we’d see hundreds we didn’t even stop to take a photo of it! *facepalm

oil rig
The only thing we really saw at the Skeleton Coast: a rusty, derelict oil rig

Damaraland

The next day we left the windy coast and quickly started peeling off the layers as we entered the Damaraland province of Namibia. All of a sudden it looked like the Africa I know from the Lion King, it was magnificent. If only we had spotted wild elephants, it would’ve been the Africa I’ve always imagined.

damaraland
Damaraland…

We visited Twyfelfontein, one of Namibia’s World Heritage Sites, and one of the biggest rock engravings sites on the continent, carved for centuries by the San bushmen (who the Damara people descended from).

giraffe rock engraving
A giraffe engraving at Twyfelfontein

And then it happened. We got to a very cheap bush camp, glad to save some money, when someone told us desert elephants were around. And we saw elephants!! In the wild! Just…doing their thing! Moreno’s writing a post on our little adventure with them, but it was amazing, and I don’t think the image I’ve had in my head all these years could’ve played out any better.

elephants
Elephants everywhere! There ended up being about 20 of them.

The next day we headed north. And look! Giraffes! Three of them, and they were so beautiful. It was a bit ironic that we managed to get closer to some of these animals in the wild than in the parks we’ve been to so far.

Opuwo

We didn’t mean to stay in Opuwo, but man, are we glad we did. It’s a little town, with not much in it, but it was the first one not overrun by tourists (which was a bit overwhelming in itself) and the town was filled with a mishmash of different African cultures: some people were in modern ‘americanized’ clothing, the Herero women were in their Victorian style dresses, and the Himba women, painted in red ochre, were bare-chested in not much more than a cow hide skirt.

house in herero viillage
Moreno takes selfies with the kids, while a Herero woman patches a wall of her house

It was extraordinary, and we decided to stay another day and visit some villages to learn more about them.

getting up on a donkey
Children in the Himba village prepare to go fetch water from a nearby hill

And, bonus! We met another long-term overlander, Brian from London, later that night and he had a saw Moreno could use to fix our “cabinet can’t open without hip-checking the fridge” problem. Yaaay!

moreno sawing cabinet
Moreno fixing our cabinet door…by sawing off one of the corners

Epupa Falls

Then it was further north, to Epupa Falls, which appeared an oasis in the desert as we came over another dusty hill.

moreno at epupa falls
Token pose in front of the falls

It was easily one of the most beautiful places we’ve been so far on this trip, and it gave us an extra kick to know that Angola was just across the river.

kat at epupa falls
Taking it all in…

Now and Next

We are currently in Kamanjab, doing nothing but hiding from the heat and catching up on some interwebs. They let overlanders stay free as long as we support them by eating at their bar/restaurant. No complaints here.

Next: We’ll be here for another few days and then instead of heading to the Etosha Game Park as we intended, we might be heading back south to Windhoek, the capital, to get that Landy snorkel looked at, and get some passport things figured out.

And AND! Since we’re all caught up on the updates now (for now anyway), we’ll be concentrating on getting posts and photos out about all these things we’ve been mentioning (when my laptop works anyway). (Sidebar: god, I miss my mac).

Till then!