SLEEPING QUATERS: The thatched Himba huts are made from wood and a mixture of cow dung and mud.
RED LOCKS: The Himba women cover themselves in vibrant red ochre. including their hair.
Kaokoland – it sounds like some magical place in a children’s story book or a kingdom where chocolate grows on trees, but this wilderness area in northwestern Namibia is neither.
The region is home to the Himba people, or more correctly the Ovahimba, a tribe of nomadic pastoralists descended from Herero herders who fled to the area following their displacement by a rival tribe.
The main access to Kaokoland is through the settlement of Opuwo, a typical frontier town that is rapidly becoming the commercial hub of the region.
Not surprisingly, in the local language of Otjiherero, Opuwo means The End, and rightly so, for beyond the town’s northwestern perimeter is a harsh wasteland of rutted tracks and arid landscapes.
In a hired car, I drive over 50 kilometres on gravel roads, dodging wandering livestock and surviving the washboard-like corrugations which endlessly rattle my bones until reaching the bliss of a newly tarred road that leads the last 20 or so kilometres into the town.
Sporting a couple of petrol stations, a few stores and a proliferation of booze shops, this dusty town is the melting pot and meeting place of the local Herero people, the Himba and the Zemba, a dark-skinned tribe from nearby Angola.
I check into one of the few accommodation places in town and then head off on foot to explore. A flurry of pick-up trucks cruise by, kicking up a swirling dust and choking the air with grit.
The town is bustling, people are everywhere. I pass several regal-looking Herero women wearing their distinctive traditional Victorian dress, shawl and elongated hat.
The multiple layers of petticoats worn under their dresses form a sweeping, swaying capacious mass that fills the pavements of the town as the women walk by. This perplexing attire is a legacy from the 1880s when missionaries introduced clothing to cover the tribal women’s nakedness.
Turning onto the main street I am confronted with a group of Himba women, their skin swathed in vibrant otjize, a cream of rancid butterfat and red ochre powder that is scented with the aromatic resin of a local tree.
Their breasts are bare, their braids of hair hang encased in red clay, and they wear only a small goat-leather apron, a loincloth, draped from the waist.
Around their necks they wear a collection of coloured beads and finely woven loops of leather thong, the weave almost hidden by a clogging accumulation of red ochre.
Below the woven loops, elaborate body adornments hang across their chests. Some of the women cry out to me “Photo, photo”. Sadly the demands of the tourists’ cameras have outweighed their welcome and now the Himba and other local tribes-people prefer to trade their captured image for cash.
Later in the day I visit a supermarket and experience a totally surreal situation. As if in a time warp, I walk the aisles with a group of naked Himba women, their red ochred skin blazing under the fluorescent lights as they collect food items off the shelves. At the checkout counter they gather behind me and return my greeting of “Tjike” with laughing smiles and flashes of stunning white teeth.
Back at my lodgings I arrange for a Himba man named Mati to be my guide for a visit to a village, some 30km beyond the town.
We set off early the next morning with several boxes of commodities for the village. Mati has selected some corn meal, cooking oil, a small bag of coffee and some other basics including salt and some fresh fruit.
At the edge of town the road immediately deteriorates. Dry riverbeds provide a challenging obstacle as we are forced to a tedious crawl, clambering up and down their eroded banks and bouncing heavily over the rough terrain.
After an hour of driving, Mati eases the vehicle off the rough road, over a couple of ditches and then through scrubland, heading towards some low hills. Ahead there are scatterings of trees and then a cluster of huts appear on the distant landscape.
The thatched Himba huts are made from a wooden frame that is then plastered with a mixture of cow dung and mud. The huts are generally quite small and only used for sleeping. Cooking and socialising occurs under other structures that have thatched canopies and open sides.
Each small settlement is usually made up of just one large extended family. The Himba are a semi-nomadic pastoral people, moving with their herds of cattle and goats throughout the year to different grazing places depending on available waterholes and pasture for their livestock. They always return to their settlements as pastures and seasons allow.
We pull up beyond the outer ring of the village beside a kraal used to secure the livestock at night. It is made of sun-bleached twisted wood, entangled to form a fence.
I wait as Mati goes to find the headman, then minutes later he beckons me. I am introduced to Karamata who shakes my hand and looks me over through bloodshot eyes. He has a small shining spear-like object tucked behind his ear.
I ask what it is and in response he extracts a bone canister from his belt, withdraws an end plug and pushes the tiny spear head into it, emerging with a small mound of grey powder which he immediately draws into his nostril. Mati tells me it is a form of snuff that Karamata quizzically says can sometimes ease the ache of his bad back.
The headman asks if I have any powerful medicine. I tell him that I too sometimes have a bad back. I mimic the ailment with a facial grimace and by putting my hand on my hip and arching my back at which he laughs in sympathy. He expresses satisfaction with the gift of a few painkillers that I give him.
With formalities over, I am free to roam the village which seems to have only women and young children present. The men and teenagers, including the girls, are out collecting firewood and water or tending livestock in the surrounding countryside. One old woman is busy stirring a pot of porridge made from maize and milk, the staple diet of the Himba. Beef is occasionally eaten but as their cattle represent wealth, goat meat is more common in their diet.
The women, all covered in the vibrant red ochre, acknowledge my presence but seem reluctant to interact until I pull out a wad of photos showing my home and family.
Barriers are immediately broken down as they delight in seeing images of my daughters and grandchildren. Young pre-pubescent girls with their distinctive hairstyle of matted double braids projecting down over their face, emerge shyly from the huts to look at the photos.
Mati tells me that both girls and boys are usually circumcised before puberty and that marriages are arranged at a daughter’s birth. Marriage usually occurs when the girl is between 14 and 17 years old.
Two of the women are sisters. One is called Jamoquena. I tell her they must be twins as they both look so alike covered in ochre. They think this is hilarious and call out to the other women to share the joke. Jamoquena has a series of twelve braided leather rings around her neck and an elaborate chest piece made from a patterned seashell, beaten copper, studs of metal and worked leather.
An hour or so later as we prepare to depart, the people of the village gather around. Four of the women walk with us to the vehicle to collect the gift of food that we have brought for them. Karamata calls out “Karepo nawa” (keep well) and then with apparent ease, the women hoist the heavy sack of pap (corn meal) and boxes of goods onto their heads and farewell us with appreciative smiles.
For this minority tribal group that makes up less than one per cent of the population of Namibia, the future will hold many challenges. Having faced war and severe drought, threats of loss of land from a proposed hydro dam, urban drift of their young men and the growing attraction of a cash economy, the Himba could easily be drawn away from their traditional lifestyle.
I can only hope that these remarkable people and their culture can survive the bevy of inevitable changes that they will continue to face.
*The author was given permission by the headman to publish the images of the village people.
He sent a packet of photos to Opuwo that were collected by Mati and taken to the village.
They were received with amazement and much enthusiasm.