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Humbled by the Himba

June 17th, 2009 3 comments

I often consider what life would be like if things were more simple. So much of our everyday life seems consumed by effort that yields little in the way of personal or social benefit. Our modern culture creates a unique framework for the allocation of our energy and time. One that is arguably inefficient and flawed in providing a sustainable lifestyle that nourishes our collective and individual needs.

For this reason, I was enthusiastically looking forward to visiting one of the few remaining nomadic and pastoral cultures in the world – The Himba of Northern Namibia. The Himba of Kaokoland in the extreme northwestern part of Namibia are closely related to the Herero tribe who in the 17th and 18th century migrated from the East to what is now known as Namibia. They are a Nomadic people who breed cattle and goats, and use these livestock as a metric for assessment of their relative wealth. Each village/family will share in the benefit of these animals, using their milk and their meat as nutrition for the entire village. The Himba are monotheistic, worshiping the god Mukuru. Each village will maintain an ancestral fire which serves as a place of worship and prayer. This fire is visited every 7-8 days by the village fire-keeper who will pray on behalf of the village to both the god Mukuru as well as ancestors of the family. Located close to the cattle pen, this is a very sacred space for the Himba. During our visit to the village, we were asked to please not tread in this area.

Three Himba villages were near our camp. Two were very close, only involving a 20-30 minute drive to reach. The other was a bit further, being about a two to three hour drive. We arrived at the first and closest village at sunset. As we arrived, the children were walking back to the village, their silhouettes casting long shadows across the golden grasses. It is common in African culture to hold hands as a sign of deep friendship, and many of these children were holding hands as they approached the village.

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The women of the camp were all sitting in the shade to escape the heat of the sun. The Himba women create a paste of ochre and milkfat with which they cover their skin to create a natural sunscreen. They also use this mixture to braid their hair in very ornamental braids, the style of which will communicate the maturity and marital status of the individual. This group of women seemed to be put off a bit by our presence, so I respectfully let my camera rest over my shoulder, and asked our guide (who is also Himba) about this observation. He assured us that we should not take this personally. The Himba are a very private people and not necessarily gregarious in their interactions with Westerners. I asked him how to greet the Himba in their local tongue. As we did our best to replicate this phrase as accurately as possible, we observed smiles and eye contact that validated what the guide had told us. I asked by pointing at my camera if it would be okay to take some pictures, to which I received a smile and a nod. I had been chomping at the bit to photograph this amazingly exotic scene in front of me, and felt a sigh of relief in knowing that I was being respectful in my intrusion into their world. I started capturing images…

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We learned that in the few days prior to our arrival that many of the boys in the village had been circumcised. Noting that this did not seem like the most sanitary of conditions, I asked how they managed the obvious risk of infection. I was shown a Tamarisk tree, and Steve, our guide, pulled some of the green needles from the tree, crushing them in his hand. “We crush these needles into a fine powder, combining it with the milkfat to create an antibiotic ointment” Steve said. I’m always intrigued by these natural remedies, as I sometimes think that we put too much faith in chemical-based medicines so common in our Western culture. The Himba have learned over the course of many generations to find local remedies to common human ailments. With no medical facilities within several hundred miles, it is imperative to be able to live locally and off the fruits of their surroundings.

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The Himba people of this village are accustomed to trading jewelery and crafts with the visiting guests. At our request, they all brought out there various goods so that we could shop. Spreading out decorative blankets onto the Kalahari sand, the landscape of the village quickly changed from a place of rest and reprieve form the sun to a scene more like a bustling local market. Beads, baskets, and copper bracelets were all laid out for our inspection. The craftsmanship and authenticity of these items was obvious, and unlike may other trading markets I had visited in Africa, this one was without pressure or influence. We drifted from blanket to blanket admiring the work of these women. Raven selected a nicely woven basket, and after inquiring about the price, found herself a nice reminder of this amazing place. With a burst of enthusiasm and excitement, the women all cheered at the purchase. This response took me by surprise as it was so different from tone of the village upon our arrival. Perhaps the people of the village were warming to our presence, or were they simply excited about the purchases that we had made? I’d like to think the former, but it was likely the later…

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We departed this village to visit another that was located only a few hundred meters from the first. As we approached, I could see that a man was present in this village – something that was missing from the last village. We learned that many of the men were off with the herds of goats and cattle, leading them to fertile grass and water, both of which were visibly absent from the region immediately surrounding the villages. As we arrived, the man was sitting in a chair, and the woman was outside the hut smoking a pipe of tobacco. The light was fading quickly, so I knew that I did not have much time to shoot…

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Steve showed us what was for dinner. I claimed to be a vegetarian…

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As we departed the village to make our way back to camp, we offered our best effort at a Himba goodbye, and headed off. As the light was fading, we could see the children of the first camp playing on the sand dunes near the village. As they giggled and laughed, pulling each other down the dunes, I thought about the essence of a good life and the origins of daily happiness. By our Western standards, we might be inclined to feel pity for these people – to see only what was lacking by comparison. To assume this hypothesis, I determined, would be to miss the true essence of what was happening. The giggles and laughs coming from those dunes were sincere and heartfelt. More than that, they communicated a true happiness. A happiness that is often lacking in even the most wealthy and fortunate of those in the Western world…

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Tomorrow – More Himba from the village furthest from the camp.

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