Tony Park encountered members of the Himba tribe on a rafting adventure along the Kunene River. Here, he reflects on these people’s way of life, survival skills, beliefs and how they are coping in a modern world
Water. You don’t know how much you’ll miss it until you’ve spent a week in the deserts of north-western Namibia. The Kunene may not be Africa’s biggest waterway, but by the time we reach it, this blue border between Namibia and Angola is like a gift from the gods. Kunene River Lodge is an oasis of palm-shaded campsites, green lawns and high-pressure showers, but the river and Epupa Falls, whose tumbling roar is like music to our sand-clogged ears, is also a life-giving artery for the semi-nomadic Himba people.
My first up-close encounter with the Himba was in a supermarket in the regional town of Opuwo. A mother was walking down the aisle, a toddler in tow, pushing a trolley and talking to a friend on a cell phone. She was topless, wearing a skirt made of cow skins and sandals cut from old car tyres. Her elaborate headdress was shaped to resemble a cow’s horns and her skin, head to toe, was covered in a rich, red paste. The paste, otjize, is made from red ochre, butter and the fragrant resin of the omuzumba bush, and serves as a skin lotion and protection against the sun.
Their hairstyles vary depending on sex, age and social status. Young boys have a single plait shaped to point backwards; while young girls have two plaits facing forwards. Married women wear the more elaborate erembe headdress, sculpted from otjize and sheepskin. Cattle are the centre of the Himba’s subsistence lifestyle and wealth, and villages are moved in search of grazing. Their diet mostly consists of a porridge made of maize and milk; meat, from goats and, less frequently, cows, is consumed sparingly.
While they gravitate to big towns, such as Opuwo, during times of drought, most members of this tribe of about 50,000 people live without mobile phone coverage or electricity in the harsh, remote Kunene Region, formerly known as Kaokoland. With a little more than two million souls, Namibia has the world’s second-lowest population density (after Mongolia) — just 2.6 people per square kilometre. Kunene has only one person for every two square kilometres. The Himba’s homelands extend across the Kunene River into neighbouring Angola, and they have a special dispensation to cross the border at will.
Rather than rely on a village tour, I decide to seek out a couple of local people and talk to them, while I’m waiting to go whitewater rafting on the Kunene River. I’m keen to learn if the Himba’s traditional way of life is sustainable in the 21st century.
Twenty-seven-year-old Sam Ndiaombe is a freelance guide, dressed in board shorts and T-shirt. The only thing that indicates he is an OmuHimba (the singular form of Himba) is the fact that he had his lower front teeth knocked out as part of his passage to adulthood. “With a stick and a stone,” Sam tells me, pointing to the gap. “It was very painful, but if you keep your teeth the other kids will laugh at you.”
It’s the opposite, Sam said, for some Himba who leave their traditional life to seek employment in the cities. “I know a guy who became a teacher; he got false teeth, so he could speak English better.”
Namibia has adopted English as its official language and it’s in the classroom where young Himba children will first be introduced into the wider world. In Sam’s day, there were tented mobile schools, funded by the Norwegian government, that followed the Himba on their roving travels, but the Namibian authorities phased these out. Sam completed his schooling in faraway Opuwo where he was made to scrub off the otjize paste, wear western clothes and live in a boarding hostel. “They said we had to be ‘clean’. I felt very bad when I had to give up my traditional dress. I cried, but I got used to it.” He told me his parents had decided to send him to school so that he would get a formal education and, later, a job, so that he could support the family. His siblings stayed in the bush to learn the Himba’s traditional ways.
Some families still choose not to send all their children to school, but Katjairua Tjambiru, also known as Shorty, is adamant his three daughters and one son will all go to school. Shorty, 31, has two wives and works as a scullery hand at Wilderness Safaris’ comfortable Serra Cafema Camp downstream on the Kunene. Through a translator (the food and beverage manager, Future Mbuende), Shorty tells me his eldest daughter goes to a community school within walking distance of the family’s kraal. Times have changed and she is allowed to wear traditional attire in the classroom. “It’s important for us to keep our customs alive,” he says through Future, “so that generations yet to come know who they are, and for the Earth to know they exist. If I raise them well enough, my children will learn but they will also retain their culture.”
The Himba’s traditions revolve around men and women fulfilling their roles in the community as they have done for generations. Women wake before dawn to milk the cattle and then the men take the livestock out to graze while the women look after the children and cook. They live in dome-shaped huts made of mopane-tree branches plastered with mud and dung, and both men and women help with the building. The headman of the village is responsible for keeping a sacred fire burning in each kraal.
Knowing there is a bigger world beyond the kraal and pastures doesn’t always make life easier. Shorty said that whereas his people would have relied on their traditional healers in the past if they fell sick, now they know modern healthcare is available. “The problem is that it’s hard to travel maybe 300km to get to a facility; our donkeys can’t reach town and we have no cell phone signal to call for help,” Shorty says.
Another impact on traditional life is the lure of the outside world to young men, who leave the bush for jobs in the city. This can lead to a gender imbalance with women having to take on work traditionally done by their men. The issue for the Himba is not whether they can live in isolation, nor whether a traditional lifestyle is intrinsically ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than assimilation into that wider world, but the pace and way in which change happens. “The white people and the Himba are two different cultures,” Shorty says, “but they can learn from each other. The white person needs to learn to get away from the cell phone network when they come to Serra Cafema, but the Himba needs to learn that it’s OK to change our dress code because if we wear shoes, they’re comfortable. We can’t stay behind forever.”
One aspect of modernity that has threatened to have an impact on Himba life was a plan by the governments of Namibia and Angola to build a hydroelectric dam on the Kunene River, which would have flooded their grazing land and graves. The plan has reportedly been shelved for now, but the spectre of change on the river still looms and opinion is divided, even among the Himba. Shorty is not opposed to the concept. “A dam would bring electricity to everyone, including the lodge where we work and people visit.” Sam, meanwhile, is not sold. “What do we need with electricity? We have fire.”
Drifting in the Kunene’s current is a sublime way to view the countryside after days of driving on dusty roads and in dry riverbeds. Following some basic tuition from veteran river guide Johannes Jafet we launch our two-person inflatable raft and, after a couple of prangs into the bank, are more or less on course.
Johannes reminds us when to paddle and when to pause and look for crocodiles. We hear a splash and see the ripples, but our raft manages to turn itself 180 degrees and we are heading backwards when the reptile launches itself into the river. We laugh and try to concentrate on staying straight and keep an eye out for crocs and some of the Kunene’s special birds, including the grey kestrel, rufous-tailed palm thrush and the rare Cinderella waxbill.
The rapids on this stretch of the Kunene range from grade two to four. Class two consists of some rough water and maybe rocks — basic paddling skill required. We’ve never rafted in whitewater before and our skills turn out to be less than basic, but it’s fun. Johannes has a coolbox and we stop for snacks and soft drinks.
Fortified, we follow Johannes and brace ourselves for the grade four rapid, known as Birthday Shoot. Grade four, I’ve read, means: ‘whitewater, medium waves, maybe rocks, maybe a considerable drop and exceptional rafting experience is needed’. “Paddle!” Johannes yells. We scream, we attempt to paddle and we surge through, rocking and rolling through the spray.
The water’s cool and we’re pretty damp, but as the adrenaline subsides and we glide back to Kunene River Lodge and the promise of a cold beer under a palm tree, I can see why the Himba want to keep this little corner of Africa just as it is.
✓ Do find out who the headman is and greet him first.
✓ Do shake hands as a sign of respect — simply nodding your head is viewed as offensive.
✓ Do maintain eye contact.
✓ Do ask about the Himba’s lifestyle and culture — show you are interested.
✗ Do not touch someone’s jewellery without asking via your guide.
✗ Do not approach a village without an introduction from a guide who has introduced you.
✗ Do not take pictures without permission.
✗ Do not enter people’s homes without an invitation.
✗ Do not donate items of western clothing or toys.
✗ Do not expect the Himba to understand your language; it’s better to ask for assistance from your guide or translator.
• Getting there British Airways and Lufthansa code-share with Air Namibia to Windhoek via Frankfurt, and South African Airways and Virgin Atlantic fly via Johannesburg. Wilderness Safaris operates its own internal air service to its network of lodges throughout Namibia. With its excellent roads, Namibia is also an ideal self-drive destination. Several companies offer fully kitted-out 4WDs, which are recommended for the Kunene Region.
• Where to stay For self-drivers on a budget, Kunene River Lodge offers affordable rooms and camping; you can arrange rafting trips from here. If your budget stretches to fly-in, check out Wilderness Safaris’ isolated Serra Cafema Camp. Visits to Himba villages can be organised from most lodges in the region.
• When to go The wet season in Kunene runs from October to March. Winter months are clear, dry and warm.
• Health Malaria is present in northern Namibia along the Kunene River, so seek advice about prophylaxis. Also ensure all necessary vaccinations are up-to-date prior to your trip.
• Further reading A History of Namibia by Marion Wallace; An Empty Coast by Tony Park.
• Watch online Don’t miss the TED Talk by John Kasaona, a Himba who was raised in the Kunene Region