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Embracing the

Emma Thomson leaves her Western life at the door and ensconces herself in the traditional ways of the Himba on a unique homestay programme.

‘modernise’ the country. Then they were caught up in akuhara was beauteous. Her long copper-coloured the guerrilla warfare that accompanied Namibia’s bid for limbs were clasped in metal-beaded anklets, her independence, as well as in the fighting that spilled over hair had been carefully rolled to form dreads that the border during the Angolan civil war. fell around her full face, and between her bare The Himba are fiercely proud of their traditions and breasts hung a speckled conch shell. Indeed, all of when the Herero moved into the towns and chose to wear the chief’s eight wives at the Annabeb homestead bright billowing dresses and distinctive cattle horn-shaped in northern Namibia were Naomi Campbell-esque – my hats, the Himba stood by their heritage and continued stout Scottish legs and pale skin stood out like a hyena’s to don their goatskin skirts. Today, they continue to live among lionesses. in family enclosures: a circle of mud huts congregated Renowned for their elegance, Himba women spend around the okuruwo (ancestral fire) and a corral, which most mid-mornings applying otjize – a mixture of fat, ash protects their mobile wealth of cows and goats at night. and ochre – to their skin, brushing out the pom-pom ends To learn more about their lives, I joined a new fourof their braids, and rubbing ground wild sage around their day homestay that is run by Kunene Tours and Safaris. neck. But this isn’t just vanity. Everything has a practical On the first morning, the throaty crow of a cockerel purpose too: the anklets protect their legs from snakebites, dragged me from my sleeping bag. Kakuhara immediately the ochre paste shields their skin from the scorching sun, beckoned for me to come and help her collect the morning and the herbal sage makes up for not having enough water milk. As we entered the crowd of cows she grabbed to wash with. Living here is tough. one’s teats, tethered its hind legs, fell to Namibia’s Kunene region – formerly her haunches, pincered a hollowed-gourd known as Kaokoland – is the driest in TA between her knees, and started squeezing sub-Saharan Africa. Mother Nature scatters confident jets into the bowl’s bowels. Within a paltry couple inches of rain over this semia minute her gourd was full and it was my desert each year and occasionally forgets turn. I was quietly confident, having milked about it altogether. Between 1982 and 1987 a Mongolian yak some months earlier. How not a single drop of water fell here, creating a different could it be? My hands slipped and drought so severe that it killed 90 per cent of slid over the teats, bringing only a piddly the cattle. Emma Thomson, winner stream that dribbled over my knees and Resilience is hardwired into the Himba. of ‘Best in Responsible Tourism Writing’ at the feet. “She can’t milk,” giggled Kakuhara to Descended from the Herero, an ancient line 2012 World Responsible Simson, my translator. of semi-nomadic pastoralists, they have Tourism Awards, is a Belgian-based freelance After fifteen minutes of ineffectual suffered and survived several atrocities over travel writer. She is a tugging, Kakuhara took pity and pulled the past century. First they were victims of regular contributor to Travel Africa magazine. me away to introduce a woman from a genocide under German rule in 1904, when neighbouring homestead who had come 65,000 were murdered in an attempt to

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The Himba are fiercely proud of their traditions © UROSR


Anklets protect their legs from snakebites, the ochre paste shields their skin from the scorching sun, and the herbal sage makes up for not having enough water to wash with Summer 2013 Travel Africa 51

Above: Kakuhara making pap (porridge) Opposite, clockwise from top left: Grinding wild sage for perfume; mending the walls of Mama’s hut with a mixture of mud and cow dung; pap bubbling on the fire; brushing out braided hair extensions that we bought in town and then rolled in otijze; a traditional Himba dwelling made of branches and mud © All photography by EMMA THOMSON

to mend the walls of one of the mud huts. The two of us then wandered outside the compound to collect earth. Arriving at a shallow pit, we scratched the soil loose and scooped it into large washing-up bowls. The parched dirt was so dry it crumbled in our fingers, a result not just of dry weather but of overgrazing. The Communal Land Reform Act passed in 2002 allows any Namibian citizen to apply for, and receive, 20ha of land that sits within Himba territory. This ‘land grabbing’ has reduced the Himba’s grazing grounds so much so that the cattle are nibbling on practically nothing. With our bowls filled we wrestled them onto our heads – my vertebrae squashed like stacked plates. Outside the hut we sat on our haunches and mixed the soil with cow dung and water, massaging it into a sticky paste. The sulphurous fumes stung my eyes. Following her lead, I grabbed great handfuls of the earthy plaster and slapped it onto the walls, smearing it smooth with my palms. Despite the tough living conditions, the Himba are one of Africa’s most successful

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remaining pastoralist peoples, with 20,000– 50,000 living in Namibia today. However, like many tribal groups, they face mounting challenges to preserve their way of life. This homestay is one of a handful of steps communities are taking to guarantee their future and reassert their rights. As the sun slipped behind the mountains, I joined the wives who were shaking calabashes strung from the branches of a skeletal mopane tree. As I sat swirling and sloshing the container’s contents, converting cow milk to curds, I learned from Simson that several homesteads had been experiencing problems with unofficial tour guides turning up unannounced with groups, who would walk in, take pictures without permission and then leave without offering food gifts or purchasing anything. Reliant on the sale of handmade jewellery to buy sacks of pap (porridge) in town, the community can’t afford to send them away. To take control of the situation, the chief of Annabeb liaised with Kunene Tours to trial this homestay programme. The village receives 25 per cent of

the fee, but more importantly, it hands control back to community – they decide when they want guests and when they don’t. It provides not only a source of income, but also revives pride in tradition among younger generations. It is much more rewarding for visitors too. Previous interaction was limited to an hour’s bartering over jewellery. Uninvited visitors aren’t the only problem. Like any parents, the Himba want their children to receive an education, but not at the expense of their culture. In state-run schools, from grade four onwards, Himba pupils are forced to unbraid their dreads, dress in western uniform, and are taught solely in English. Adamant that they shouldn’t have to give up their traditions, parents often keep their children out of school because they’re afraid of them losing touch with their heritage and drifting into town, with its many corruptions, in search of work afterwards. What’s more, fixed schools don’t suit their nomadic lifestyle. In 1998 Norway, a leader in innovative education, proposed a solution: mobile schools. The Namibia Association for


Despite the tough living conditions, the Himba are one of Africa’s most successful remaining pastoralist peoples, with 20,000–50,000 living in Namibia today

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Quietly confident having milked a Mongolian yak.... How different could it be? Norway (NAMAS), funded by the Norwegian and Icelandic governments, set up a series of moveable classrooms that would migrate wherever, and whenever, a community had to take their cattle to new pasture. However, ten years later funding was withdrawn, and now the schools are either fixed, no longer maintained, or, worse, closed. Undeterred, the Himba continue to rally against other incursions on their culture. In the 1990s two chiefs successfully halted the construction of the Epupa hydroelectric dam. They appealed to the United Nations, and with the help of Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson, the World Bank withdrew its funding. Momentum seemed to be building when, in December 2001, the Himba won a High Court appeal asking the Namibian government to reinstall the rights of their traditional leaders. However, more than a decade later, the state had still not complied – only three of 33 leaders are formally recognised. The 30 others are still excluded from decision-making processes. Furthermore, plans for another dam downstream in Orokawe, within the Baynes Mountains, were set out in 2011. Again, the Himba protested, but little seems to have changed. If the reservoir is built, it will flood 57 square kilometres of tribal lands and wash away ancestral graves and grazing lands. Only town dwellers would benefit from the electricity it would create; the Himba have no need of it. Not wishing to seem inflexible, the three tribal leaders who are formally accepted in Windhoek arranged meetings with solarenergy experts to find an alternative solution.

Yet it seems international pressure on the government is still the most effective route. So in January 2012 the 33 traditional leaders gathered in the dusty town of Opuwo to sign a Declaration of Rights to be submitted to the United Nations and the African Union. It called for the international organisations to intervene in ongoing land grabbing, to reinstall traditional titles, to respect their cultural identity, and to encourage consultation regarding mining and dam construction in the region. And, after a year of no response, 1000 Himba gathered in Opuwo in March 2013 and held a protest march to publicise the ongoing humanrights violations. On my last day living with the Himba, I followed Kakuhara two miles up a dirt track in the eye-scrunching sun. Quite suddenly she turned off into the scrub, weaved her way through the barbed acacia bushes and entered a clearing of rock pools. The thin film of water in them was choked with algae, but it is all they have. Two children giggled at me shyly as they dipped a cracked plastic bucket into the green soup. That night we joined the other wives in the family enclosure and sat on stones around the fire. They chatted softly in the fading light, breastfeeding or poking at the cauldron of pap bubbling away on the flames before us. Occasionally, a cow let out a moaning mew from the corral a few metres away. Their living conditions may lack comfort, but their sense of community and steadfast belief in their cultural identity are invaluable tools for the fight they face to preserve their elegant, yet endangered, way of life.

Above, left to right: Himba boy playing on mopane tree; Kakuhara displaying her prized conch shell necklace; a traditional marital headdress ALL PHOTOGRAPHY BY EMMA THOMSON

Plan your trip Getting there Air Namibia ( offers return flights from the UK to Windhoek via Frankfurt from around £890. Flight time is roughly 11 hours. When to visit Due to the dry climate it’s fine to visit all year around, although April and May bring fresher air. Visas UK, US and most European travellers do not require a visa to enter Namibia for holidays shorter than three months. Books Travellers consistently praise Bradt’s Namibia guidebook (4th ed, published January 2011). Find out more Kunene Tours & Safaris (www.kunenetours. com) UK Namibia Tourist Board (www.travelnamibia.



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Embracing the Himba  
Embracing the Himba  

Published in Travel Africa magazine, Winter 2012