Namibia Part II:
Where Wild Women Meet Wildlife
Story by Fyllis Hockman
Photos by Bruce Genderson
told myself ahead of time I would not stare. Even though the bare breasts
hung low and large, my eyes instead went to the large, intricate metal
jewelry adorning their necks, wrists and ankles. I was relieved that
what might have been an embarrassing focus became only a gloss-over
Viewing a live nude show in Vegas? Not quite. Instead,
this was my introduction to the beautiful bodies and gentle lifestyle
of the Himba people, the last remaining tribe in Namibia, on the southwest
coast of Africa, to cling savagely to its native identity dating back
over 500 years.
Although most of the countrys 12 separate ethnic
groups have retained their own language, food and beliefs, many have
been converted to Christianity and, while still very poor, have become
somewhat Westernized. Not so the Himbas. Clad in very little clothing,
breasts exposed, their bodies covered daily through a lengthy ritual
with red ocher pigment mixed with animal fat, the Himbas maintain a
primitive culture. There are no stores in the village, no satellite
dishes, and no outhouses. Using the woods that border their village
as their toilet, it was clearly the largest bathroom facility I had
ever seen. On the other hand, the men dont have to worry about
remembering to put the seat down.
Unlike other tribes, the more isolated and economically
self-sustaining Himbas were able to resist the influence of missionaries
who wanted them to cover their bodies, change their gods, upgrade their
stick, mud and dung huts, and modernize their nomadic lifestyle. They
are similar perhaps to the more well-known Masai tribes in Kenya in
their ability to maintain ancient customs.
Bhavi related the story that several years ago, one
of the Himba leaders was invited to Germany, a country that once controlled
Namibia in the early 1900s, to talk about the German atrocities
that occurred there in 1904. Though urged to wear modern clothes, he
refused to sacrifice his traditional attire.
Commenting on the matriarchal society of the Himba,
in which the women do most of the work inside and outside the household,
our guide pointed out: The women call the shots but they make
the men feel theyre in charge. Somehow this did not seem
like such an alien concept to the men on our tour
Several of the women in the small village, made up of
circular huts that might, depending upon the time of day, house as many
chickens or calves as they do people, gathered in a circle to tell stories
and sell their wares. Through a local interpreter/guide, I queried the
female elder of the tribe about whether the young girls object to the
daily ocher ritual or might want to dress in a more modern fashion:
They do not want to change, she adamantly assured me. They
are happy continuing their traditions. Nonetheless, the local
guide shyly indicated that thats not always true.
The guide further explained that in reality the Himbas
are slowly being forced to alter their lifestyle due to lack of pasture
for their cattle, encroachment upon their land by more modern-leaning
tribes, and other Western influences. Not surprisingly, this is something
they do not want to accept.
I then asked my captive audience if the Himbas were
under any pressure from the government to change. The response: Because
we are a self-sustaining society - we tend our own goats and cattle
and grow our own food - there is nothing external that can force
us to change. Even people coming with electricity and other forms of
modernization - even if they come with cattle prods to move a
stubborn herd - we will resist. She was pretty convincing.
The local guide looked skeptical.
The Himbas were only one of several different tribes
people we met with and in every other case; the mere mention of President
Obama brought exuberant thumbs up and high fives. When I alluded to
him in front of the lovely group of Himba women, however, I was greeted
with blank stares.
Those of you who wish a closer look at Himba culture
without traveling to Namibia should rent the feature film, Babies,
which came out, appropriately, in time for last Mothers Day. It
follows toddlers from four countries, including one from a Himba community
Namibia is not only known for its interesting two-legged
inhabitants; its four-legged creatures are equally intriguing. Although
Etosha National Park is the premiere game-viewing area, we had seen
quite a few animals, including ostrich, oryx, kudo, springbok, giraffe,
zebra, baboon, jackal and elephant, during a previous stop at the Palmwag
Concession southwest of the park.
By the time we got to Etosha, we were all pretty much
of one mind: if its not a lion, cheetah or a rhino, dont
bother telling us. But Etosha, home to 114 species of wildlife, didnt
disappoint. Within 10 minutes of entering the park, we saw a lion. Okay,
it was more than 350 yards away, but Bhavi said it was a lion and we
After that, however, it was downhill. When we next stopped
miles later, it was for a rabbit. I thought, Wow, hes getting
desperate! But my cynicism was short-lived. Soon we arrived at
a watering hole giving sustenance to a whole family of lions -
a large-maned dad, a sleek-looking mom and a number of cuddly cubs,
while nearby a lioness neighbor was feasting on a dead rhino. Hanging
out at a safe distance were dozens of thirsty springboks, zebras and
jackals just hoping the lions would tire of the watering hole and leave.
They just stood there - lusting - and Bhavi predicted that
none would get to drink that day.
The intimidation was palpable - until one very
brave little warthog approached the far end of the waterhole; eventually,
a couple of zebras and springboks followed suit. I could just imagine
the thought process: Well, if he could do it, I may as well try.
At that point, I could have returned to our lodge and
been very happy with the days outing - and it was only 9
oclock in the morning! But in truth, animal viewing in Etosha
can be somewhat sporadic.
If the goal of your trip is a safari, go to Tanzania,
Kenya or Botswana; but if youre seeking sheer diversity of experience
extending from unique topography - the highest sand dunes in the
world -- to indigenous culture to a fair amount of animal viewing, Namibia
should be at the top of anyones Big Five (to keep with safari
For more information, log onto the Overseas
Adventure Travel site or call (800) 955-1925.