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Meeting three Himba women in Opuwo

We both woke feeling much refreshed after our first night in a proper bed for what feels like ages but what in practice is only a week. We had breakfast on the patio looking out over the valley below us and then tried to get information about getting out to some of the local Himba villages. We have a couple of options of what we can do from here, one of which is to head up to Epupa Falls on the border with Angola. It will take up two to three days which we don’t really have and will also put our 4x4 skills (which we also don’t really have!) to the test. Our preferred option is to a visit a village in the Opuwo area and then to head south.

The lady at reception didn’t really seem to sure of what the options were. She muttered something about a hotel guide but then veered off and started to talk about guides in town. She gave us a piece of paper with the names of number of three guides, only one of which was available. Stef called him a while later hoping to get something more than a village trip from him but to no avail. What also seemed odd for a guide is that he didn’t have his own transport, he would simply come in ours. Not a problem if you have the space but our truck has no room for a third passenger.

We gave up on that option and headed down into town. We needed to top up with petrol. For such a small place it was surprising to see Shell, BP and Caltex all with filling stations. The people from Camping Car Hire had warned us that often there is no petrol in Opuwo and people can get stuck there for a few days waiting for supplies. The Shell didn’t have what we wanted but BP turned up trumps. We were luckier than others. As we were leaving the hotel we were stopped by a car with an English girl and a local guide in it. She had been promised a lift back to Windhoek today which would get here there in time for her bus connection to Cape Town, but the person giving her a lift had changed their mind. She was stranded in Opuwo and on the hunt for someone heading south.

The BP station seemed to be the central hub of town activity. People were just milling around it with seemingly no purpose other than to sit, while away the day and have a chat. A couple of women came up with baskets of curios for sale and tried to persuade us to buy. It was quite easy to resist. What was interesting though was seeing the different types of local dress. Most people were in western clothes but there were Himba ladies with the ochre skins and scant clothing and women from another tribe with very large and floral dresses. It was a real mix of styles and contrasts.

With the hotel not being great with local information we stopped off at the local tourist information booth which Lonely Planet claims has very helpful staff. We woke up the guy on duty as we got there and he stretch and yawned away while not really giving us a huge amount of anything that was useful. He implied the road to Epupa would be OK for us to travel on and that it would take us past a demonstration Himba village, one that it used to getting many tourists. We left unconvinced and went for a drive up and down the main street, getting some good people photos along the way.

In less than an hour we were back at the hotel and camped out on the patio of the upstairs bar. Stef decided to give reception one last go, which this time was manned by one of the management team. He said that the hotel had a half day tour to a local village and we could go this afternoon with a small group of other guests if we wanted to. We booked up and got ourselves ready to go. The other guests were two German couples one of whom acted as translator for the others whose English was not so good.

Our guide was Konsa, a cheery chap who works for the hotel. He drove us out of town for about half an hour to one of the nearby Himba villages and for the next three hours was a mine of information about their culture and lifestyle as well as a guide who made it possible for us to visit one of the villages. He told us how Himba is just one sub set of the Herero tribe. Himba society is dominated by the men of the village. Women accept their decisions without question and it is the women who preserve the traditional way of life and dress, many of the men now being dressed in shorts and European football shirts.

Each village is made up of a number of homesteads, each homestead in effect being a family unit. The men can marry as many women as they can afford and Konsa told us about one who had eight wives and thirty children. He must have been either incredibly happy with his lot or incredibly wretched! When a man is ready to marry, his parents find a suitable girl to be his bride. The father visits other villages and watches in the morning to see which eligible young girls are up and out early and doing their chores. When he has selected a suitable bride he pays her family for her in animals, usually about five goats. If they subsequently get divorced, the husband has to pay the brides family double the initial amount. If she remarries, the new husband has to pay the old husband for her – a complex process.

In the family unit the women seem to do the majority of the work. They collect the wood and water, cook, raise the children, build the houses and look after the animals. The men meanwhile seem to do not a lot other than follow their animals around wherever they may wander. As a man’s animal stock increases so does his wealth and so does the workload for his wife. If he can afford to he can take a second wife but only with the agreement of his first wife. He tells her who he is considering and she can say whether or not she likes that person and is happy for him to marry them. The first wife is in effect the husband’s second set of eyes and she veto’s any further marriages he enters into.

Education is a new concept to the Himba. The government are keen for their children to be educated as they recognise the need to have more educated people in Namibia. The tribes however are not so keen as educated children will not want to maintain the traditional Himba way of life. As a concession, one boy and one girl from each homestead are allowed to go to school but this is only on alternate days and only for an hour or two at a time. It’s a strange position as seeing the men of the village they are already moving away from their traditional lifestyle by dropping traditional dress. In the village we visited modern cooking pots were in evidence as were plastic jugs, metal tins, sports bags and other bits and pieces of the modern world.

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Colourful and exotic Himbas
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Himba girl, wearing a cooking pot

Konsa explained that the Himba do not really have a religion as such and do not believe in a god. They call on their ancestors to help them through times of trouble and ask their ancestors to call on God to help them. Each homestead has a sacred fire which is used for rituals on marriage, death or to ask for help with resolving problems or curing the sick. To us it simply looked like a jumble of trees but to them it is important.

One of the main customs of the Himba is the practice of daubing their bodies in ochre paste. Only the women now maintain this tradition which protects them from sunburn and insect bites, a bit like the Beothuk Indians we came across in Canada. The paste is made from ground ochre, and butter fat. The women smear it on their bodies twice a day and it is their equivalent of a shower. They never wash unless they have to go to the hospital (the medical staff will not tolerate the ochre paste as it comes off on absolutely anything and would make a mess in the hospital). To keep themselves clean the women burn mall pieces of the branch of a local tree and hold the smoking wood under their armpits so that the smoke can perfume their skin. They also crouch over the tray of smouldering wood to cleanse their whole body and this is how they keep clean.

The women are daubed head to toe in the paste including their hair. Their hair is matted together into long braids. They use the hair from their children, husband and sometimes hair they buy in town to make the braids longer. Every three months they untangle their braids and re-do them, a process that can take two to three days. Hair patterns also indicate age in the Himba’s children, not that they keep any exact records of birthdays. They will simply refer to the “year we had good rain” or “year that war started”. With girls, they will initially have just one braid coming down over the front of their head, then two, then two more on the back of their head. Boys have a patterned design cut into their hair on the top of their head until they are circumcised, after which they have one braid running down the back of their head. The rest of their heads (girls and boys) are shaven clean.

When a girl reaches puberty it is a sign she has reached womanhood. Her parents keep her inside the family hut for five days which is a way of announcing to the outside world that she is ready to be married. A cow or goat is slaughtered in celebration and skin is used to make a headdress for her, a flat piece of skin with six tubes of skin attached vertically to it. This is just one piece of her traditional dress. The most important is a sort of necklace made of metal beads, leather and a large shell that rests between her bare breasts. Without this piece of her costume a Himba woman deems herself to be naked. With it, she is still naked by Western standards.

Animal skins are used to make a sort of skirts which swings and sways behind her as she moves. On each ankle she wears a ring made of metal beads. The beads on her right leg come from her father, those on her left leg come from her mother. Initially there are just a few rows of beads but more are added with each child she has. If a parent dies, the respective ankle bracelets are taken off until seven days after the parent has been buried.

It is an incredible sight to see a group of Himba women all sat around chatting covered in red ochre and wearing not a lot. Their costume incorporates a lot of metal and can weigh up to 12kg, no mean weight when you have to walk long distances to the nearest water hole or town. Many can simply do no more than shuffle along under the weight.

As we came into the village we had to pay our respects to the village elders and the chief, a wizened old man with one leg who mused about how he would like a nice young German or English girl for his next wife. As we passed through the village saying moro, moro, moro (hello) I was surprised when one of the girls asked me in English what my name was. Hers was Maria and a bond was instantly made between us.

Later in our visit Maria showed us the inside of her hut. Typical of all the huts in the village it was round, built of tall tree branches with the gaps in between packed in with a mixture of dung, mud and butter fat. The conical roof was thatched with grasses and the floor was of beaten earth. Hooks around the walls provided a place to hand the various pots, pans and bags needed for family life and a small dip in the centre of the hut made a small hearth, not for cooking but for a small fire to keep away flies and to provide much needed warmth in the winter months. Animal skins on the floor were the only approximation. The bushes outside the village acted as the WC with stones, or leaves being the loo roll.

The village, and in fact all of the surrounding countryside is covered in Mopane trees. These are very important trees for the Himba people. The roots boiled in water provide a cure for coughs and colds, and slightly chewed leaves provide an antiseptic patch for soothing and healing cuts and wounds.

Our visit was rounded off by the local ladies opening up their curio shop. Many of the items for sale were parts of their traditional dress or the bottles made out of cow horns that they use for storing pastes and ointments. They also had a collection of bracelets and necklaces that looked very definitely tailored to the tourist market. In amongst the Himbas was a lady from another Herero tribe, the Banderas. Her dress was based on a design copied from the German ladies who had first come to Namibia. It was a full length multi coloured affair and ones we had seen in town looked as if they were wrapped up in a duvet. The dress was topped with a hat the style of which represents the horns of the cows these people own.

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Sunset reflected in the pool

We both thoroughly enjoyed the visit and not only told our guide this but also had the chance to tell the hotel manager. As we sat having a sundownder a group of three men asked us to join them. They turned out to be the manager of the Opuwo Lodge, his boss who owns the chain of hotels and a friend, whose birthday it was. They seemed to be doing a whistle stop tour of their lodges and the friend, who is a photographer, was along to take up to date pictures. He was slightly tiddled when we joined them and a few more schnapps and whiskey and sodas later he ended up having an alcoholic birthday.

Willem, the owner of the hotel chain, was in fine form and was very passionate about Namibia. He asked us about our plans to tour his country, told us where his other lodges were and promised to give us very good discounts if we went there. He tried to persuade us to change our plans for the next few days and instead of driving south to go with him in his plane to their lodge north of Etosha and then down to Windhoek. He would, he said, arrange for someone from the hotel to drive our car back to Windhoek for us. It was tempting but took us the wrong way and with not many days to spare we declined. I think the Opuwo hotel manager was relieved as he didn’t look too happy at the prospect of one of his team having to go to Windhoek and back!

One of the interesting bits of the conversation with them was about Malaria. They told us that in Namibia (or was it Africa as a whole?) more people die of Malaria than of Aids related diseases. They also told us not to take the malaria tablets that doctors in Europe tell you are a must. If you get infected by a malarial mosquito the tablets simply hide the symptoms and make the diagnosis more difficult so much so that people with malaria are often told they just have the flu. Which is true we probably will never find out but they said don’t take the tablets but if you feel ill get to a doctor who knows about tropical medicine.