Smoke and Leather — A Visit to the Himba Village

We drive four hours to the north, along the northwest border of Etosha National Park, passing giraffe, zebra and warthog. We arrive at the small town of Opuwo, where we pick up some supplies to give to the chief of the Himba village we will be visiting. There are a few Himba women in the small market and after yesterday’s debacle, I resist taking a picture of the incongruous sight – barefoot, barechested women doing their weekly shopping.

We pick up our guide, the self-named Queen Elizabeth, a Himba herself, but who now lives in the town. She is dressed in an elegant purple taffeta gown and smells a bit like barbecue sauce, a mix of leather and smoke. We soon find out why when we get the village. The Queen leads us to her village 15 km away, giving us some brief information on the Himba people as we go.

We arrive at the village just after lunch. Family groups live together in mud huts located in a corral. There are upwards of 400 people in the village, but we mainly see the ones from the Queen’s family. They come out, women, girls and children, skin an odd reddish-brown.

One girl is crushing red stone mixed with oil to smear all over her skin. Another girl takes embers from the fire and uses the smoke to deodorize in lieu of bathing. It takes us a few minutes to acclimatize. None of us have ever experienced a culture quite like this one and we’re intrigued.

The new Speed Stick

Both boys and girls have a belt tied tightly around the waist and various pieces of cloth or animal skins tucked in the front and back. The women are all bare-chested and adorned with beads and other jewelry around their necks, wrists, waists and ankles.

The boys are similarly attired, but with less accoutrements. At first, it’s difficult not to stare but we soon get used to it and are barely aware of how different they look. More Himba come from the surrounding corrals. There is the odd Herero woman as well. The Himbas and Hereros are essentially the same people, speaking the same language. However, when German missionaries arrived in Namibia, they managed to convince the Hereros to cover themselves up, which they still do today in floor-length frocks and a strangely triangular hat, made to look like cow horns.

Dress up or dress down?

In fact, both cultures knock out their four bottom front teeth at around 11 or 12 years of age, forcing them to chew food on the sides of their mouths, also like cows. In this culture where cattle are prized, the more you look like a cow, the more beautiful you are…

Cynically, we wonder whether this is all a show put on for tourists, but as we interact with them, we realize it’s not. There is no electricity or cell phone coverage in the village. The huts are almost bare. However, the Himba are very welcoming, inviting us in to explore their huts, show us their daily rituals, sing and dance and of course, sell some of their crafts.

Additionally, they genuinely love having their photos taken. They pull us in every direction.

‘Photo! Photo!’ they shout, and put on their best stoic pose.

‘Look! Look!’ , they cry, wanting to see their photos on our cameras, leaving reddish dust on everything they touch.

Bovine Beauty - The chief's new wife

They parade us to a particularly green patch of grass in the otherwise arid landscape and coerce us into taking dozens of photos of themselves as individuals and in groups. Previously, Africa-in-Focus camped in town and spent an hour or two visiting the village, but this time, we are camping in the village itself for the first time. The plan is to have a leisurely afternoon culminating in a joint dinner, camp overnight and head out the next morning.

As we’re setting up camp, a storm descends suddenly, violently. We give up trying to stay dry under the tarp and take refuge in the truck, along with the dozen or so Himba children who were hanging around us. The storm is frightful in its severity, and soon our tents are under 6″ of water, if not blown down entirely. When the worst of it is over, we decide to move the truck to higher ground. It goes a few feet and then stalls in the gloopy mud. Thus begins our unexpected Himba stay.

The next five hours are spent trying to free the truck. We use the sand mats and when those fail, collect loads and loads of rocks from the barren surrounds to use for traction.

Seriously stuck

Some Himba men return from tending cattle and machete down branches to lay in the growing trenches made by Benji’s constant forward and reverse motions in an effort to free itself. By 10 pm, we have only moved a few feet and Benji is seriously listing to one side as the back wheel is basically in a meter-high ditch.

Wil refuses to give up and works with the energy of a madman. He is covered from head to toe in mud, climbing in and out of the deep trenches to wedge debris under the tires.

In the meantime, Ebron has prepared supper. The original plan was for the Himba to prepare their own dinner using the chicken and maize we brought them, and we would prepare our own dinner, and all eat together.

Because of the late hour, only a half dozen Himba children are left sitting around our fire, watching us silently. Once we’re finished eating, we offer them the leftover food – some pork chops, spaghetti and vegetables. We are still searching around for extra plates and utensils when they literally descend on the food we place before them. We’re in shock. They grab huge handfuls of spaghetti and stuff it into their mouths. One child moves the dish away from the others to grab an extra bite or two of food, just as the cheetahs did the day before.

Himba boys

Some even pick up food that has fallen on the ground. Later, as we’re doing the dishes, one child darts in to grab the remaining few strands of pasta. The children certainly don’t look malnourished so we’re surprised at the ferocity with which they ate. We go to bed exhausted, dirty and demoralized.

The next morning, Wil is an absolutely star and is already at it before 7 am. We gather tentbagfuls of rocks and logs. Some of the Himba come back out to watch. Wil again works tirelessly, not letting the frustration show, incredibly still saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ even though he must be hours past exhaustion. We live and die with every failed attempt, vacillating between hope and despair.

However, just past noon, Benji finally wrestles himself out of the muck almost 20 hours after getting stuck, including 9 hours of hard labor, and we whoop and holler. We pack up with lightning speed, eager to leave the backbreaking labor and the scorpions under our tents behind us. Visiting the Himba has been a wonderful experience, but slightly more than we counted on.

We were supposed to have a full day’s drive, but only manage a few hours through the arid Namibian landscape. Twice, we go through washed out roads. Wil checks the fast-flowing water which rises to thigh height. We clear out the lockers under the truck just in case, piling the mattresses and our belongings into a mountain in the back of the truck. With our height, we make it through with ease, leaving a despondent line of passenger cars behind.

We finally reach an unscheduled campsite and take our first shower in two days. Here, in the middle of nowhere, with no city lights to pollute the night sky, the stars shine so brightly that we want to reach out and pluck them. Groups of young people silently appear and ask to sing for tips. The cacophony of frogs and insects through the night sounds like it’s coming from a megaphone, but most of us sleep through from sheer exhaustion. From here, we head south towards the sea and the dunes.

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