Everywhere we went in Kaokokland, from Kunene River Lodge to the Puros Community Campground, “Himba tours” were offered. The Himba are an African tribe in northwestern Namibia, nomadic cattle herders who continue to live today much as they did 100 and 1,000 years ago. They’re the kind of people written about and photographed for National Geographic.
On a Himba tour, a guide would take you to a real Himba village (as opposed to one of the fake ones, I presume) where you could openly gawk, ask questions and get answers in English, take photos, and buy the handicrafts of the villagers.
Honestly, I wanted to do all those things, but not on a tour with fellow gawkers that I didn’t know.
At the Puros community campground, which we had entirely to ourselves, I was surprised to find such a tour offered. I didn’t expect the community to be that organized or attentive to guests. I was impressed and pleased with the service we’d already received, and so was happy to support the community with my money. A tour here would surely be a private affair, just what I wanted.
While exploring around Puros early in the morning, we followed a 4WD track up a rocky hill that struck me as more suitable for climbing on foot than tires. At the top, we had a wonderful 360-degree view of the Hoarusib River valley.
At the edge of the valley, we were surprised to discover a fenced compound with mud and stick huts. Vehicle tracks between the compound and the community campground hinted that this might be the village the tour visits. Or not.
As we studied and enjoyed the landscape, three women, each carrying a five-gallon bucket, walked from the compound to the dry Hoarusib riverbed.
I think the fenced area that I’m calling a “compound” is called a “village” by locals. It’s so tiny, though, that I think “village” is misleading. I don’t think there are more than three or four families here, and they may all be related. I don’t know.
We figured they were getting water. The buckets tipped us off. All three of us have lived in the Bush where we hauled water the same way. I wonder if these women would be surprised to learn that, or if they would understand that was unusual for Americans.
The girl on the left in the t-shirt is named Mickey, or something that sounds like that to our ears. She speaks English moderately well. The other two do not speak English.
Mickey and the woman on the right have scarves on their heads to cushion and help balance the full water buckets that will soon be up there. The woman in the middle has an ornament on her head that I think prevents her from carrying anything that way.
Because we were curious and already gawking, and because we’ve all carried water ourselves, and because it was a long way from the water hole to the compound, and because we just happened to be where they were at this time, and because Mike’s brother is willing to do this kind of thing while Mike and I are not, we offered to give them a ride back. They accepted with smiles.
At first, they just put their buckets on the tailgate of the truck, but then were persuaded to hop on themselves; we’d go very slowly.
Once at the compound, Mickey invited us in . . . for N$30 (thirty Namibian dollars, which equals about three US dollars) per person. Good on her!
Mickey, I suspect, is a tour guide. She put on her guide hat as soon as we arrived. As I understand it, she was born in this village—right there in that compound, I think—but went away somewhere to school and learned English. I didn’t understand where.
At one point, Mickey picked up a toddler, and I noticed they looked alike. I figured the child was hers, but Mickey said the girl was her little sister, “We have the same mother.” That implies they have different fathers. That jibes with what someone else explained to me about African social structure: Multiple partners are not uncommon, which is part of the reason AIDS is such a problem here in Africa.
We paid Mickey and embarked on a private Himba tour. In addition to Mickey, there were four women in the compound and a bunch of kids. No men. The men were all in Puros we were told, or out with the cattle which were taken rather far away due to the drought and lack of suitable pasture nearby.
It was weird and uncomfortable for me and Mike. What do we do? What do we say? Mike is uncomfortable taking pictures of people, but that’s what our tour fee pays for. Even so, we hemmed and hawed and squirmed while Denny made himself at home and chatted up Mickey.
Mike and I headed for the kids who were gawking at us as blantantly as we were gawking at them. Hooray for kids and their curious, straightforward hearts! Mike picked up three rocks and juggled, which they found amusing. Having won the children’s approval, we relaxed a little.
Mike took pictures of the compound, and I joined the conversation with Mickey. I had tons of questions, but Mickey’s English was limited, and so, then, were my questions.
I wanted to know what they ate. The answer seems to be “not much.” As elsewhere, cornmeal is the staple, cooked like polenta. Himba are herders, so they eat goat and beef. I asked about local plants that they might gather and eat, and a palm fruit was the only answer I got. A child was eating one. First the skin and flesh are eaten from the outside, and the shell is cracked and the nut inside is eaten.
This same nut—a palm nut?—is carved nowadays and sold as an ornament. It’s sometimes called “vegetable ivory,” and is offered as a sustainable alternative to carved elephant tusks. However, given what these people are eating, I wonder if the nuts should be used this way rather than eaten.
In the middle of the compound was a stand loaded with handicrafts made by the residents. Mickey led us there, naturally.
There were bracelets and necklaces made from leather, palm-frond fibers, seeds, and beads. There were carved palm-nut ornaments, and wood carved into giraffes and gemsbok and elephants and zebras. There were woven baskets and trays.
As we looked over the merchandise—which I enjoyed; it was great—the women came out and stood behind the sections that held their work. We knew who had made what, and I loved that. Any money we handed over went directly to the crafter.
We purchased a number of palm nuts carved by this woman.
At that point, she was very happy and friendly, and it was easier to take her photo. Her child is eating the flesh of a palm fruit.
The woman was wearing a goat-skin skirt—or perhaps it’s cow skin. What do I know? She didn’t speak English.
Her belt, as best I could make out, is leather covered with ochre clay. Tiny metal beads were strung together and pressed into the ochre. It weighs a ton . . . or at least several pounds. I picked one up. The anklet on her left foot and her head ornament appear to be made similarly. The anklet on her right foot is ochre-covered fabric.
The string around her waist is made from palm fibers, and I’m not sure what is strung on her necklaces.
Her hair is braided into many strands coated with ochre. She joked that I needed to fix my hair similarly, which Mickey had to translate for me. I would have let her do it if she had offered.
Her body is coated with ochre, too—ochre powder mixed with animal fat and herbs, called “otjize.” This protects the skin from sun and bugs. I’m sure it also removes dead skin and more as it dries and wears off. I understand it’s taboo for women to bathe with water.
I asked where they get the ochre. “Far away,” Mickey said. Our guidebook indicated that ochre is available in just one place in the country. I wonder that the Himba use it so much when it must come from so far away. I suppose it’s like diamonds or gold or any other status symbol: it’s more precious because it’s not easily available.
While we were there, one of the women prepared a pot of cornmeal mush, called “pap” here. (It’s pronounced “pop.”) I know it as “polenta.” Also cooking on the fire was a #10 can of water and bark which would become the black dye used to color some of the handicrafts.
The pap was given to the children who dove in with their fingers, scooping out a mouthful at a time.
We asked if we might see inside a hut, and we were invited to go in this one. Maybe I could stand up straight in the middle, but I didn’t try. It’s used only for sleeping, though, and who stands up to sleep? These people spend their days mostly outside.
I’ve been calling them mud huts, but the mud here was animal dung, and I have since read that that’s the norm. It did not smell like a barnyard.
We asked how many people sleep in this hut. Five. I’m sure several are children, but still . . . that’s a lot of people in this tiny space and no privacy for anyone.
The belongings inside the hut included several blankets and pieces of fabric, three skin skirts, jars of ochre and who-knows-what, a belt, an animal tail, and a woven tray or plate. Cooking implements are kept elsewhere. Someone mentioned “day huts” and “night huts,” so perhaps each family unit has two huts.
Before we left, Mike took my hat off my head and plopped it on Mickey’s little sister’s head. Seeing that, a little boy wanted desperately to try on my bandana; he looked as though he might cry if I refused. When I put it on his head, he gave me a big smile that was full of tiny brown teeth being eaten away by cavities. I was glad to think these are baby teeth that will fall and be replaced, but then what? We’re not elephants: We have just one set of replacement teeth.
It was a weird, somewhat uncomfortable experience, but I’m so glad we did it. Looking back, I wish I’d asked a million other questions. One woman beat palm leaves against the fence, and I wish I’d asked if I might help her, if she might show me how she braided a necklace from the fiber. Heck, I even wish I’d asked if I might sleep over. I could have made dinner, brought a snack, showed them my embroidery, traded bracelets . . . . I know, however, that we’re lucky we did as much as we did. Maybe next time I won’t feel so awkward. Maybe.