Namibia’s Himba embrace modernisation

For decades the Himba tribe in Namibia cherished a traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle in search of pastures for their livestock, a symbol of wealth, living and well-being hence they rarely settled on fixed shelters. But things are changing and they are now embracing modernisation each day, thanks to the advent of globalisation in their isolated community writes Phillip Shingirai.

Situated about 825 kilometres from the Namibian capital, Windhoek, in the northern Kunene region close to the Angolan border and dominant in a small town called Opuwo and surrounding villages, the Himba tribe has remained a true embodiment of African tradition through their way of life.

The tribe has also exceptionally co-existed with the Ovatwa and Zemba tribes which follow more or less the same lifestyles with them. However, there is just a striking resemblance of resilience to forces of change within the Himba community which has made their area a booming tourist attraction frequented by many from all over the globe.

They least care for the latest designer labels on the market or would not really bother to suit up like what most urbanites do in any part of the world.

Members of this community can comfortably walk in the middle of the city clad in their traditional regalia.

The men wear what most people in any part of the word would easily describe as skirts, while women are clad in their traditional wear and it is not astounding to see them bare breasted while sometimes children as young as five years can simply move in their birthday suits.

This is a place where young women deliberately create tooth gaps as a way of enhancing their beauty for the opposite sex, young man who are not married style their hair in Mohawk to signify availability while a traditional village set up has livestock and humans sleeping in the kraal area as a way of defending the source of wealth against predators.

A recent week visit to Opuwo by this writer was perhaps an eye opener and the closest one could be to the lifestyle that many read about in books but find difficult to believe. The visit opened avenues that many anywhere in the world can only wish for or would consider good enough for rural romance novels, perhaps too dramatic to believe or simply something out of this world. But this is Himbaland and every aspect of their lifestyle is as real as night will follow day.

Add to that, a herd of 500 cattle, 250 sheep and more than a 10 000 goats  is not out of reach of reality but this is a tribe that many tourists or simply other less travelled Namibians could easily mistake for the marginalised poor community. But far from it, the Himba tribe has it all in terms of riches.

For a tribe that is always on the move in search of the next available water source for their livestock, sometimes building permanent structures for the Himba tribe is an unnecessary activity, so their live in the open air. It would be naïve though to take this act as a symbol of poverty, far from it.

A recent partnership between the government of Namibia and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) meant to fight drought induced by climate change in Kunene is slowly but surely introducing the Himba to some sort of modernity.

The programme introduced production of vegetables which despite their popularity anywhere, are not as popular in this part of the world where delicacy only has to do with meat and milk.

Even more ironic is the fact that as much as the Himba community is slowly adapting to gardening as a sort of lifestyle and allowing them to live longer at one place than in previous years, they still think the type of food produced through gardening is best suited for their livestock. This is a place where meat determines the level of wealth an individual has.

Government intervention

Although the Himba lifestyle is pretty normal within their space, the Namibian government has a running mitigation programme under the Office of the President which finds ways of improving their lives through provision of portable water and sanitation facilities.

The programme, which is steered by the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry, FAO, development partners and is a brainchild of the former Namibian Deputy Prime Minister, Libertina Amathila, has seen the Namibian government drilling 19 boreholes in the area as well as install several water pumps in surrounding aquifers.

It has also hastened the construction of schools in some of Namibia’s remotest parts and this has culminated in the Himba sending their children to these schools.

Ideally it would not be surprising to any new visitor to the area to meet a child as young as eight to 10 years manning a herd of as much as 100 goats in the middle of nowhere.

Narrating how she has adjusted her lifestyle and become part of the community, the President’s Office regional head in the Kunene, Rebecca Namwandi, who is Oshiwambo speaking but is conversant in any language in the Namibian diction, said the Himba community are fast adapting modernisation and do not move as regular as they used to as they now have surety on the supply of water for themselves and their livestock.

“In the past the movement used to be very regular and these people whose major source of wealth is cattle now live longer at such a place because their livestock can now access water easily and also pastures. We have been engaging with them in the past few years to assist them with the most basic necessities, including water and also we work in partnership with the Ministry of Agriculture to make sure that the water supply source is well maintained so it does not fall apart,” Namwandi said.

Another long serving civil servant in the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry, Eugenia Simwanza, who is responsible for the training and outreach of the community on the latest agriculture and horticulture farming methods,   believes that the interventions to combat serious challenges associated with drought in the area have gone a long way in emancipating the largely marginalised community.

“What is perhaps needed now is a constant engagement with the community to teach them how to maintain these water pumping equipment in cases it breaks down as sometimes it would take long to have the ministry officials come here to fix it. So far the adaptation to this way life has been rather fast and we see differences every time we visit which means we are going towards the right direction,” he said.

Where bright city lights don’t matter

The Himba society is a closely-knit community which relies pretty much on everyone’s contribution for survival.

Perhaps the most striking difference to their way of life is the absence of clinics in some villages, about 160 kilometres from Opuwo, which makes it rather challenging for pregnant women to access medical facilities.

It is also somewhat unbelievable that even the cattle in this dry land of Namibia are now more of browsers than grazers because of the unavailability of grazing lands.

An elder at one of the settlements in the area, speaking through an interpreter and who preferred anonymity, told The Southern Times that since the intervention of government and development partners their lives have improved.

“We rely mostly on our wealth and we have herds of cattle that we take care of season to season.

However, of late it has not been easy to deal with the water scarcity so we now give our livestock water at the water tank constructed by the government.

We have since settled here close to the watering point so our livestock can easily access water,” he said.

One of the inhabitants of the Ovahimba community, Veriunga Kakondo, benefited from the government and FAO mitigation programme and is now a shining beacon of gardening, an activity that was alien.

“I am very happy with the support I have received so far and I am now planning on selling to the surrounding community.

However, the challenge is that most of the community members in the area are not used to the type of vegetables we are growing as they are more into meat so we need to give them a small supply for free so they taste before deciding to buy,” he said.

Headman of Oruvendja Village in rural Opuwo constituency, Karutavi Salomo Hartley, applauded efforts by FAO and the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry in emancipating his community through initiating gardening projects.

He is now practising horticulture for subsistence to supplement his vegetable consumption.

Headman Hartley uses drip irrigation at his garden at his homestead.

“We are doing our best to make sure these projects work.

Although I am not a beneficiary, I also have my own garden here where I am producing vegetables,” he said.

Another beneficiary of the programme who also adopted the latest drip irrigation scheme in an area where there are 47 farmers, also commended the project.

“I am very happy to have my own project. We have been doing well but recently we noticed that there are a few problems with the quality of the soil as well as the water.

We are also doing our project using both commercial fertilizer and traditional fertilizer. However, with the traditional fertilizer we seem to realise that it attracts insects that end up destroying the crops which makes it rather difficult to harvest,” she said.

October 2017
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