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People of the Desert

Namibia’s Himba take tourists beyond the usual safari circuit

People of the Desert
Warm welcome: Himba woman in Namibia. Image: Aldo Pavan/SIME/4Corners.

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“Tjike!”

It’s my first attempt at a Himba greeting, and my accent and intonation are probably totally wrong. But Mbinge, who I’ve just met, gives me a broad, gap-toothed grin and beckons me inside her house.

Mbinge constructed this shelter herself, house-building being the exclusive responsibility of women in these parts. It’s a small, brown, igloo-shaped hut made from flexible mopane branches, supported by a central pole. The outside is rendered with cattle dung and earth, baked hard in the heat. The open doorway is tiny. As I stoop to enter, my eyes, full of the glare of the morning sun, see nothing but darkness. Instead, I take in the jangle of Mbinge’s heavy beads and the soft rustle of her goatskin skirts. Finding myself a perch, I feel coarse hide under my palms and my nose detects a sweet, pungent aroma
I can’t quite place.

Gradually, my eyes adjust. Mbinge is sitting opposite me, her strong, thoughtful-looking face lit by the doorway. Hanging behind her are a few possessions: ochre-dusted amulets, beaded belts and goatskins stitched with cowrie shells. She’s tending a burner which is emitting puffs of smoke, the source of that intriguing aroma. It’s a little like church incense, heady and delicious.

“She’s burning commiphora,” explains Boas, who’s here to translate. “Himba women use it to perfume their clothes, because it’s taboo to wash them with water.” Mbinge demonstrates by flapping a goatskin over the burner. Waves of smoke lap against it.

I’m fascinated. It’s a process the Himba of remote northwest Namibia have shared with other desert peoples – the Egyptians, the Ethiopians, the Omanis and Yemenis – since ancient times. Commiphora, I discover, comes from a drought-resistant tree: score the bark and the sap seeps out. This hardens to an aromatic resin, directly related to frankincense and myrrh.

It’s hardly surprising that in the Namib desert, where every drop of rain is precious, wasting water on something as mundane as laundry would be unthinkable. Bathing is out, too. Instead, the Himba rub their skin and heavily plaited hair with otjize, a fragrant blend of ochre dust and butter. Outside her house, Mbinge shows me how she produces ochre by rubbing a russet-coloured block of clay against a stone. The daily ritual of burning commiphora and preparing and applying otjize can take several hours. But the results are effective, protecting the women against insects and sunburn. They’re beautiful, too: the glowing, ochre-daubed Himba are among the most striking-looking people in southern Africa.

While other Namibians have modified their traditions over the years, the Himba have been steadfast in their resistance to homogenisation. Their closest relatives, the Herero, have hung on to many of their customs, too, including a distinctive manner of dress: Herero women have a liking for huge cotton frocks, fluffed out like Victorian crinolines.

But the Herero have settled in towns, while the Himba still prefer a nomadic lifestyle. Famously, they are masters of the art of desert survival. In some ways, their cultural assertiveness has counted against them, limiting their access to education and healthcare. But by retaining ancient skills, they remain economically independent, and for that they command respect.

Genuine welcome

I’m hoping that by making a brief visit to Mbinge’s onganda, or homestead, I’ll learn a little more about their way of life. I’m not expecting the experience to feel wholly authentic, but I’m already satisfied the welcome I’ve received is genuine. Tired of having their privacy invaded by tourists intrigued by their exotic looks, Mbinge and her neighbours, all of whom hail from near Puros in the Kunene region of northwest Namibia, took matters into their own hands by building the onganda as a cultural tourism project.

They charge a small entrance fee and sell handmade souvenirs; in return, visitors can wander freely, ask questions and take as many photos as they like. Free from the whiff of voyeurism
that blights the Himba village visits organised by outsiders, the project is a breath of fresh air.

So far I’ve learned that building your onganda in a shady spot — under some nice, spreading camelthorn trees beside a riverbed, say — is counter-productive. Lions, elephants and snakes like shade, too, and wild animals make unruly neighbours. As a precaution, the Himba arrange their mopane and dung huts in a circle on an open slope under the fierce sun. A fence of sharp sticks shields them from marauding predators, while a central blaze, the holy fire, ensures protection from the ancestors.

I’ve also learned this is a society in which women call the shots. Traditionally, a Himba man is denied all the trappings of adult status — the right to inherit property, own a house or become a successful cattle herder — if he has yet to secure the assistance of a wife. Recently, Himba women have been harvesting commiphora on a commercial basis for export to international perfumeries and any Himba man who wishes to participate is strictly vetted first. No wonder Mbinge and her neighbours seem so self-assured.

The Himba live lightly on the land, their ongandas little more than encampments, and when it’s time to move on in search of fresh grazing, they do so with minimal fuss. It strikes me that I probably have more paraphernalia in my daybag than Mbinge has in her house. A purer example of pared-down living is hard to imagine.

Sweet solitude

Despite being one of southern Africa’s most stable and accessible countries, much tipped by travel pundits as the next big thing, Namibia is still considered a destination for adventurers. Compared
to long-established safari hubs such as South Africa and Kenya, it’s been reticent about courting visitors.

For now, travelling in Namibia feels like a rare privilege. Its rivetingly beautiful dune-scapes and hills dotted with hardy euphorbia plants are so thinly populated that you rarely have to share the wraparound views with another soul, let alone a crowd. Driving through the remoter regions, other vehicles are so few that every encounter is an event, an opportunity to stop and exchange news.

While it may not attract tourists by the busload, Namibia does have an identifiable tourist circuit. The first time I flew in, several years ago, I made my way around the highlights — galumphing up the mighty sand dunes of Sossusvlei, attempting arty photos of skeleton trees at Dead Vlei and puzzling over fairy rings, mysterious circles of tufty grass that are as yet unexplained by science.

I admired the multi-storey nests of sociable weaver birds, wrinkled my nose at malodorous fur seals, watched lions slink through the shimmering haze at Etosha National Park and felt my heart miss a beat when tracking cheetahs at AfriCat, one of the country’s many impressive conservation projects. I stayed in lodges overlooking crumpled, arid mountains, perched among giant boulders or ensconced in wildlife sanctuaries. All were so beautiful that I made them my benchmark against which to measure safari lodges elsewhere in Africa. And I fell head over heels in love with the desert.

Keen to dig deeper this time, I chose a camping trip with a ground-breaking new outfit, Conservancy Safaris, which is wholly owned by the Himba and Herero communities whose homelands it visits. It promises an insider’s view that most sightseers never experience. At first, this seems unlikely. How can a group of African pastoralists with little capital and scant knowledge of the safari business
set about running trips for cash-rich, time-poor, travel-hungry visitors?

On closer inspection, it’s a safe bet. Conservancy Safaris is run by a professional team, led by experienced safari guide Russell Vinjevold and supported by some of Namibia’s leading conservationists. Swedish philanthropist, Anders Johansson, provided a generous loan to get things off the ground and once that’s paid off, all profits will go to the communities; in the meantime, they earn cash from campsite fees and hosting duties.

The venture is a perfect fit for Namibia’s communal conservancy system, which has won international awards for small community tourism and conservation. In conservancies — wilderness regions whose residents have been granted the legal right to profit from tourism and the sustainable use of wildlife — rural people are motivated to take an active role in safeguarding wild animals and their habitats. It’s a highly satisfying alternative to the old national park system that’s still practised in other countries, whereby cattle, sheep and goat herders are banned from land their ancestors have used for centuries.

Our safari takes us through wide-open landscapes dusted with sun-bleached grasses and towering gorges sculpted from richly textured rock. Towards the end of each day, we pull into a simple campsite to discover our tents ready pitched and pots simmering on the fire courtesy of our back-up team. Drinks are poured, stars sparkle overhead.

At one point, we’re joined at camp by environmentalist Garth Owen-Smith and anthropologist Margie Jacobsohn, both leading lights in the movement to eliminate poaching and promote sustainable livelihoods for rural people in northwest Namibia. Also among us is legendary, local, rhino tracker, Philemon Nuab. The chance to chat with people fresh from the coalface of conservation is a real privilege. While Margie talks passionately about opportunities for young Namibians and seems delighted to hear that I’m interested in meeting some of the Himba, Garth is keen that we start with a first-hand glimpse of an animal he’s worked hard to save: the black rhino. We arrange to meet early the next day.

After a hasty breakfast, we set out. There’s a faint blush of dawn in the sky. Among the soft silhouettes of twisted acacias, we make out an incongruous outline — a giraffe. These statuesque creatures have evolved a tolerance for the region’s extreme aridity; even their coats seem sandier in colour than those found elsewhere.

We’ve been driving for around half an hour when Philemon thumps on the roof. We stop, and he dashes off in the direction of the animal he’s spotted. It’s a fleeting sighting — within seconds, the rhino’s sturdy behind disappears into a distant thicket.

Still eager, Philemon gestures for us to follow him as he bounds up a hillside; we may have the chance to head the rhino off. But the terrain is scattered with rocks and it’s obvious that we’ll never keep up with Philemon’s breakneck pace, let alone the rhino’s. A gentle chat with Garth seems a better idea.

“Poaching used to be so bad in this area that by the early ’80s the rhinos, elephants and giraffes were all but wiped out,” he says. “But by setting up a community game guard system and creating a conservancy, we managed to turn things around. Before, people had no great affection for wild animals like rhinos — at worst, they were a nuisance; at best, they were the government’s problem. Now, they talk about ‘our rhinos’. They’re proud of them. But there’s always work to do, of course.”

There are no wildlife reserves on the itinerary that Russell has mapped out for us, but nonetheless, animals keep making their presence felt. Every so often, as we bowl along in the Land Rover, he points out an ostrich pounding towards the horizon or a lone oryx sheltering under a tree. Oryx, stately antelopes with markings that could have been assembled by Picasso, have a unique way of coping with extreme temperatures. They can slow down their metabolism and turn off their sweat glands to conserve water, Russell explains, dissipating heat through veins in their nose to prevent their brains from boiling in their skulls.

When we arrive at the Puros community campsite, it’s clear that our back-up team are not the only ones to have got here before us. Heaps of fresh dung indicate that desert-adapted elephants have recently passed through; for all we know, they may be returning soon. The campsite lies beside a parched riverbed that’s a favourite elephant corridor, providing food in the form of mopane trees, and water: they just need to dig down to the water table with their tusks and drink.

Night intruder

Sure enough, after dark, an uninvited guest shows up — a bull elephant so gigantic that Russell bundles us all into the Land Rover for safety. It’s a brief but heart-pounding taste of the hazards that the Himba and Herero have to face on a daily basis, except most of them don’t have Land Rovers. No wonder the Himba don’t build their ongandas down here, I thought.

The following day, we learn that another recurring wildlife worry has turned into a full-blown crisis. All the antelopes that usually graze in the gorge near Puros have disappeared, drawn by the scent of fresh grass elsewhere. The desert-adapted lions which normally prey on them have, for reasons unknown, stayed behind, and they haven’t eaten for days. The Himba and Herero know the lions attract tourists and are generally at pains to tolerate them, but they’re concerned for the safety of their livestock and even their children. If a wild animal threatens them, they’re within their rights to shoot it.

In the village, Russell introduces us to Dr Flip Stander, the region’s lion expert. Frantic, he explains the situation. He has already tried darting and moving the lions, but they have simply found their way back. His latest plan is to gather as many people as possible to barricade the way to the village with bonfires and make enough noise to deter the lions from leaving the gorge.

We’re due to leave Puros that day, but Flip appeals to us to stay on if we can. “The bigger the crowd, the better our chances,” he says.

In that moment, the whole purpose of our trip seems to shift up a gear. Not only have we gained that elusive thing, an insider’s perspective, we’re also being offered the chance to become participants, perhaps even protagonists, in something important.

“Yes,” we say. “Let’s stay another night.” And we do.

ESSENTIALS

Namibia

Getting there
There are no direct flights from the UK. British Airways and South African Airways fly via Johannesburg, while Air Namibia flies to Windhoek via Frankfurt. www.airnamibia.com.na  www.ba.com  www.flysaa.com
Average flight time: 14-18h.

 

Getting around
Namibia’s road network is in good condition, but distances are long. It takes a couple of days to reach the Kunene region, whether touring with a safari company or self-driving in a hired vehicle. Light aircraft charters are available and top-end safaris typically include these.

 

When to go
Namibia is a year-round destination. November to April are the hottest months. In the Kunene region, flash floods may occasionally occur between January and March. Lodges and campsites are busiest during the southern African school holidays in April-May, August-September and December-January.

 

Need to know
Visas: Not required by UK nationals for visits up to 90 days.
Currency: Namibian dollar (N$), linked to the South African rand on a 1:1 basis. £1 = N$11.30.
Health: Consult your GP well in advance about necessary jabs and anti-malarials.
International dial code: 00 264.
Time difference: GMT +1.

 

How to do it
Conservancy Safaris
(www.kcs-namibia.com.na) runs
trips in the Kunene and Caprivi regions through agent Kamili Safaris. Prices start at £2,120 per person for a six-night luxury camping trip with full-board and activities; flights are excluded. www.kamilisafaris.com
World Expeditions offers the 17-day Wild Namibia Adventure, which includes climbing to the top of Brandberg, a trek through Fish River Canyon, Etosha, Swakopmund, and Sossussvlei, from £2,790 per person. www.worldexpeditions.co.uk

 
More info
www.namibiatourism.com.na

 

Published in the May-June 2011 issue of © National Geographic Traveller (UK)