Kaokoland – translate as “distant land” – is a region unlike any other. A former Namibian Bantustan, Kaokoland is located in the Kunene region in northwestern Namibia. The term Bantustan was first used in the late 1940s and is derived from Bandu word for “People.” The suffix Stan is Persian for “country” or “land”. Bantustan, was also known as Bandu Homeland. The Homelands were territories reserved for the black inhabitants of South Africa and South West Africa (Namibia) during apartheid. The Kaokoland Bantustan was abolished in 1989. To cross the vast semi-desert region of Kunene is to experience a journey through space and time. The area is the wildest and the least populated region of Namibia with a population density of one person every 1.5 square mile. There is no fence: animals roam freely in broad arid valleys where ephemeral rivers are true oases. In this semi-desert region the Himba people live like their semi-nomadic ancestors who arrived from the Great Lakes region in the 16th century…
The Epupa Falls, a lost paradise in Namibia
Somewhat isolated, the semi-desert region of Kaokoland attracts travelers in search of adventure. The Epupa Falls can be reached from Opuwo, the capital of Kaokoland. Opuwo is located about 450 miles north-northwest of the capital Windhoek. After a long journey on a dusty and bumpy unpaved road to the rhythm of Sona Jobarteh’s song Gambia and her Kora, you reach Epupa Falls. First, you pass a cluster of black rocks giving the impression of mountains blackened by fire. Then the colors change and the landscape turns to tones of red like the skin of the Himbas women… We approach Epupa, “thundering and foaming waters” in the Herero language. As we arrive in this corner of lost paradise, our heart fills with deep pleasure. In the midst of an unspoiled environment shaded by palm trees and baobabs, the Epupa Falls reveal their full beauty to the visitor. The territory is very green and fertile due to the Kunene River, which marks the natural border with Angola. It is one of the few rivers in Namibia that flows year round. The Kunene River runs from the Angola highlands south to Namibia and then west along the border between Angola and Namibia to the Atlantic Ocean. It is 652 miles long.
The Kunene River offers many activities, including whitewater rafting in the hollows of black rocks upstream from the falls. There, sheltered from the main current, swimming is a delight in the peaceful natural pool shaded by the large leaves of banana trees. We quickly feel the benefits of water on our bodies tired from the stress of the road! However, don’t trust these still waters. Under the surface the small crocodile, known as Lacoste, and his larger brothers swirls… Watch out for one of these many inhabitants of the river as this female agama agama. Fresh, submerged flesh is quickly within reach of the jaws of crocodiles lazing in the sun on the banks of the river. Mr. Crocodile, with all due respect to Peter Pan, is always on the lookout:
« Mr. Crocodile, what big eyes you have!
– The better to see you with, my dear.
Mr. Crocodile, what big teeth you have!
– The better to eat you ».
With a jaw capable of exerting enormous pressure, the crocodile is the winner in the “most powerful bite” category. The force of the bite of a marine crocodile can reach 16,000 newtons. This is about fifteen times the force of a Rottweiler bite and three times that of a great white shark. Also, don’t be fooled by appearances, under its tough-looking appearance, crocodile skin is very soft… A study conducted by American researchers (published in the Journal of Experimental Biology) shows that the crocodile’s tactile system is exceptional. It allows them to detect the movements of water caused by their prey and to determine their location so as to attack them without hesitation. In other words, your chances are minimal, and if you are bitten, you will shed more than crocodile tears !
Paddling, padling to the rhythm of Camille Moussaillons’ song ! We move down to the Epupa Falls, also known as Monte Negro Falls in Angola. These falls are on the border of Angola and Namibia, the end of our journey.
« Go, go, go, go, go, in the water with each stroke of the oar, take strength from your waist and heels…. take strength, it’s easy, from my song….»
(Camille – Allez Allez Allez)
At Epupa, the Kunene River has created a deep gorge and a magnificent series of waterfalls spread over one mile. The water bubbles before jumping 122 feet down from the top of the highest drop. The spray of water splashes several feet away, offering a healthy and fresh shower and purifying the dusty atmosphere of the bush. We are blessed by this spectacle of sound (the thunderous sound of water) and light (a magnificent rainbow) offered by Mother Nature. “Thundering and foaming waters”, the Epupa Falls are well named.
The Epupa Falls is much more than a 122-foot drop. It is a landscape of fallen water and baobabs guarding the edge of the rock. The falls are made up of 22 waterfalls. For a good overview, you have to gain height to fully understand their size. The Epupa site extends over nearly one mile. As the river flows downstream to a lower altitude, it splits into a multitude of waterways and forms natural pools in the rock. Climbing a little bit more in the valley, you gain a magnificent view of the different waterfalls. With each step, you have the feeling that you reach the best view of the valley with baobabs hanging on the rocks and many palm trees along the river. Whether you are a professional photographer or just an amateur, Epupa Falls will give you plenty of headaches. Should I stop and take a picture here ? But if I turn around, it’s also a great view. Sacrificing all these magnificent views for the benefit of one or two shots (which may be a bad pictures) is a real dilemma… As you understand, the site is so powerful that measuring it with photography is impossible! Too bad, I’m just going to stand helpless but with my eyes wide open….
Livestock: the treasure of the Himbas
Besides contemplating this corner of lost paradise constituting the Kunene River and the Epupa Falls, this region is also the land of the Himbas people. They are a semi-nomadic, indigenous people who have maintained and preserved much of their traditional lifestyle, close to that of their ancestors… Meeting the Himba people is a bit like following in Muriel Robin’s footsteps in the show « Rendez-vous en terre inconnue ». The Himba guide who accompanies us teaches us a few words of the Himba dialect, which comes from the Herero language. Except for a few expressions and pronunciation details (the “r” is rolled like in Spanish and the “u” is pronounced “ou”) it is the same language – a little like the marseillais for the Parisian, it is more singing !
« Moro » (hello)
« Ua penduka nawa ? » (How are you ?)
« Nawa » (I’m fine) « Okuhepa » (thank you)
« Ena randjo o… » (my name is…)
« Ena roye oovetjikwae ? » (What’s your name ?)
That’s it; I think you’re ready to meet these extraordinary men and women who live in symbiosis with their environment.
The Himbas have been able to adapt to the harsh living conditions of Kaokoland: lack of water, extreme heat, remoteness. Each difficulty has been transformed into a practice or a taboo that has shaped their society. Water (Omeva / Omyia) is taboo, so women use fumigation to wash themselves. The pride of the Himbas is their herds of cattle. For these semi-nomadic pastoralists, cattle are the backbone of life: curdled milk (Omaere) is the basis of food, leather an essential element in the manufacture of tools, bags, belts, blankets, and ornaments. The containers for churning milk are made with cow bellies. Animal fat is used in make-up, while dung (with soil and water) is an essential component of the mortar used to build huts.
« A Himba is nothing without cattle » (Himba Proverb)
In order to be as beautiful and strong as redheaded cows, reputed to be more resistant, women cover themselves daily with otjize paste, a mixture of animal fat and ochre pigment. On their head, a cap – the Erembe – symbolizes the ears of the revered animal. The cap is attached behind the neck with a leather strap stretched over the top of the forehead. Clearly, livestock are at the heart of the Himbas’ lives ! Members of a single extended family live in an (onganda) a small family village consisting of circular hamlet of huts around an enclosure (kraal) for the livestock.
The Himba people: habits and customs of the Kaokoland red skins
Women tend to perform more labor-intensive work than men. All domestic tasks are the responsibility of women: building huts, cooking and serving meals, caring for children, collecting wood, carrying water, milking cows (using an Ehoro, a wooden milk bucket carved from a single piece of wood) and working in the fields! Traditionally, men are responsible for livestock farming, herding, and holding council with tribal chiefs. This married man sits in the shade watching a herd of goats. Among the Himbas, hairstyle indicates age and social status within the community. Hairstyles evolve as life progresses. Infants and young children have a shaved head, while unmarried men wear a single braided hair plait with the rest of the head shaved. Married men wear a cap or head-wrap, which gives the head an elongated shape. Girls wear two braided hair plaits called “Ozondato” pointing forward towards the face when they are children and backward when they are old enough to marry. The form of the braids is determined by their “Oruzo” membership (the father’s clan). The number increases past puberty. Once they are married, they comb their hair with long braids coated with clay: the “erembe” is a goatskin headdress worn by married women, while the “ekori” is worn for weddings and ceremonies.
In European culture, if you dare compare a woman to a cow, you will undoubtedly look like a bastard! Here, the most beautiful compliment you can give a woman is to whisper in her ear that she looks like a little red cow. Women cover themselves, from head to toe, with an ochre-colored paste (Otjize), a mixture of animal fat and hematite powder. It is only for aesthetic purposes and not as in popular belief, to protect the skin from the sun or mosquitoes! Each woman makes her perfume by combining up to a dozen different plants (for example a combination of Oljikuro, Ohandwa, Okaambi and some piece of Mopane bark). The fragrance is grilled on ashes, mixed with charcoal (giving it a black color) and then with fat. The paste is applied to the neck to limit the friction of the heavy necklace that women wear with pride. This same mixture is also used to coat men’s and children’s necklaces. Smoking is practiced daily. And just because they don’t “wash” themselves with water it doesn’t mean women should have a bad smell! In the intimacy of the hut, they burn perfumes based on plant origin under the “Otjihanda” (a conical structure of wood and fiber weaving).
Being and appearing in Himbas women
So here is our moment of fashion… The Himba woman takes great care of herself. For the Himbas, aesthetics meet very precise codes established by the ancestors. The Himbas’ jewelry, a headdress or necklace, tells the story of their life, providing information on the civil status and history of their owner. Women, in particular, have proudly perpetuated these traditions for centuries. The Himba woman is covered with fat and mineral colored pigments, leather, iron and copper, a shell worn between the breasts (Ohumba, a symbol of fertility), seeds (Omangete is a garland of dry seeds), rubber, string, and fabric. The whole outfit weighs about 26 pounds, excluding the weight of the baby they carry on their back.
« Yes, the outfit always flatters; and it’s not me who’s elegant, it’s my outfit »
(Fanny – Marcel Pagnol)
Like hairstyles, ornaments are like an ID card because they all have a meaning: we know how many children a woman had or if her mother is still alive… For example, the large copper necklace, the Ozondengura means that you had at least one child. Otherwise, you would wear the umbware, a necklace made of white pearls.
The skirt or “Ombanda” is made of calf or sheepskin, and, according to the elders, the dresses are shorter and shorter… as in our country! The belt is different depending on whether women have a child or not: the esange is for women with no children while the epando is the belt of women with children. On the right or the left wrist, they wear the otjitenda, a long copper bracelet that can cause severe burns in direct sunlight. The right or left is in no way a sign of political affiliation but a way of knowing the status of the parents: the absence of otjitenda on the right wrist means that the father has died while the lack of otjitenda on the left wrist means that the mother has died. The cult of appearance is an integral part of the Himba culture and is a direct link with the ancestors. According to a Himba belief:
« The souls of the ancestors keep their descendants standing. If the bond is broken, then the whole people collapse »
On their ankles, the women wear a large bracelet, the Omihanga, made of leather and metal. Be careful, the ankles are considered highly erotic, so it is advisable to hide them! The Ondoo (or Onzondoo in the plural) is the leather strap on the side of the Omihanga: if there is only one strap, the woman has only one child or none. On the other hand, if there are two straps, it means that the woman has two or more children !
The future of the Himba people: the clash of civilizations
While the Himbas are still attached to their land, to their nomadic pastoral life, and to their traditions, they are not isolated from local urban cultures. They are in permanent contact with modernity, and their customs have begun to change gradually. Nowadays, the Himbas shop in their local supermarkets, and villages have turned to tourism. National legislation has made schooling obligatory and free for all children up to the age of 16. Fathers have begun to dream that their sons will become doctors and care for the village’s elderly… They now want to benefit from schools and dispensaries, but also to be integrated into the Namibian population, which has sidelined the Himbas until now.
A few days’ walk from the traditional camps is the capital of Kaokoland, Opuwo, which offers tempting new commercial consumer products! Many Himbas have succumbed to the temptation to move to the city. Some have already made it a habit to go to the local supermarket and have created needs for some products. However, to buy these products, the Himbas have to occasionally sell some cows… For them, the vicious circle closes: if they sell their sacred livestock, they no longer have enough to eat. Then they have to buy more products from the supermarket and therefore sell more cows. They end up abandoning their traditions and clothes and become entirely absorbed into Namibian society….
So far, the Himba have maintained their culture and traditions successfully, but what will the new generation choose to do so under political pressure from the government to abandon tradition ? Will they be able to resist the temptations of the city and consumer society? The Himbas are reaching an important point in their history: they have to choose between a need for modernity and for openness to the Western world and their ancestral way of life, of which they are very proud. Preserving their identity will undoubtedly be the most challenging battle they will have to fight in the coming years.
« Epi nava » (Good bye)