Oct 8, 2018

How Many Horns Are On Your Grave? – Namibia

The answers you get depend upon the questions you ask.

Thomas Kuhn

Himba woman wearing an ‘erembe’ (crown) on her head
Sculpted from cow or goat leather, worn once married or with first child
Various loin-skirts hanging on wall behind her
In Africa, donkeys are ubiquitous.  Carrying rowdy kids, the accidental bug-searching-birds, or supplies on their overused swaybacks, they move slowly along roads with no guides in sight.  Some are tied together by the neck, others left to roam singly, all casually eating as they go, none resting.  Their mellowness makes me want to slow down and take more time experiencing each of the African scenes developing along the seemingly endless road to Namibia.

A separate specie from horses, donkeys are sturdy animals, capable of surviving on scanty vegetation and little water, which suits them to life in parched areas. Although camels are associated with trekking across the desert, donkeys did it first.  They don’t do well in the rain and being wet for extended periods can harm them, their fur not waterproof. 

Donkeys have a reputation for being stubborn, but a more fitting description would be cautious and determined, which also makes them excellent guard animals. After first trying to scare off predators with loud braying, they are quick to charge and fight off wild dogs, coyotes, foxes and even mountain lions.  Unlike horses, they are not easily startled and have a keen sense of curiosity.  Donkeys are often a salvation to families in many regions of the third world. They help with water and wood collection, land cultivation and transportation of produce to market.

More than forty million strong, they have been used by humans around the world for over 5,000 years.  They are the cheapest form of farm labor accessible to the underprivileged.

Salt pans extending forever, whitish to blueish to pinkish hues
Our faithful Pluto by the salt flats
Leaving Maun, the village near the Okavango Delta, we first stop by the shimmering Makgadikgadi (dry thirsty place) pans or salt flats, our last stop in Botswana.  Nothing grows for miles in every direction except perhaps a few hapless miniature plants tucked in the sunk-in animal tracks crisscrossing the fringes of the salt pans.  This nearly featureless terrain fuses with the horizon and is one of the largest in the world.  During the rainy season, it may turn into a shallow lake making for an inviting area for flamingos, zebras, and many others.  We are here during the dry season and it is still teaming with life and beautiful in its own way.

Hoba Ataxite (iron meteorite with more than 16% nickel)
3-m wide, 1-m thick, largest known in the world
At 60 tons, it landed on earth 80,000 years ago
Because it is nearby, we make a quick detour to see the Hoba Meteorite.  Discovered in 1920 by a farmer plowing his field, it is believed to be between 190 and 410 million years old.  Astoundingly, it fell to the earth without causing a crater.  Its survival as such a large meteorite suggests it entered the atmosphere on a long low trajectory and a sufficiently slow velocity to allow a soft landing.

Before its entrance into the earth’s atmosphere, it is thought to have weighed 88 tons, losing over a third of its mass from vaporization.  An American curator tried to move it to the USA, but it proved too heavy for any type of transport and stayed in Namibia.  Over time, small pieces were cut off using drills or oxyacetylene torches, leaving many unattractive scars.  The area was made a National Monument in 1955 but it was not until 1985 that it received sufficient funds to finally be protected from further vandalism.

Ablution – not a term used much in the US or Canada but common here
‘Act of washing oneself’ – showing the way to the showers…
Women – follow her index finger
Men – ablution – follow his arrow
Just a tad behind Western Sahara, Namibia has the second lowest population density in Africa.  It is a vast waterless country with a small population, barely 0.03% of the African continent.  With so few people inhabiting such a large area, only 13.5% of the roads are paved.  Vast spaces set Namibia apart. It is a country of impressive landscapes spread across an area almost twice the size of California but with only two million people.

This elephant looks incredibly old but is it? 
Thanks to white clay and calcite sand, these elephants are known for their
ghostly appearance which they maintain with regular mud baths.
Few light pink flamingos left as the lake recedes
to become salt pan again as seasonal cycles never cease
Etosha’s Okaukuejo watering hole is even lit at night for special viewing
So easy to find animals near limited water during the dry season
Watching for about 30 minutes, we saw more than 200 animals
Giraffes and gnus (wildebeests)
Have I told you the story of the warthog (pumba) and the hyena?
I saw a pumba in a small mud puddle lifting its head up from a relaxing time only to see
a hyena looking right back…  I had assumed it would take off in fear, but it just sauntered off
Puff adder, one of the deadliest snakes in the world. 
Crossing the road with a full belly
Looking much bigger when they are this close…
This ostrich is trying to outrun our vehicle.
The gemsbok (oryx), one of the few animals which never seems to look for shade
Even in the heat of the day – incredible colorings
Leaving the Makgadikgadi salt flats and Etosha National Park behind, we finally go on our last safari before we enter the land of sand dunes, wines, and civilization.  It is hard to believe that 3-7 million years ago, Etosha was a gigantic lake.  The area has very little shade yet animals rest against the smallest of bushes just to get any bit of it.  You will often see antelopes resting next to a shrub ½ their size, tucking ever closer to obtain maximum protection from the unforgiving sun. 

A cheetah safari or was it? 

Speaking of safari, the word comes from safar/i which means to journey or expedition in Swahili and Arabic.

Not sure I would call what we did a safari since the cheetahs are captive and fed regularly but it was a good opportunity to watch, in action, these agile and graceful animals.  A couple were tamed and lived with the farmer’s household, walking among kids and dogs.  The others were kept ‘wilder’ but fed regularly.  Instead of having the cheetahs killed by farmers losing some of their cattle to them, the place we visited is keeping them alive albeit, no longer in the wild. 

There is a huge misconception that cheetahs are the main killer of cattle, sheep or goats, but analysis of their droppings shows that only 5% prey on farm animals, usually the desperately weak ones. 

Dogs have been introduced to protect goat herds and it is working remarkably well.  Goat kills has gone down anywhere from 80% to 100%.  The dogs involved are Anatolian (Kangal) dogs originally from what is now Central Turkey.  They are placed with the herd when they are a few weeks old, so they can bond with them.  They live with them permanently and deter hunters of all types: humans, jackals, or cheetahs.  Their work is difficult and comes at a price: snake bites, scorpion stings, baboon attacks, or cancer from exposure to the harsh sun.

The dogs have slowly been introduced since the mid 1980’s and helped bring the cheetah population back up about 1,000 with fewer farmers feeling the need to kill them from losing any of their herd.

Notice tail storage.  Little ones are black
A special kind of sheep roams Namibia, the Karakul sheep which are renowned for their ability to forage and thrive under extremely harsh living conditions because of their ability to store fat in their tails.  Their beautiful coat (should you support wearing fur) is sold under the brand name Swakara and nicknamed the Black Diamond of the Namib Desert.  It is black, very curly and shiny.  

Two old cheetahs living with a farmer and his family
One was nearly 18 years old
Did I say domesticated?  Kissing one of the farm dogs…
We could pet the cheetahs which I didn’t do but it was offered
The fight for meat share begins – five cheetahs circling
The non-domesticated ones.  Ferociously fighting over meat.
Whereas Namibia has few people, it has many of the world’s remaining cheetahs with an estimated 3,000-4,000 specimens living here.  They are magnificent animals that blend well with their environment.  It was a bit sad to be on our last safari, but the beauty of the animals was uplifting.  Their top speed of 60m/h (100km/h) can be reached in 3 seconds making it the fastest animal in the world.  They mostly feed on small to medium size antelopes but their sudden burst of speed leaves them exhausted, requiring a recovery period before eating their prey, opening them to being robbed of their food by lions, leopards, wild dogs or hyenas.  This high speed is not enough to save them from near extinction with grassland, their natural habitat, quickly disappearing. 

Watching these beautiful creatures reminded me how little freedom is left to African animals.  They are collared, chipped, fenced in, followed by drones, helicopters, people, night light jeep tours, etc.  Few, if any, are left alone anymore.  

Loud, vicious, and brazen aggression
Natives call this plant the kokerboom (quiver) tree.  Part of the aloe family.
Very young Himba girl without crown or anklets.
They are not shy and have incredible hairdos
We stop to visit a supposedly typical Himba village where approximately 30-35 women, 6-7 men, and 50+ children live.  Of these 50+ children, we are told only 5-6 go to school (usually only the oldest boy gets an education).  As stated above, the region’s population density is extremely low.  This leads to isolation and a secluded lifestyle which makes it easier for the Himba people to hold on to their culture and traditional ways of life.

I had high hopes to see true village living but who was I kidding?  These people are so used to receiving foreign visitors that even the smallest of kids is trained to beg.  They would take anyone by the hand and lead them to where the women were selling their handicrafts.  They knew how to use cameras and cell phones.  They were forceful and did not easily take no for an answer, becoming upset if you refused to go with them like I did.  I finally distanced myself from them, so I could observe and take a few pictures uninterrupted.   I am fully aware that my visit adds to their life change as well.

Following a subsistence style of living, most true Himba are very thin and fit.  Many of the women in this village were fat, some near obese, making me question their lifestyle.  The place was also littered with various plastic containers or bags.   

A bit more research about this place brought to light that the land was owned by a Namibian who did not live there and only came back once in while to be with his wives.  That this is just a business disguised as a village.  As our male tour guide spoke, some of the women (most of whom do not speak English like our guide), would make interesting faces, obviously not agreeing with what the guide was saying but having to go along with the representation made to us.   There were no signs of older generations or teenagers – It was a made-up group of people, not an extended family-based unit.

As with the Maasai Mara, the huts only last about 5-6 years, termites having the better of the wood supporting them.  It also coincides with when most of the food within fair walking distance of the village has been exhausted – time to set up camp somewhere else.  As with the Maasai Mara, they are also missing 2-4 of their bottom teeth.  Some say it helps with better pronunciation of their language, others, that it is cultural, a symbol of maturity and beauty of the Himba women (most educated Himba men no longer do this, nor do they wear Himba clothing).

The indigenous, semi-nomadic Himba people are hunter gatherers. Traditionally working with skin and leather to make aprons, girdles and headdresses. They craft jewelry making bracelets and neckbands out of copper-wire as well as making baskets, pottery and musical instruments.

The Himba live under a patriarchal system in terms of authority, but a matriarchal one in terms of economy.  On a day to day basis, life is generally conducted along the following lines:
  • Men – responsible mainly for herding livestock, killing animals for meat and cooking meat
  • Women – responsible for finances, making porridge, caring for children, milking cows and goats.
  • Children – responsible for fetching water and fire wood, herding goats and cows and just being kids!
Extended family members live in an onganda (homestead). This is typically a circle of huts and working shelters around a sacred ancestral fire (okuruwo). Both the fire and the livestock are closely tied to their veneration of the dead, the sacred fire representing ancestral protection and the sacred livestock allowing ‘proper relations between human and ancestor’.  The chief’s home’s door faces the door of the kraal.  Himba people are animists and their supreme being is called Mukuru. The way they communicate with their ‘God’ is through the holy fire. The smoke of the holy fire rises towards the heaven which enables them to communicate with their ancestors who stand in direct contact with the Supreme Being.  This is where all male circumcision and teeth are removed before puberty to get them ready for marriage.  Between that fire and the hut of the headman of the village, there is an imaginary line which should never be crossed by visitors.

Village huts among the acacia trees
Animal kraal
Cleaning dry animal skin
Working with beads
One of the most remarkable Himba traits is that women are not allowed to use water for washing. This implies themselves and their clothes. Again, according to the elderly this dates back to the great droughts where water was scarce and only men were allowed access to water for washing purposes. Apart from applying red ochre paste (otjize) on their skin, Himba women do take a daily smoke bath to maintain personal hygiene. They put some smoldering charcoal into a little bowl of herbs (mostly leaves and little branches of Commiphora [myrrh] trees) and wait for the smoke to ascend. Thereafter, they will bow over the smoking bowl and due to the heat, they will start perspiring. For a full body wash they cover themselves with a blanket so that the smoke gets trapped underneath the fabric.  Himba women smell like tanned animal hide or leather.  It is a very earthy, lovely smell.  

Getting ready for her daily smoke ‘bath’
Their most striking feature is their intricately decorated hair styles.  It takes up to 12 hours to put together.  The Himba women used to use hay or goat hair but now they buy plastic hair extensions (I found many of them on the ground while walking around the village).

Bracelets always cover what they consider the most private area of the body, their ankles.  Some have lines or notches, each representing one of their children.  Some have speculated that these anklets are to protect them from snake bites, but they walk barefoot, and the anklets are not very tall so I do not know it this applies or not.  

When young, hair design is in front of face
Designed to help her avoid male attention
Great place to see various Himba hairdos can be found here.

The Himba people stick to porridge. Every morning and evening they heat some water, wait until it boils, and put some flour in it, maybe add some oil and food is served. The flour is mostly from maize but from time to time you might find some mahangu flour as well. Mahangu is another name for pearl millet, it is a very popular crop in Namibia since it performs well in soils with low fertility. On rare occasions, such as weddings, the Himba do eat meat but this is more an exception than a rule.

Namibia is where Germany learned genocide, though that word hadn’t yet been coined.  Between the summer of 1904 and spring of 1907, the Imperial German Army killed around 80,000 of the 100,000 Herero and 10,000 of the 19,000 Nama people.  It is amazing there are any left today. 

Himba culture states a sign of wealth is signified by the horns on your grave (referring to the number of cattle owned).  The ‘erembe’ crown that women wear is meant to resemble cattle horns.

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