Who's fooling who?

Trip Start Jul 19, 2009
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Trip End Oct 25, 2010


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Where I stayed
Himba camp

Flag of Namibia  ,
Monday, September 27, 2010

I want to tell you about the Himba tribe, the last traditional tribe in Namibia.
I realise there are two ways of telling and am wondering which would do more justice. It's hard to say.
I can quote the facts which I have here in front of me. I can't fault the tour operator for that, it is a fair and true description of what you will encounter. I summarize:
Normadic, pastoral people. The women look after their own and each other's children and do all the hard labor. The men handle political tasks and legal trials (...........)
The Himba wear little clothing, loincloths and animal skins, their bodies painted red, women and children wear beads and braided hair.
The paragraph ends explaining the village is not a human zoo; we are allowed inside their homes for a cultural exchange. The income generated from these excursions helps sustain the tribe.
Please respect their lives and help preserve their culture and traditions.
Yes, well, as far as I can see that is just not possible.
This is of course my personal opinion and I am sure there are many strong arguments against it coming from more knowledgeable people, but I can only give you my sentiments, right or wrong.

We entered their territory and it was like walking into a BBC documentary. You gasp - so it really exsists, there are still people living in a way we have only glimpsed at on National Geographic and then imagined them tucked away somewhere secret and far from 'civilisation.'
But here we are, a truck load of tourists, cameras at the ready, walking around, snapping away, as if it is perfectly normal to invade these peoples privacy like this.
This can't be right, we have no right, what the hell are we doing here?
We come bearing gifts, as instructed. Yellow plastic Shopritebags filled with mais flower, sugar, cooking oil and other basic foods are placed next to one of the exotic looking women sitting on the ground. They don't get up or thank us profusely for our offerings, one nods unsmiling, then opens each bag almost indifferently, sometimes picking an item to unwrap and taste, handing out sweets to the kids.
Must have been some 30 odd children and maybe 7 or 8 women from the ages of 16 to early twenties. I didn't see any middle-aged or old and just a couple of men. They didn't partake, they were playing a game, moving stones from one hollow in the sand to another. Bit like backgammon, I guess.
The children, beautiful in their traditional dress, unusual hair, were swarming around us, feeling our bags for sweets, pulling at my trinklets - they wanted what we had. Without even being asked they posed for photos, then insisting to see the result.
I am not going to be sanctimonious, after the initial shame, I too took pictures. Why?
I don't know, to show people at home so they might have a notion of what it was like - for I myself hardly ever revisit my pictures. I like to remember, and I will never forget this tribe.

The women rise two and a half hours before the sun comes up to perform their smoke baths. They do not use water to cleanse themselves. We were given a demonstration when gathered together in a round clay hut. The group, a Himba lady and an interpretor.
There were skins and some simple utensils hanging on the wall, a place for a fire on the floor.
The cultural exchange.
And so the why's and the hows of the painted naked bodies, the meaning of the bracelets and beads and hair decorations were explained. How females were higher in hierarchy, things like that. Then we were invited to ask questions and after a few obvious ones our group got more confident and the subjects of sex, aids, relationships and bodily functions came up.
A little uncomfortable, I thought, even in our culture these can be delicate subjects.
The girl covered her face in embarrassment, but then, giggling, she did answer. I am sure somethings must have been lost in translation as our interpretor must have been reinventing our questions in order to avoid words he found too explicit.
The session ended in handing her a sanitairy pad and tampon, the latter she found very amusing, not quite sure how it worked, she let it dangle and twirl from its cord.
Our guide would not let her keep it for fear of corrupting the traditional way of life. That made me chuckle, mobiles were spotted there, they had cameras pointed at them all day, we drive up in great big trucks with our watches, Ipods. The kids know how to work the stuff better than I do, yet I was surprised when I found a mirror in my bag to see how absolutely delighted they were. Yelling with laughter, pulling it out of each others hands as if they had never seen the likes. Admiring their images while they see themselves on camera all the time. Strange, isn't it?

We walked off towards the gate where they were selling beads and bracelets. They were very keen and not in the bargaining mood. Fair enough. I thought these young women seemed very much in charge; they accepted our clumsy curiosity, tactless remarks and probing eyes and now they were reaping their rewards. They were not humble or submissive, rather indifferent, they tolerated us.
I looked at the children, most don't go to school but stay at home to learn and continue the traditional way of life. Still innocent and endearing but by next year, or the next, their hands may be more adventurous, maybe rude if they don't get what they have come to expect. You can't blame them. We are teaching them this as we 'help them preserve their culture and traditions'.

So how do you do that, and isn't that a contradiction in terms?
We return to our lands of plenty, memory cards full of photo's - look what I've seen - but what about these people, what have we done for them exactly?

I'd like to hear what they have to say about us once we're gone. Why didn't I ask that questions while I could? But I can imagine the woman's beautiful eyes hard on mine, her voice bold yet polite: 'We respect you as you respect us.'

Who's fooling who?
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