Tribes

Damaraland (23 – 24 May 2014)

After having spent three days looking at animals, it was time to get to know the people of Namibia. As we were leaving the national park, some local girls at the exit posed for us while we snapped away on our cameras. It was a nice goodbye from Etosha.

Impromptu fashion show

Impromptu fashion show

We spent the night at the Etosha Safari Lodge just outside the national park in preparation for what was to happen the next morning. P was bringing us to a Himba village. I had seen the Himba people on TV before and I had felt some culture shock even then. This time I was going to see them in the flesh.

The village was founded by a German man who had married a Himba lady. His wife unfortunately contracted leukaemia and was unable to have children. I suppose as an alternative to having their own children. The couple set up an orphanage for Himba children. This was the village we were brought to visit. Tourism is a source of income for the orphanage and visitors also get to learn something about the Himba culture and way of life. We went for our visit bearing gifts of stationery for the children.

Our guide at the village was also the teacher at the little village schoolhouse. She seemed to be the only person at the village who could speak English and so was our interpreter as well. She taught us how to greet in Himba: “Moro-Perivi-Nawa”. There is a special handshake that goes with the greeting and it reminded me so much of how African Americans greet each other on the streets with their oversized clothes and even more oversized bling-bling.

In the classroom with the teacher and our guide

In the schoolhouse with the teacher and our guide

Classroom rules

Classroom rules

There were only women and children in the village at the time of our visit. Except for the village chief who was sitting at the entrance to the village the men were out tending their animals. But that was alright since the unique features of the tribe were associated with the women.

Himba women

Himba women

Himba women protect their skin from the harsh African sun by covering themselves with a paste made from red ochre, butterfat and herbs. The paste gives them a reddish hue and I have to say that the women in the village had really good complexion.

Preparing the ointment

Preparing the red ochre paste

Village priestess

Village priestess

Himba lady

Himba lady

Living in an area so dry meant that water could only be used very frugally. That also meant that baths were probably unheard of. Himba women ‘clean’ themselves by smoking themselves. In the morning they would burn some herbs and smoke themselves with the smoke. We were given a quick demonstration of how it was done in one of the huts. It was quite uncomfortable being inside there with the smoke all around.

Smoking herself

Smoking herself

It got more comfortable when the smoke dissipated and we stayed in the hut for a while to talk with the Himba lady who had demonstrated to us how she smoked herself. The questions she asked of us were, as P had told us beforehand, on topics Himba people were most interested in. How old were we? How many children did we have? At one point the Himba lady looked at Ar and I, we were standing next to each other, and asked us a question through our guide. Somehow I got the feeling that she thought Ar was my dad. My feeling was confirmed when I told the guide the answer before she could ask it and she did not probe further. It was quite strange since Ar hardly looked Asian and I hardly looked Caucasian.

The stars of the village however were of course the children.

Himba children

Himba children

These three came up to me and started grabbing my camera to take a better look. When I stood up one of them grabbed on to my leg. I almost could not get away!

Himba children

Himba children

Some of us felt a little uncomfortable visiting the village. I had my misgivings about visiting the village even before I had arrived in Namibia. The visit was meant to be a cultural one and I am sure that the villagers were agreeable to being observed. We were even invited to touch their clothes and hair and take photographs. The experience felt a little like we were in a petting zoo. Dl was quite upset about it.

Despite my misgivings however, my curiosity got the better of me and I snapped away with my camera at just about everything in the village. I thought that I was at least doing it with their consent and I did try to be as respectful as possible at all times. The children fortunately made the whole experience more real for me and less like a show specially put on for tourists. I doubt that any adult could have succeeded in imparting that amount of realism like those children did that day. They were just gorgeous.

Himba huts

Himba huts

Village kraal

Village kraal

It was time to get to our hotel for the next two nights. Thompsons Africa’s brochure said that Damaraland was one of the last true wilderness areas in Africa. I have no idea what standard was used to measure wilderness in this case but the landscape in the region was indeed gorgeous. I loved it that we could drive for hours and still not see any major urban areas. It was a refreshing change that I needed. On the other, it had been pretty much the same savannah landscape ever since we left Windhoek.

Goats going home

Goats going home

We checked into the Damara Mopane Lodge for two nights. At check in we were asked about our nationalities. Somehow the guy at reception could not accept the fact that Singapore was a country. I was quite unhappy when he asked if I were PRC and the way I said no sounded quite indignant but amusing to the rest of the group. When he failed at China, he tried South Korea. Am I so unbelievable that people could not trust that I knew what my own nationality was? I later showed the guy a map of East Asia when I had the chance and pointed out to him that Singapore did not even share a border with either China or Korea. And yet he still seemed fixated by the idea that Singapore was a city that must belong to some country.

I think the group had become quite close by the time we reached Damaraland, all except Dn and Dl who could not quite get along. For some reason Dn seemed to dislike Dl. As for Dl, she was quite upset about it and bewildered at the same time. She had always believed that people liked her. I could see that Dl tried to be friendly with the group but that somehow did not work at all for Dn. I could not for the life of me understand the animosity either since Dn was friendly with me.

Dl was quite a social butterfly and she made friends with the managers of the hotel very quickly. In fact by dinnertime on the first day, and we had reached the hotel in the late afternoon, she was already invited to have drinks with them after dinner that night.

Quite unexpectedly Dl and I became good friends and she invited me for drinks the managers. I accepted the invitation although I hated alcohol. In the end I was pressured into downing two shots of a really nasty concoction called, I think, Jaegermeister. It was to me just godawfully nasty!

It was an interesting group that evening. The three managers were an Ovambo gentleman, another gentleman of German descent and a lady whose ethnicity I cannot recall but her hometown is in Keetmanshoop. Dl is white Zimbabwean by birth. I am Chinese Singaporean.

Dl was complaining to the managers about her experience at the Himba village earlier that day. The managers however were a little more blasé about it. Firstly the orphanage needed the money and secondly they did consent to the visits and to being observed by us foreigners.

The conversation made me recall a little argument between Dl and J about the village during dinner. Dl had insisted that the orphanage was not a real village whereas J had insisted that it was. Suddenly the group seemed like such an acrimonious bunch. I decided to stay out of the argument although to be honest I could not make up my mind if I should consider the orphanage a real village or not.

The next morning P brought us to see the petrified forest. Since it was called a forest, I had hoped to see stumps of petrified wood standing all over like a real dead forest. I was a little disappointed. The scenery at the site more than made up for my disappointment though.

At the petrified forest

At the petrified forest

Petrified log

Petrified log

Stones that look like wood

Stones that look like wood

There is an interesting plant that grows only in Namibia and southern Angola called the welwitschia and we saw a couple of these in the petrified forest. This plant is known to be very long lived and the largest specimens are believed to be around 2,000 years old.

Welwitschia

Welwitschia

Welwitschia and petrified log

Welwitschia and petrified log

The real treat that day however was at Twyfelfontein. This is the place where ancient hunter gatherers and later Khoikhoi people had left behind more than 2,000 paintings and engravings on rocks. This extensive collection of rock art is believed to be created as part of shamanistic rituals and some of the images may even be 6,000 years old.

Twyfelfontein petroglyphs

Twyfelfontein rock art

Twyfelfontein petroglyphs

Twyfelfontein rock art

Twyfelfontein petroglyphs

Twyfelfontein rock art

Next on the itinerary that day were the Burnt Mountain and Organ Pipes. I honestly have no idea what the attraction was at Burnt Mountain. It was just an area that looked like it was covered in ash. I know that there is a scientific explanation for the way it looks but we are not geologists. The Organ Pipes were much more interesting with all the nicely shaped columns formed from cooled molten lava millennia ago.

Burnt Mountain

Burnt Mountain

Organ Pipes

Organ Pipes

Lunch that day was at a lovely lodge that looked like something out of a sci-fi movie. Maybe it was like Star Wars since we were in the middle of the desert and I could definitely see a young Anakin whizzing by on his podracer.

At the sci-fi looking lodge

At the sci-fi looking lodge

At the sci-fi looking lodge

At the sci-fi looking lodge

Damaraland desert

Damaraland desert

I had a chance to speak to Ay alone before we left the lodge. I found him to be an intelligent young man and I heard that he was valedictorian at his high school graduation. I was just surprised that he travelled around with his parents so often and throughout the trip he stuck to his parents quite a bit. He even kissed both his parents good morning. I did think that he was a very well brought up mommy’s boy. The conversation with him however made me realise that he was a young man with quite a sensible mind. He at least understood that life was much more than merely about landing a job in a huge company after graduation and making a tonne of money. I thought that he was definitely on the right track in life.

It happened to be Ay’s birthday and we had a party that night at the hotel. Ay looked so happy when the birthday cake was brought to him by a troop of hotel employees singing and dancing joyously. F and Dn kindly bought us drinks after we had the cake and we had a fantastic evening.

The next day was the start of another phase of our trip but not before we met more Namibians along the way. There were plenty of shops all along the highway and we stopped at a cluster of these. These were managed by some Herero ladies wearing their ethnic costumes. The Herero costume did not look entirely African but were distinctive enough for an industry centred around Herero dolls  and catered to tourists to be created.

Herero lady sewing

Herero lady sewing

Dolls sewn by the Herero ladies

Dolls on sale sewn by the Herero ladies

Herero children

Herero children

Moving on we stopped to take a picture of a man driving a donkey cart. We had already seen a number of those in the past few days and finally we got a chance to take a picture of one, at a price of course. It was not often that I got to see an animal-driven vehicle, or donkeys for that matter.

Donkey cart on the highway

Donkey cart on the highway

I live in a country that prides itself on being multi-cultural. I think that quality is obvious in Singapore merely because the major races here look so different from one another. Namibia however, as with most other sub-saharan African nations, is a lot more multi-cultural. While in the land of the Damaras I met people of the Himba, Ovambo, Herero, Nama and Caprivi (P is one) tribes. I had seen the artistic creations of the ancient Khoikhoi people. There are also Namibians of German descent. Those were just a portion of the different peoples living in Namibia, a country with a population no more than half of Singapore’s. That definitely put the world in an entirely new light for me.

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