Kunene kin

Issue 3 (November 2008)

Hamilton Wende recalls a long road trip through Namibia in this, his regular column.


I drove into the town of Opuwo in northern Namibia on one of those rare evenings where the pink and turquoise of sunset still fills the western sky while a full glowing moon rises in the east.  The world and the vastness of the African landscapes are poised for a few glorious moments in the silence and glimmering light of our turning world. It was one of those mystic experiences that, if we take the time to notice them properly, help to anchor us in the universe.

The road behind me dipped and curved into a fold of low bush-covered hills.  In front of me, bare-breasted, was the dusty main street of Opuwo. Himba girls, dressed in traditional leather skirts and covered in reddish ochre and animal fat , wandered past air-conditioned luxury 4WDs and billboards advertising Coke on the wooden paling wall of a country bar.

I was exhausted from a long solitary drive through hot mopane bushveld, but arriving in the Himba country of the Kaokoveld was enough to lift my spirits.  Opuwo is a border town: not only is it the gateway to the ancestral lands of the Himba, it is also a border between different times, between modern Africa and one of the continent’s last-remaining traditional cultures.

The Himba are pastoral nomads who consist of about 50,000 people, most of whom live in the northwestern corner of Namibia near the Kunene river which forms the border with Angola. They survive by breeding cattle and goats, and many Himba still wear traditional clothing, covering themselves with a mixture of butter, ochre and herbs to protect themselves from the sun. The redness of the mixture symbolises both the earth and the blood of life.

The next morning I woke early and drove north to Epupa Falls on the Kunene River – a vast, thundering cataract of white water  framed by ancient baobabs. Nearby is the exquisite Epupa Falls Lodge, where I stayed in a luxury tent overlooking the river. My guide to the Himba villages nearby was Raphael.

We drove for hours along a stony track that was the old military patrol road in the days of war between apartheid South West Africa and Angola. The road was so rough that we could only average about 10km/h.  Finally we crested a small hill and there, on the banks of the Kunene, was a tiny village made of small mud houses surrounded by a stockade of rough logs.

‘Omarawombwa,’ Raphael told me.  ‘It means the sleeping place for a dog.’ A strange but somehow quaint name.  Certainly the village is a quiet, restful place in a setting of great beauty – the kind of Africa that cynics might believe exists only in a storybook. A little further on we came to another village: Okandombo – or ‘small aloe’.  There we met Kapokoro Chiramba and his family.  In keeping with local tradition, we had brought some gifts for the villagers: maize meal, sugar, salt and cooking oil. In return, Kapokoro showed us around his village.  People live a simple life here, milking cows, cooking meals over open fires, tending goats.  It is, though, a deeply authentic life, rooted in place, in the land of their ancestors. It is a life connected to memories handed down for generations around the night fires, and to family where the bonds of tradition and love are clear to see in the way people talk and laugh in the villages.

As the sun was growing low in the sky, Raphael and I made our way back slowly down the stony track. At a small souvenir kiosk near the Epupa Falls I bought myself a handmade Himba knife. There was something simple yet elegant in its authentic handiwork. ‘It’s a katana,’ the man at the kiosk told me.  A katana.  The word is Japanese for a samurai sword. It must have come here hundreds of years ago from Portuguese traders who were the first Europeans to visit both Africa and Japan.

On my last night there I watched a full moon rise over the Kunene river, the currents silver and swirling under the pale moonlight. I thought then how the connections of our world are very old and very deep. The Himba are a people who have learned to balance modernity and tradition.  They are not isolated from the world, but they have had the wisdom to cherish their roots.


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