Etiquette savvy
Issue 2 (May 2008) The wife of a former ambassador to Namibia has written a book to ensure visitors never inadvertently put their foot in it. Sharri Whiting lived and worked alongside her husband in Namibia for four years and often found herself in situations where etiquette was critically important.

 

Q How did you fall in love with the country?

I was working for Miss Universe 1992, Michelle McLain, a Namibian. When I arrived in Windhoek for the first time I went to a dinner that was hosted by the Prime Minister to launch Michelle’s children’s charity. That night, Michelle introduced me to the Italian ambassador, Piero De Masi. I ended up falling in love with both Namibia and Piero all on the same day. Piero and I married at Schwerinsburg Castle (the ambassador’s residence in Windhoek) in 1996.


Q What was life like as an ambassador’s wife?

Fascinating. One of my favorite memories is meeting the king of one of the most important tribes in Ovamboland. When we arrived at his kraal we were taken to a cattle auction – the clouds of dust, the ululating women dressed in colourful swirling skirts, the mooing of the cows, the auctioneer in his feathered hat, and the aroma of grilling meat in the air – are still distinct in my mind a dozen years later.


Q What surprised you the most when you were writing your guide?
Researching ancient tribal customs is a wonderful way to understand the cultural perspectives people have today – I especially enjoyed learning more about the old hunting and fishing rituals. These customs took into account the importance of conservation of the environment long before these ideas became current in Europe or North America.


Q What would a suitable present be to a San guide?

Unlike in times past, when they were entirely self- sufficient, in today’s world, the Bushman or San people in Namibia need hard currency to purchase things they are unable to find in the bush. In addition, a guide might appreciate sugar, flour or matches if you have some to share.


Q How should you greet a Himba woman when visiting her home?

I have been to Himba villages many times and usually am greeted by a cheery, “Moro!”.  The one thing to remember is that one does not touch or shake hands with a Himba unless the Himba herself extends a hand first. When entering her home, it’s best to let her lead the way. Often, Himba women will make and sell baskets or jewellery for very reasonable prices. They appreciate selling these items, as the hard currency is useful to them, particularly if they have children in school.


Q What’s the most important piece of advice you would like to pass on?
Namibia is so multi-cultural that tolerance is built into today’s society. I would advise however to take care about showing too much skin. In some parts of northern Namibia it is considered inappropriate and indecent to show skin between navel and knee; in other parts of the country, covering the breasts is more important. A good rule of thumb when travelling the country is to wear long pants or walking shorts and stay away from low-cut blouses or clothing that exposes the midriff. Aside from being culturally smart, you’re protecting your skin from Namibia’s strong sun.


• Namibia - Culture Smart! By Sharri Whiting is published by Kuperard in October 2008

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