Saturday, 13 June 2015

May 18: The Himba, and very old dead trees

It was a fairly light travel and adventure day. After overnighting in Khorixas, first, we headed west for a visit to the petrified forest. The farther north we go in Namibia, the greener, more treed and “wetter” it becomes, though it still remains technically a desert.

Looking like grazing land
Our guide at the petrified forest park showed us some cool indigenous stuff, like this plant, the welwitshia, the national plant of Namibia. It doesn’t look like much. But (1) it’s a conifer. Yes, it bears cones. (2) it has only 2 leaves, though time and weather cause those leaves to break apart, so it LOOKS like it has more; (3) it grows 1 cm per year; (4) it lives to be 5,000 years old.

Yes, those are cones 
The two leaves growing from the central core are clearly seen
There were cool little lizards everywhere.

There were lots of these 
This guy is less than 2" long from nose to tail 
A skink, I think
But mostly, it was about the Petrified Forest. About 280 million years ago, there was a giant flood that swept pine trees down from what is now central Africa, and they all piled up and got buried by sediment. And now you have pine trees lying on the ground, complete with bark and knots and tree rings, except that they are made entirely of stone.

A big log 
Stone that looks just like a tree
Over 40 m tall

From here, we headed back to Khorixas, then north to Kamininjab, passing F Roads that I mentioned a few posts back.

We did a brief roadside rest stop, and I found a beautiful iridescent red damselfly. We don’t have red damselflies where I live.

One of 128 species of dragonflies in Namibia
We stopped to shop, then visited a Himba village. If you don’t know who they are, read this before you proceed.

Did you read it? I thought not.

So the Himba are one of ~8 tribes that lived in the Angola-Namibia area pre-European settlement, and are of interest for a few reasons, mostly associated with their lifestyle, which many would consider “weird”. For instance

  • Women don’t ever bathe in water; they cover themselves in a mix of butterfat (extracted from their cow’s milk) and ochre, and “cleanse” themselves daily in 2 hr pre-dawn smoke bath.
  • They have a specific treatment for their hair involving butterfat and ochre, too.
  • The Himba don’t generally wear any clothes, though not being stupid, if they’re sitting on the ground (which they do a lot) they wear leather “skirts”.
  • Their front 4 lower teeth get knocked out in a big ceremony when they turn 12 or so, helping with pronouncing their language. This, apparently, hurts, and is memorable.
  • Women are “bought” for marriage with cows. Men can have as many wives as he can afford cows to give away, and most have at least 2 wives.
  • Hairstyles are a function of age, as are necklaces.
  • Women cannot show their ankles, and what they wear around their ankles is a function of how old they are, whether they are married, and how many children they have.
  • Men aren’t allowed on the right side of a hut; that side is the kitchen and that’s a woman’s duty.
  • The huts are made of mopane tree branches covered in mud made from cow dung and termite mounds, as is the floor.
And so on.

So they are interesting to tourists because we think they’re strange, though all it really is, is a set of traditions adopted about living in a desert.

The village we visited is actually mostly an orphanage with a school; something like 20 women, 50 kids but only 6 men. Accordingly, there are kids running everywhere. Many on our truck brought the village school supplies, like pens and coloured pencils and notebooks and stuff like that. Not every child goes to school; it's optional. There are mixed feelings among the Himba of schools; once a child starts attending school, there's a virtual certainty of the loss of their traditional lifestyle.

The school 
The school's interior. There are only 7 students 
Kids are kids the world over. Note the pants
Traditional kid
Our guide taught us (or tried to teach us) Himba greetings and customs, none of which anyone really remembered when it was time to meet them. Himba villages are set up with a circle of huts to live in surrounding both a sacred fire (kept burning always) and a corral where there cattle are kept, thus at least making cattle partially protected from predators like lions. The village chief’s hut faces the corral’s entrance, and the pathway from his hut to the corral is “sacred” and can’t be crossed without permission. Villages grow to about 30 huts, then split apart (amiably) and form two smaller villages. The main reason they split is to avoid putting too much grazing pressure on a generally poor landscape.

A traditional greeting includes shaking hands 
A traditional hairstyle 
The huts surrounding the corral 
It's communal childrearing 
Maize porridge, the universal food of southern Africa 
A traditional family
We went into one hut where one of the ladies demonstrated her morning smoke bath cleaning ritual.

Men on the right, women on the left 
Building the incense fire 
Adding her own special blend of herbs and resins 
The smoke rises through her hair 
A different kind of shampooing
In the centre of this village, because this village is, in great part, here only for tourists to visit (Himba a semi-nomadic), there is a market where the villagers sell things they have made, mostly beadwork and some carvings. The Himba market is like every other market; high pressure. Like a bracelet? Pretty soon you will be wearing 10 of them from 5 different vendors. 

Shopping time! 
They actually have nice stuff 
Bracelets, plus leftover ochre from shaking hands
It was interesting visiting their village, but it still felt like we were going to a human zoo. I’m glad they shared their traditions and culture with us, but still feel like they were putting on a “show”, and not just hanging out being Himba. I am reminded of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which basically says you can’t investigate a circumstance without affecting it. For all their goal of maintaining their lifestyle, our presence (and the presence of the other hundreds of tour groups and tourists each day) affects it.

Still, the Himba (and there are about 50,000) are co-existing just fine with the rest of the world, maintaining their lifestyle, going grocery shopping, selling goods at markets, and even protesting proposed hydroelectric dams that infringe on their traditional lifestyle lands. Given their lifestyle, and how many of their traditions (oh, like being naked) are societally unacceptable in lots of places, that's impressive and demonstrates the resiliency of those who live in the harshest of places on earth.

By the way, technically, it's the Himba people. Individually, each is OmuHimba, and in a group, they are OvaHimba.

Home for tonight is in Outjo, in yet another in the list of spectacular places to stay.

The lodge 
The grounds 
The bar and restaurant 
The (cold) pool
Wandering the property, we saw the resident Damara Dik-diks (a sub-species of Kirk's dik-dik), which are the smallest antelope of all.

They're all of 1 m tall 
Big eyes, since they're a prey of lots of critters 
Even pythons will go after them 
Perils of being small 
Tomorrow, we are off to Etosha. Here’s hoping for critters. Lots of critters.


Today’s African Travel Tip: Nuts

So one of the most popular items to try to sell to tourists is a nut the size of a large marble on the end of a leather ring. Not sure what the nut is (some kind of native palm tree, and the nuts aren’t good for anything except baboons), but it’s easy to carve. It’s brown on the outside and white on the inside. Sometimes they're just carved nuts with images of trees or elephants or rhinos. But they can be personalized. The pitch goes like this…

Sales guy approaches you and cheerily engages you in conversation. Very quickly, he asks you his name, which he writes on his arm or hand with a small tool to make sure he understands you. He disappears, and less than 1 min later, reappears with your name carved in the nut. You, of course, buy it, as it is individualized, and because if you don’t buy it, the nut and his hard work are wasted.

Carved nuts will cost you N$20-$N70, and are ~N$0.20 to make. Bargain hard.

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