Visiting the Himba Tribe in Ruacana
Miina is my guide and translator. She is from the Zemba tribe and grew-up in the nearby town of Ruacana. She has been living and managing the Hippo Pools Community Campsite for sixteen years.
We leave the campsite in my car, and drive past the hydroelectric dam. We stop at the turn-off for the Angolan border, which is just a couple kilometers away. There are a couple Himba ladies sitting under a tree, and some men getting drunk in a tin shed in the back. Everyone notes our arrival with a long gaze. The store there sells five kilo bags of noodles, cheap charcoal stoves, and packages of crackers that never expire. Miina buys little plastic jars of Vaseline and we get back in the car.
This is modern day tribal life, Miina explains. The Himba used to mix butter made from their cows with ochre to lather their skin a glowing red, and matte their hair the color of volcanic earth. However, now they mix the ochre with Vaseline, so it is a great gift for us to bring. We turn onto unmarked dirt tracks, and Miina maneuvers her hand in front of her like a swimming fish, indicating right and left turns between bushes and trees, while telling me stories about how wild the land there remains.
The Crocodile Attack on the Kunene River
Miina lives a simple life and almost never leaves the valley, but seems to have experienced the world anyways through those that have come to visit. In a whisper, she tells me a story of caution about the campsite we have chosen on the Kunene river.
Six years ago, a German couple pitched their tents where ours stood now. The man had gone down to bathe in the river, while his girlfriend washed dishes on the river bank. She heard violent splashing and he was gone. Miina and a few community members arrived running. They knew immediately a crocodile had struck. It was not the first time.
The crocodile emerged on the opposite bank dragging the dead man’s body. It had crossed into Angola, and was too far to hit with stones. They just had to watch helplessly. The horror of the incident still lived in Miina’s hushed tone and distant stare. It was wild, the land and the life here was still wild.
Ondjongo: The Himba Dance of Happiness
We heard the village, before we saw it. Seven Himba women, and 20 children stood in a crescent clapping, laughing and chanting, “haaayyy, ohhhh, haaaayyyy, oooohhhh”. Miina entered the waist high fence of sticks surrounding the ten huts of the village to go chat to a Himba woman. I was left trying to figure out what was going on. Everyone was full of energy, laughing, eyes twinkling, feet stomping with the beats of their hands.
Miina returned to relay that we were welcome to stay, and I could take pictures. “This is the Ondjongo dance of happiness”, she yelled in my ear over the commotion. It is done at celebrations like weddings, but also sometimes when they have been drinking, as well as just whenever. “Whenever they are happy”, she concluded with a thoughtful nod.
I was so impressed. Dancing as a community, just for fun. The youngest children would gyrate into the crescent, flapping their arms like a chicken, and pronking like a springbok. They would jump and twirl, whipping their braids in circles, and donkey kick so the cloth around their waist would fly up, mooning those around them.
Everyone giggled uncontrollably. The adolescents entered the crescent with more trepidation, moving across it quickly, more self-conscious of their movements. However, the women would follow with large arching leaps through the crescent to encourage them to express themselves more freely. In their small community, the dance seemed to say, show us proudly who you are, so we can support you.
I loved it, yet also remembered back to my adolescence when something like this would have made me cringe inside with embarrassment. I thought about what I would do if they asked me to cross the crescent, and I hoped I would jump in with a smile.
Watching them move freely, mooning, laughing and clapping, I began to reflect on my more conservative, self-conscious culture. Where had our dancing circles gone? How could we be better off without them? What makes me so self-conscious sometimes?
I was never invited into the crescent to dance. Maybe they could sense my apprehension. Maybe the long lens of my camera, detached me too much from the activity. I do not know. Part of me wanted to gyrate in the crescent so everyone could laugh, but I did not have the courage that day to do it without an invitation.
Himba Necklaces and Samoan Tattoos
After the dancing, we spent some time chatting. The village and me, with Miina translating. Almost everyone wanted to come touch my tattoo and run their fingers through my beard. My tattoo is from Samoa, and they recognized a seashell on my shoulder as similar to the cone shells they wear as necklaces. They wanted to hear about where the shells came from, and if I could bring some next time I visited.
The women wanted to know when I would be married. They struggled to understand what my girlfriend did if I cooked, and why I did not have calluses on my hands from touching hot pots. The women rubbed my hands to feel for themselves. They explained how their different head dresses, hairdos, and necklaces represented their marital status, age, and if they were menstruating yet. The women were beautifully bold, and the children were wide eyed, and curious.
Looking around the village, none of the huts had any doors, none of the women wore tops, there were no toilets. It seemed as if life was designed to exist without privacy. It felt wonderful to sit and share with a society that seemed to live without secrets. I realized how cherished privacy is in my culture, and how it allows people to create a version of themselves, which can be awkward to share.
When everything is shared, there are no secrets left to be ashamed of. You are free to express yourself without worrying about being judged for who you are. It was a simple lesson, derived from a short visit to witness a happy dance, but it will leave an impression on me for a long time.
Notes for Nomads: While there are many places to visit the Himba tribe, the area around Ruacana is one of the more remote places you can go, so the experience feels authentic. Having Miina there as a translator was invaluable, and she also helped negotiate a gift to give to the village for hosting me. I thought it was a great experience.
Miina can be found at the Hippo Pools campsite (also known as the Otjipahuriro Community Campsite). She can handle bookings and can be reached at: +264(0)812962349. Campsite three is the best spot there, but watch-out for crocodiles. There are braai pits, a communal ablution block with showers, but there are no longer hippos there.