I have been deeply impressed by Jimmy Nelson‘s work on the photographic project “Before they passed away“: he travelled for many years and photographed more than 35 indigenous remote tribes in Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, and the South Pacific.
Notwithstanding the criticisms about his “unashamedly glamorous” approach, in my opinion his endeavor to “capture part of something that will soon be gone” has a unique celebratory intent despite the idealistic sets chosen for some photos. I can feel the same fear that probably moved him: the fear of loosing the peculiarities of unique cultures, the fear that they will change and abandon their lifestyle and traditions becoming the same of any other “developed” people, the fear to lose an invaluable heritage.
When I was planning my itinerary across Namibia (you can also read How to organise a trip to Namibia) I knew that one of the last semi-nomadic communities in Namibia was still living in the north of the country, in the Kunene region (formerly Kaokoland): the indigenous Himba people, part of Jimmy Nelson’s photgraphy project, living as shepherds, hunters and gatherers.
I thought and over-thought about the opportunity to visit one of their villages: I was afraid they might already be “passed away” or, worse, they could have become a theatrical mise en sceine for tourists. In addition the journey to reach Opuwo in the Kakoland region is very long and the road conditions is worse than in the rest of the country.
In the end I decided to stay one night in Opuwo and planned to meet a local guide who would bring me to one of their remote villages.
Early in the morning, we went to the market and bought some rice, biscuits, flour, bottles of water and some other basic foodstuffs to offer the chief of the village as a present for his hospitality.
Our guide drove for a long while along the road and then turned off following an invisible track across the land and trees. At the end we arrived at an isolated village surrounded by small cultivated parcels of land.
I was tense and it was difficult to remember the few words in the Otjiherero language the guide tried to teach me before the arrival: “moro moro” (goodmorning), “perivi?” (how are you?), “perinawa” (I am fine), “okunene okwepa” (thank you), “kare nawa” (good-by and take care).
The chief accepted our gifts and finally we were invited to enter the village.
A group of women were sitting on the ground intent in various activities: breastfeeding their babies, brushing their hairs or hand-grinding some wheat. I shyly approached them, asking the guide to translate some polite thanksgivings for their welcome.
In this place where time has stood still the women wear only skirts made of goat leather or wool and their bodies and hair are covered with otjize, a red cream made of ochre powder and some animal fat (or nowadays Vaseline). Their men spend many days far from home to graze the live stock and the children run around the village guarded by the oldest girls.
Their houses are conical huts made of mud and dung covered with branches tied with palm leafs: they are organised in a circle around the main fireplace, the okuruwo, and the shed for the goats and the livestock.
In the middle of this scene I hadn’t the courage to take my camera and shoot any photos, I really felt it wouldn’t be appropriate and too much intrusive. After a while a group of children came closer and speaking and smiling they took us around the village asking to play and looking at our clothes and accessories. They released our embarrassment and finally we asked to the older woman the permission to take some pictures of them.
A young woman invited me to enter in the main hut: she showed me how to made the otjize and she covered my arm with it, after that she took some embers to burn some dry leafs and woods and she used the smoke to perfume her body.
The emotion and the excitement have been great.
Unfortunately the balances and the traditions, unaltered for many centuries thanks to the isolation from the civilized word, will probably inexorably change and in the end I understood my same self was part of this disruptive contact.
I wish I would have been able to say to them that our vision of civilization is not the only possible one and surely it doesn’t grant the Happiness.