Walvis Bay, Swakopmund, Skeleton coast and the Himba
Walvis Bay, Swakopmund, Skeleton coast and the Himba, Namibia
The day after our desert trip was Sunday we were planning on going to Swakopmund for a couple of nights but we decided to stay put and wait for the garage that Len had recommended to us to open on the Monday. It was relax time and with electricity we let the kids go on their tablets and I caught up with the blog, Edwina used the Laundromat and I also found the petrol cap in the back of the car. On Monday morning I took the car to get a suspension check, weld the wheel bracket and clean out the sandy air filter and then gave the White Elephant a well-deserved clean, the car wash valeted the inside including little air sprays on the switches, pressure washed the outside and underside and got the engine steamed cleaned, an absolute bargain at £7. Family picked up we headed to Swakopmund, we found both Walvis Bay and Swakopmund to be pleasant towns and both are favoured holiday spots for Namibians, there is a lot of second homes with a great coast for fishing. We had booked camping but it was still cold at night around 10 C, so we upgrade to a chalet and spent the afternoon shopping for the kids as they have started to outgrow their clothes. The next day we were up early and headed up to Skeleton Coast National Park, it was very foggy with high winds and could understand why so many shipwrecks litter this coast. First stop was Cape Cross, a seal colony numbering more than 100,000, nothing quite prepares you for the smell as you exit the car at the car park. All the girls spent the whole time with their jumpers over their mouths whilst myself and Luca didn't and gradually got used to the smell. It was an impressive sight to see all those seals but you couldn't stay long, photos taken we get back into the car and head to the Skeleton Coast National Park gate entrance it's a strange place, a building and fence with a large gate with the Skull and Crossbones adorned on it, 2 ladies looking rather bored greeted us and lead us to the building to fill out the required forms and registration details, looking in the log book there had been no cars enter the park heading the same direction as us. Entering the park through the skull and crossbones we wonder what lies ahead and to be honest it was a pretty desolate, flat, windy lifeless drive, we stopped for lunch near a shipwreck but it was just too windy and cold to even bother getting out, further on route 3 overland vehicles pass us, that was the highlight for the past 3 hours, we were wondering when does the landscape get more interesting and when do we see some dunes again. Unfortunately we were only transiting the park on the way to Palmwag and had to turn off just as we saw the large sand dunes, the sand dunes brought back memories of the desert trip and this is one area we think we would like to come back to. As we head inland the scenery changes quite quickly and we spend the next 3 hours driving through scenery that wouldn't look out of place in a Wild West movie. Just before Palmwag there is a vet fence you can't take any uncooked red meat, luckily we have no meat and get waved through. The vet fence crosses the whole of Namibia and is for disease control, mainly foot and mouth. We get to camp with just enough time for the kids to enjoy the pool whilst Edwina and I setup camp. Palmwag has a resident desert elephant but he didn't make a showing whilst we were there, next day we are heading up the road to Opuwo (again saw no desert elephants) to see the Himba tribe. The Himba tribe are one of the last true Africa tribes keeping the old traditions. The Himba tribe especially the woman are famous for only wearing calfskin clothes on the bottom half, a real eye opener for the kids to see topless woman wandering around, the women also cover themselves with otjize paste, a cosmetic mixture of butterfat and ochre pigment which gives their skin and hair plaits a distinctive orange or red-tinge. It is not only for the colour the paste also cleanses the skin as they don't have much access to water and it protects them from the Sun. Otjize is considered foremost a highly desirable aesthetic beauty cosmetic, symbolizing earth's rich red colour and blood the essence of life.
30 mins up the road and we encounter our first Himba village a group of woman with a couple of kids are by the roadside and wave us down, we stop, they are making ends meet by selling jewellery they have made to passing tourist. We donate some money to take some photographs and hand out sweets, with the children running from the village when we stopped there must have been around 15 children now. We get to Opuwo and it's a real African cosmopolitan town, Himba people mixed with other tribes Herero and Zemba. The Herero in this part of Namibia were heavily influenced by Western culture during the colonial period, creating a whole new identity, the Herero still wear garments similar to those worn by colonial Europeans 100 years ago. The Zemba have a different language, they wear more colourful jewellery and don't apply the otjize paste to their bodies.
We pull in to a parking bay and observe the different cultures around us, seeing a Himba women going into the local bank no shoes and topless was something you wouldn't see back home just imagine the reaction. We get out of the truck and head for the supermarket ready to stock up for the days ahead and the different tribes people are just going about their local shopping but for us westerners the sight of a group of Himba in traditional dress topless and shoeless pushing a trolley round, getting milk out of the fridge in the supermarket seems bizarre but we love it. Opuwo town has a really nice feeling to it and a great example how different tribes can easily co-exist.
We had to our campsite, we'd been missing the braais and since we were camping desperate for a large chunk of red meat we cook up T-bone steak, salad and potatoes after a refreshing swim in the swimming pool with a fantastic view of the valley below. After dinner with the kids tucked up in bed Edwina and I spot a scorpion walking through camp, we know it's deadly as it has small claws and a thick tail, "What do we do" Edwina asks, "Kill it, better a dead scorpion than a dead kid" I reply and take a rock and crush the scorpion. The security guard confirms that the scorpion was deadly and that if stung we would of needed hospital attention straight away. The nights are still cool and we all need to wear our thermals and socks to keep the early morning chill at bay, we are surprised that we are still feeling the cold in Africa and are all wishing for warmer nights.
The next day we hired a guide to take us to a Himba village and head off at 7.30am. We visit a homestead where typically a single extended family live, this homestead was also home to the chief of the area, who was away at a funeral today. The homesteads consist of a circular hamlet of huts and work shelters that surround an Anokuruwo (a sacred ancestral fire), the sacred fire is used to connect with their ancestors. There is also a central enclosure for livestock (Calves separated from their mothers so they don't drink all the milk). We walk into the homestead and are introduced to the chiefs' 1st wife (he has 2 wives but can have a maximum of 4), the children of the homestead all gather round. We are then left to our own devices and the chiefs wife signals us to freely wander around the village and make ourselves at home, Luca is first to play with the children, running around the huts playing tag whilst the rest of us watch the chief's 2nd wife give a demonstration of how the buttermilk is made for the otjize paste. Maddalena is summoned to have a go at shaking the dried out pumpkin shell containing the buttermilk whilst shaking it and trying to get the right rhythm the 2nd wife signals to Edwina with great amusement that she is doing it with her wrong hand her left hand, Edwina does her best to explain she is left handed. The young children were interested in Edwina's hair and kept on touching pointing and poking her, the Himba kids were all so sweet and asked for nothing from us, they just enjoyed our company. Edwina later gets secretly gestured into a home of a young Himba lady, Maddalena and Arabella follow on and they all get to experience a truly unique experience, the young Himba lady who instructed them into her home shows them her 1 month old naked baby girl being cradled in her arms, it's such a tiny sight. Edwina is smitten and gestures asking to hold the baby, the mother provides a small cloth and Edwina gets to hold for a while, then the Himba women gestured for the Maddalena and Arabella to hold, the girls were so gentle and caring, it was the first time they have ever held a baby so young and then they took it upon themselves to come up with a name suggestions for the baby girl with the Himba lady trying her best to repeat the suggested names, there was smiles and laughter filling the hut from all. Edwina tried to communicate the best she could with the Himba lady and finds out she is just 16 years old and that it's her first baby and that she gave birth in her house where they sat, this is a common practice and the new mother and baby stay put in the home the coming weeks to bond with little interruption. Edwina's maternal instincts come out and she's brimming from ear to ear, I can tell she's all broody when she emerges from the hut and hope she is not getting any ideas, she heads straight for me to recap her experience.
Maddalena, Arabella and Luca continue to interact with the Himba children, chasing dogs, teaching them playground games and songs and in general just sit round chatting to a few of the older Himba children that knew some English.
We then are lead to the ceremonial hut passing 3 hungry toddlers scooping up big handfuls of maize it's breakfast time. We settle down in the ceremonial hut to watch the Himba lady make the Otjize paste, first she grinds the red stone, then mixes the buttermilk and then applies the otjize paste to her body. She then started preparing incense made by burning aromatic herbs, bark, spices and resins, the smoke is used as body cleansing agent, deodorant and fragrance and the application was demonstrated to us, they also place a wooden cone over the fumes and wrap clothing around it to help improve the odour of the cloth. We enjoyed sitting around in the hut with our guide translating questions we had and the Himba lady certainly had questions for us about our family, kids age, do they all belong to my husband, how long Edwina breastfed for etc. Not your normal icebreaker questions but happy to oblige since we were asking such direct questions of their culture and cultural practices of raising families, we enjoyed the chat and laughter once again, I think it was a novelty for the Himba too having a family with children embracing the environment and enjoying the Himba children.
Edwina and I note how happy the Himba people are and how incredibly welcoming they are to westerners coming into their homes, they are gracious, friendly, and stunningly attractive with faultless skin, wide eyes and beaming smiles. Through further discussion we discovered that they don't use any form of contraception hence the abundance of children present, also since Namibian independence the men are no longer allowed to hunt and it soon dawns on us that the Himba woman have a really hard life, the men's main tasks are tending to the livestock, animal slaughtering and construction. While the woman perform more labour-intensive work, such as carrying water to the village, earthen plastering the mopane wood homes with a traditional mixture of red clay soil and cow manure binding agent, collecting firewood, attend to the calabash vines used for producing soured milk, cooking and serving meals, as well as being artisans making handicrafts, clothing and jewellery to sell to tourists. The responsibility for milking the cows and goats also lies with the girls and the Himba women and after all this they still have wide eyes and beaming smiles.
When we emerge from the unlit ceremonial hut into the blazing sun we are shocked to see around 30 other Himba woman have turned up along with a Herero lady, word had spread of our visit, they placed their blankets on the ground and ask us to take a look at their crafts, the children all showing crafts its overwhelming and a sense of guilt comes over us all as we can't buy something from all, the kids all buy a memento, Arabella a bracelet made from pumpkin seeds, Luca a necklace with some sort of animal bone carving, Maddalena a wooden carved doll painted in Otjize past replicating a Himba woman and Edwina buys the traditional Himba women woven necklace covered in the otjize paste, she is hoping it will make it back in tacked so it can be put into a frame for the wall. We found out that any sales made the profits are split amongst the homestead occupants helping to provide for the group and not kept by the individual crafter. When we leave the homestead the chiefs 2nd wife and some of the children come to bid us farewell, the guide hands over a bag full of Maize, oil, and other staples that will be shared amongst the homestead this was a pre arrange payment for allowing us to visit their home. Prior to our visit as a family we had discussed taking stuff along with us but decided it didn't feel right to take anything with a western influence to the Himba people we understood and wanted to respect the way they choose to live a very traditional way staying true to their roots. It was such a privilege to experience life in an authentic Himba village, quite often these types of activities are in a demonstration villages or they dress for the occasion, this experience certainly was not and it was a true authentic experience and we were allowed in to see their daily life.
The kids really enjoyed their time as there were so many Himba children to play and talk to. We loved watching our kids playing with their kids. Travelling across the world we have observed multiple cultures and as always it's just fantastic to see kids being kids and enjoying each others company and playing no matter what country we are in, ethnic group or background the children have come from. There is nothing like seeing our kids having no inhabitations and it's truly a magical site to have witnessed this blossom over our year travelling even though they can't speak other children's languages there is the international language of play. On this note I'll finish with something from the Dalai Lama which I think is so true:
"Small children are very pure and open. They have no prejudices or preconceptions. They aren't bothered by the secondary differences of colour, faith, nationality, wealth or education that seem to preoccupy adults. We would be better to be like them and one remedy is to remember that we are all the same as human beings."