African safari journal – one year ago – we visit a tribal village

June 21, 2019 - Yesterday was busy even by the standards of this trip. Up at 6 and out at 6:30 to the main tent for breakfast and coffee. The coffee is not bad here; it’s not great, but drinkable black.

I chatted with Jordanna, an Asian woman with a posh English accent. I asked where she is from; she said London. If she had said Singapore, I would not have been surprised – Crazy Rich Asians. [Note from 2020: I had just seen the movie a few weeks earlier on the plane over. Only a year later and that pop culture reference seems hopelessly dated.]

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Later at breakfast yesterday we had a conversation with Ross and Agnes, a couple from Atlanta. We talked about the difficulties of bad WiFi – how bad WiFi is worse than no WiFi, because with no WiFi at least you know you have no WiFi, but with bad WiFi you’re endlessly pulling to refresh. [Note from 2020: The Oatmeal did a comic on just this very subject: <theoatmeal.com/comics/no…>]

I was so used to meeting non-Americans – Namibians and Botswanans in particular – that when they asked where we are from, I reflexively nearly said, “The United States. California. San Diego,” which is now my stock answer I told them that and they laughed and said that when telling non-Americans where they are from, they say, “Atlanta. It’s a big city in Georgia. Which is next to Florida.” People around the world have heard of Florida.

Festus, our outstanding guide, took us out for a game drive in the morning, and the highlight of that was finding lions feeding on a zebra. I found it fascinating, but neither thrilling nor disgusting. It was nature.

But the highlight of the day was a visit to a Himba tribal village, a family of about ten people living as their ancestors have probably done for tens of thousands of years. We drove about two hours through the hot desert, flat and khaki colored and featureless like much of it is here in Africa, with the occasional hardy plant. We went through canyons and saw zebras galloping at full speed, despite the heat. That’s how zebras move by default – always at a gallop, Festus told us. The male zebra brings up the rear of his harem. We saw ostriches too.

The village comprises two large rectangular kraals, totaling an acre I guess, made of the same rough vertical wood branches that are standard for those sorts of structures. One is for goats – we saw a few wandering around – and the other is for cattle. That’s mainly what the Himba live on, their diet consists of a great deal of protein, Festus told us later.

There were ten people in the tribe, a man, his wives, a few toddlers and very young children, and a younger man who looked to be about 15 or 16. They were nearly naked, the women with their breasts uncovered. The primary man, who we interacted with mainly, wore leather sandals like flip-flops, a short skirt or kilt made of a blue fabric in front that appeared to be manufactured, appendages that looked like fur animal tails in the rear, a handmade necklace that seemed to be made of leather and maybe bone or wood, and nothing else that I can recall. He and all the people were lean but appeared well-fed and healthy. The younger man wore a T-shirt advertising a brand of beer, in English, that I did not recognize.

Festus said ahead of time that he would introduce us to each person, and encouraged us to use the tribal word for hello – “morro” - accompanied by a firm handshake. We did that, greeting the men and women. I added, “I am very pleased to meet you,” knowing my words would not be understood but hoping my voice would.

The people lived in a few small huts, about as tall as me and maybe wide enough to lie down. [Note from 2020, for those who don’t know me personally – I’m about 5’9”-5’10” – average height for an American man.] The huts are conical, made of dung mixed with mud. There were a couple of smaller hut-like structures on raised platforms about knee or waist height, used for storage. There were two small campfires, one of them with religious significance where the man told us he went to pray each morning.

We talked a bit, translated by Festus, because none of these people spoke English. I addressed my questions and statements to the man directly, occasionally looking to Festus, as I have seen people do when dealing with translators in TV and movies. I don’t have much experience with that myself.

I asked the man what message he would like the rest of the world to know about his people. He was stumped by that, and called to the women for help. Later, Festus told us they have a matriarchal culture – despite being polygamous – and women are very well respected. He asked me in return what I wanted. I said long healthy life and not to get in trouble with my wife. We all laughed at that.

Then he invited us to take a look around and said we were welcome to take pictures.

By that point I was ready to go because it seemed to me that these people’s lives were awful. Living in the hot desert with barely any shelter or clothing, squatting on the ground, eating goats and cattle, in a community of less than a dozen people. But we did not want to be rude, so we looked around a bit and I took a few photos.

They had a large table set up with crafts, many of which they’d made locally, some of which they’d bought, inexpensive giraffe and hippo figurines and jewelry. Some of it was made from PVC pipe. I had previously planned to buy a bracelet and be able to tell people casually I bought it in a Himba village, a primitive tribe in Namibia, but that seemed disrespectful now and none of the items appealed to me or were even in my size.

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But we bought a few things because that was the arrangement. Festus has told us we were expected to bargain, and so we did although it seemed petty to bargain the equivalent of a US dollar or two from people who had so little.

In the first part of the ride back to the camp I was troubled by what I had seen. I’ve grown up seeing images of people who live like the Himba, but to see it in real life was moving. The Himba have less than the homeless in any US city or the people who live in the shantytowns we passed at Windhoek.

I was torn, I told a Festus. On the one hand, I said, I think people have a right to life how they want to live. On the other hand: Not like that.

Festus was silent then and I asked him to tell me if he thought I was wrong. He said no, he agreed with me.

At one point on the drive back to camp we passed a single broken beer bottle on the desert floor. It was the only trash we had seen. Festus stopped the Toyota and hopped out. He crouched down next to the debris and examined it momentarily without touching it, then carefully plucked the pieces one at a time with one hand and deposited them gently in his other hand. I thought it would be good to get out and help but I was enervated by the heat and the scene I’d seen at the Himba village, so I watched.

We drove on mostly quiet on the way back to camp, over a sea of sand, as it got dark out.

Later in conversations with Festus and other Africans, I learned that the quandary I faced in thinking about the Himba is reflected in African policy. The African nations have ceded large tracts of land to the Himba and the Himba get revenue from rent on that land. The camp we are staying at is on land leased from the Himba.

In conversations with Africans later I learned a couple of things about the Himba that made me think differently about their lives. They have a rich matriarchal society and tradition. Social ties are as important to human beings as physical needs. And close social ties are something we Americans lack, leading to epidemic in suicides and to drug addiction, which is a kind of slow suicide. Would it be ridiculous to suggest that Americans are as impoverished as the Himba? [Note from 2020: An exaggeration but not ridiculous.]

Also, the Himba enjoy complete freedom of movement. They can at any moment pack up all their belongings on their back and go elsewhere.

I think it was the same evening that Festus gave a brief astronomy presentation, showing us major features of the night sky using a laser pointer that shot out a solid beam, similar to the one we’d gotten from another guide at another lodge. He talked about red giants becoming supernovae, and showed us a red giant, Antares. He pointed out dust clouds that obscured part of the Milky Way, including the biggest dust cloud, the Coal Sack. We already knew Festus was expert on the local animals, birds, insects and plants, geology, anthropology and centuries of history. Now astronomy too?!

Throughout our stay in Africa I’ve encountered evidence of the wrongness of Western prejudices about indigenous peoples being less sophisticated than Westerners. Festus is a prime example, he’s from the Herrrera tribe and grew up in a simple village, but he is as intelligent, well educated and thoughtful as anyone I’ve met. He seems like a kind and good soul as well. All the guides we’ve had are encyclopedias of knowledge of natural history, with a love of nature and their home country and eager to share that love with tourists. But Festus stands out among even that group for his dedication. I asked him what he does for fun, when he’s not working. He spends time with family, visits a park favored by Africans, watches nature documentaries – he’s particularly fond of Attenborough – and reads natural history. So he’s working even when he’s not. At work, when he’s not shepherding tourists, he trains other guides. The rest of the staff of the camp seem to hold him in high esteem, and after spending only three days with him, Julie and I do too.

One of the waitresses, named Thensia, speaks a click language. She shared a few words with me, it was beautiful and unintelligible. Julie and I asked the staff to take our photo, and several of the younger staffed in jumped in and wanted to take photos with Julie and each other, so we did that a few minutes and everyone had fun. One of the young men planted a kiss on the cheek of one of the waitresses just as I clicked the shutter and everyone laughed. Young Black Africans seem to enjoy photos, we encountered the same thing in the school we visited. Both the children and the staff at the camp crowded around the phone to see the photos when they were done.

Thensia asked me if I had WhatsApp and I said I do, but I hardly ever use it. She watched over my shoulder as I poked around in the app looking for a way to send a message to a new phone number but could not find a way. She told me I had to add the number to my contacts first, and with my permission she snatched the phone from my hand and quickly added herself to my address book. And I sent her the photos.

My point is that she was quite adept with the iPhone; her fingertips flew over the keyboard and icons. Hardly an innocent savage!

And now I have the phone number of a pretty 20-year-old waitress in my contacts list. What could go wrong with that?

[Note from 2020: I just checked my phone. I still have her number!]

(click the images for a bigger view)


Me, Julie and Festus have lunch.


A lion feasting on a zebra.


Lion walking away after feeding on a zebra. Note the bloody jaws and chest.

Part of me thought the last two photos were too graphic to post, but mainly I think they’re just nature.

📓🌍

Mitch Wagner @MitchWagner