From its modern day Herero women in their colourful Victorian gowns to its wild horses and wondrous desert with petrified trees that survive for millions of years, Namibia is a place full of fascinating stories, landscapes and traditions.
By: Dylan Evans
Namib” is the Khoekhoegowab (Nama) word for “vast” and the origin of the name of the country Namibia, formally South-West Africa. Vast, dry, inhospitable and hauntingly beautiful, the country was the destination of a 4,000km safari my wife Jojo and I embarked upon for our honeymoon in 2015. The two of us in our hired Land Rover Defender, packed to the gunwales with Western Cape’s best wine, crossed the border from South Africa at the Orange River. Once across the bridge we waved goodbye to the last sign of naturally flowing water for the rest of the odyssey. It was December and the temperature was frequently tipping 4°C.
A lasting memory of this vast place, with its endless skies and tiny population, was encountering the visually contrasting but ethnically related Himba and Herero peoples. Linguistically both hail from Bantu speaking groups of east Africa though the Himba are thought to have split from the main Herero group on what is now the Namibia-Botswana border before heading west to present-day Kaokoland. The Himba perhaps only number around 50,000 in total but are undeniably one of the most photographed ‘Traditional African’ ethnic groups still in existence. The women in particular are famous for rubbing their bodies with otjize, a mixture of butter fat and ochre, believed to protect their skins against the harsh climate. The red mixture is said to symbolise earth’s rich red colour and the blood that symbolises life. Their clothing comprises of little more than an animal skin loincloth covering their pudendum. A woman’s hair is dreaded with thick ochre at the roots and left free at the end so it resembles a pom pom. Once a woman has been married for a year or has had a child,she will wear the erembe headdress on top of her head, made from cow or goat leather.
Before the Himba and Herero split they were almost certainly dressed in a similar fashion, however, modern day Herero women proudly don multi-layered, multicoloured, flowing Victorian gowns with accompanying headdress. Their historic semi-nakedness seemingly offended the pious sensibilities of the European missionaries who encouraged this uniquely beautiful dress that is seen today. The Herero suffered under German colonial rule, of that there is no question. As a semi-nomadic people they relied heavily on cattle herding for economic subsistence and societal status. This was at odds with the German colonial requirement to provide opportunities for settlers in ranching, farming and mining. This resulted in their near-extinction in what was arguably the first documented genocide of the 20th century. Despite this, the Herero persisted and today rank among Namibia’s best cattle farmers and businessmen.
The Himba and Herero also share slight variations of the same belief system. They both worship their ancestors and the god Mukuru. Their homes surround an okuruwo (ancestral fire) and their livestock, both closely tied to their belief in ancestor worship. The fire represents ancestral protection and the livestock allows for correct relations between mortal and ancestor.
Namibia is in many ways a perplexing environment. It is safe, stable and immensely well equipped for tourism due to the excellent transportation networks, reasonably priced boutique lodges and stunning camping sites. But the Namib Desert can feel isolated and is not for the faint hearted. By definition it is a waterless and desolate area with little or no vegetation. Coming from the relative abundance of flora and fauna in East Africa, it can be overwhelming to the point of evoking madness. Personally I have always been drawn to the desert and derive comfort and nourishment from its wide open spaces. The Namib is the oldest desert in the world that allows escapism and the ability to start afresh every day with the rising sun. If you scratch below the surface and allow yourself to look closely, the desert is filled with many wonders. Petrified trees survive for 280 million years, endemic Welwitschia Mirabilis plants flourish for millennia due to intricate networks of roots close to the ground surface with a diameter of up to 30 metres, and the Dune Hairy-footed Gerbil is found here and nowhere else on earth.
Amazingly this desert has also become the home of Africa’s only herd of feral horses. ‘The Wild Horses of the Namib’ are a spectacular anomaly that must be seen to be truly believed. Fluctuating in numbers between 80 and 300, they are under threat. Inconsistent rainfall and penetration from Clans of Hyena have almost decimated the population. The origin of these fascinating creatures has been debated over time. What is almost certain is that they were separated from their German owners around the time of World War One. The most probable theory that I have come across relates to the mayor of Lüderitz from 1909 to 1914 – Emil Krepliin. The German administrator and equine enthusiast owned a stud farm at Kubub, south of Aus. Here, Kreplin bred workhorses for the mines and racehorses for the flourishing town of Lüderitz that had boomed in the diamond rush sparked in 1908.
Kreplin was interred in the Union of South Africa during the war and never returned. It is assumed that during or after the war, the horses, ownerless and not contained by fences, would have begun to scatter, leaving the overgrazed Kubub area in search of better grazing and following the scattered rainfall. They would have eventually made their way to the permanent water source at Garub, becoming wilder over time and eventually mastering their environment.
Namibia is a place full of fascinating stories and traditions. It offers great natural beauty and uniqueness at every corner. It is a place that should undoubtedly be on everyone’s bucket list.
Dylan Evans is a fervent adventurer with a passion for challenging environments. Fascinated by wildlife and ornithology, he is at home in the bush and has extensive experience travelling across Africa both professionally and personally. Since leaving the UK Royal Marine Commandos, Dylan has worked his way through the ranks at one of the premier risk management and security firms in Africa, Salama Fikira, being appointed Managing Director by the age of 30.