The Trials and Tribulations of Getting to a Himba Wedding on Time
I've been fascinated with different cultures for as long as I can remember - from my first meeting with a Native American medicine man at Mesa Verde in my home state of Colorado, to my time hiking through the Dogon villages on the Bandiagara Escarpment of Mali, West Africa. So when I made contact with a guide named John Tjipurua (highly recommended on TripAdvisor), I was beside myself with excitement, for I was all set to meet the beautiful, semi-nomadic pastoralists called The Himba.
The Himba are an indigenous people with an estimated population of around 50,000 living in northern Namibia, in the Kunene Region (formerly known as Kaokoland). The Himba history is rife with disasters, including severe droughts and guerrilla warfare, particularly during Namibia's war of independence. Between 1904 –1908, they suffered from a genocidal war conducted by the German colonialist government in German South-West Africa under Lothar von Trotha that nearly wiped out the Herero and Nama people. By the 1980s, it appeared that the Himba way of life was in grave danger due to adverse climatic conditions and political conflicts. A severe drought killed 90% of their livestock, and many gave up their herds and became refugees in the town of Opuwo, living in slums on international humanitarian aid to cope with widespread famine. But after the South African Border War with Angola, and Namibian independence (1966 – 1990), the Himba managed to overcome most of their hardships and have been relatively successful in maintaining their culture and traditional way of life.
I arrived in the town of Opuwo after a very scenic drive from the Erongo Mountains, and I must say that it was quite shocking after camping alone in the African bush, this largish, modernish, spread out town of 7,500 people. I pulled into a crowded bank parking lot and was immediately gobsmacked by the long, diverse queue coiling out from the ATM - a colorful smorgasboard of Himba, Herero and Germans standing there in various modes of dress and undress. I really don't know how I managed to get cash, let alone pick my jaw up off the ground.
After regaining my composure, I purchased a few handmade trinkets from a couple of desperate looking ladies, then headed back to my 4x4 to make my way to Opuwo Country Lodge, which was situated on a hill overlooking the beautiful Kunene valley. I arrived, checked in and got directions to my campsite, then messaged John, my guide, to let him know that I'd arrived. He asked if I'd wait there at the lodge, because he wanted to come up and meet with me.
John showed up and we had a really nice visit. He told me a little about the area and what we'd be doing the following day on my 'Himba cultural tour'. We agreed on a noonish meeting time so that I'd have the opportunity to 'sleep in', something that I hadn't had the chance to do on my solo journey thus far. We parted ways and I headed off to make camp.
I woke up around 8 am in my tent after a wonderful night's sleep, and was just reaching for the tent-flap zipper when I heard a vehicle come rolling up. I peered out squinty-eyed. It was John. "Hurry!" he said, "we have to get going or we'll be late!" And I laughed. "What do you mean?" I exclaimed, as I blearily navigated the aluminum stairs that extended down from my rooftop tent. "You said we weren't going until noon!" And he shrugged.
"There is a Himba wedding happening and you must see it," he answered. "I need to get something in town. I'll come back for you in 30 minutes."
Oh, my! I hadn't even had my morning tea yet! So as he peeled off down the road, I peeled off to get ready. I ran for the propane tank and the tea kettle. Then for a change of clothes and the ablution block. No way in hell was I going to a Himba wedding without showering first! As the kettle was heating up, I jumped in and out of the shower in record time, realizing all too late that I'd forgotten a towel! Arrrrgh!!! Nothing like getting dressed...wet...in the morning desert chill. Yikes! Ran back and made my tea and slammed it down. Burnt my tongue. Really? Great start to my morning. Forget about having any brekky. Fun times. Yanked my bedding out and brought down my rooftop tent just as John was pulling back up. Couldn't get the zipper of the tent cover zipped for some reason, so John had to help. (Found out the reason for zipper problem later that evening. In my rush, I'd left my two lanterns inside the tent! And they actually survived the crush!) We headed out into the Kunene countryside, John driving like a madman and me following desperately. Unaccustomed to the roads and all the speedbumps, it wasn't a fun drive by any stretch of the imagination, but I managed to hold my own. We were meeting up with some guests that were staying at his private campsite, and he didn't want to keep them waiting. After about a forty-five minute drive we turned into his place called Omungunda, where we met his group and then headed back out again, with me bringing up the rear. A few clicks down the road we made a left turn onto a dirt track and stopped. Standing there was a Himba man and a couple of kids with a small herd of grazing goats. John got out of his car and went over to talk to them. I had the bright idea to give them some extra foodstuff that I had in the back of my 4x4, so I got out and opened the paddle lock on the rear door, set my keys down beside the little refrigerator, grabbed a plastic bag and loaded it with fruit and some buttermilk rusks, and then closed the rear door and fastened the lock. I was handing the foodstuff to the grateful man and boys just as John and his group took off down the road with the assumption that I was right behind them all. I ran and jumped into my vehicle. Didn't want to get left behind! But where were my keys? I grabbed my head with both hands and yelled a well-known expletive, "WTF?"
My keys were locked up safely in the back of the 4x4 next to the refrigerator!
I rested my frustrated head against the steering wheel. All I could do was sit there and wait for John to realize that I wasn't behind the fast moving group. Surely he'd be right back? Fifteen minutes later and I was ready to scream. The man and his boys were still there, watching me in wonder as I groaned and grumbled. They spoke no English, so I couldn't explain my idiocy. Finally, John returned with a shocked and questioning look on his face, and I laughingly explained my dilemma. Without hesitation, he picked up a rock and went right to it. Pummelling the paddle lock with everything he had, soon it gave way and I had my keys! Yippee kay yay!!!
He jumped back in his vehicle and took off again, just as I was running for the driver side door. But I didn't quite make it. No. I stumbled on a big ol' rock and I went down HARD! "Moooother...fuuuucker!" I yelled, peeling my damaged self up off the ground. Banged up knees. Skinned up elbows. Dirt all down my front. And serious pain. I must look like a total buffoon to these people, I thought, shaking my head. John was heading back in my direction now and I was horrified, so I tried to wave him away as I jumped into my vehicle, wounded pride and all. He pulled up next to me.
"Are you alright?" he asked, wide-eyed. "Did you fall down?" And I laughed.
"Yeah, but never mind. I'm fine. Let's just get there. Before anything else goes wrong."
By the time we all arrived in the village, it was right before noon and already blazing. A group of elders were working on the carcass of a cow that had been slaughtered an hour earlier for the wedding celebration. Hence the rush from John. He'd wanted us to witness this process. Wow, I wasn't sure how the other five foreigners felt about it, but I was certainly thrilled at my misfortunes. Didn't think I could stomach it, seeing as how I was already having a hard time watching the handsome groom carve up the dead beast.
John showed us around the village and introduced us to these curious folks, and we asked questions and watched as they went about preparing for the wedding. We even got to be involved in their singing and dance rehearsal. I watched the boisterous demonstration and then I gave it a go myself, which was quite hilarious. One of the other foreigners captured my silly 'Himba Mosh-pit' moment on his cell phone...
After the little dance, we all just wandered about and mingled with the friendly, but shy Himba. I felt honored that they were allowing us to be here on this special day and I used my camera as respectfully as possible, only taking pics with each persons permission. Even at that, it was difficult to get anyone to smile into my lens, so I concentrated on more candid shots.
Finally, it was time for the ceremony. We could see the simple procession as it approached. Just a female Herero family member leading another family member followed lastly by the bride...
Then a few children joined the solemn march towards the place where the nervous groom was waiting...
I cringed at the last bit. Another two women joined and they made the rest of the way on their bare hands and knees...at least a 300 foot distance! Yikes! I never got the reason why. It looked downright painful!
Then we all backed away from the actual ceremony (out of respect), but I did manage to capture one quick pic of the bride and groom. The beautiful bride looked quite sad, actually, but hey! I can't imagine why? I might have looked the same on my wedding day, if I'd had to crawl towards my intended on my hands and knees on that thorny ground, too!
It was truly a lovely day!