Traditional African tribal life will soon be gone. Tribal allegiances will no doubt persist, but exotic clothing and immemorial ways of living will have disappeared. For many educated Africans this will be a considerable relief, as they find the more flamboyant accoutrements of tribalism — animal skins, body paint, spears — to be anachronistic and humiliating. But for foreign visitors something remarkable will have been lost, and the continent will have become more prosaic. (Over the past 35 years, renowned American photographers Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher have produced a series of superb illustrated books about African tribal life, including “African Ceremonies,” “Africa Adorned” and, most recently, “Painted Bodies.” Another personal favorite is “Before They Pass Away,” photographer Jimmy Nelson’s magisterial depiction of the world’s vanishing cultures.)
On my recent trip to Namibia, I had the opportunity to visit the Himba tribal people, pastoralists who live in Hartmann's Valley, close to the border with Angola. The excursion is one of the activities arranged by Serra Cafema, and small groups of guests head out into the desert on ATVs to visit one of the two Himba villages that are happy to receive them. (Driving an ATV on shifting sand, as well as negotiating vertiginous ascents and descents, involves an extremely steep learning curve: the vehicles tend to slide rapidly sideways on corners and frequently find tracks in the terrain preferable to the one their driver had in mind; flipping them over, however, requires no skill at all.)
Given that the Himba see foreigners two or three times a week, their way of life is clearly not untouched, but at first glance it certainly seems to have changed little since the tribe moved into the area, sometime in the 16th century. The women have extravagantly braided hair and their exposed skin is covered in otjize paste, a mixture of butterfat and red ocher pigment, perfumed with the omuzumba shrub’s aromatic resin. Their simple homes are grouped around a sacred ancestral fire and constructed from saplings of mopane wood, covered with red clay and cow dung. Nearby, a kraal provides protection for their livestock, which are also regarded as sacred.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Himba is that they are able to survive at all. The landscape of Hartmann's Valley may be spectacular — it looks like the backdrop to a scene from “Star Wars” — but it is one of the most hostile environments imaginable. Every two or three years, downpours briefly transform the orange sand into an immense acid-green meadow, but most of the time the women must walk for several miles in order to fetch water from the Kunene River for cooking. Indeed, water is in such short supply that the Himba generally use wood ash to “wash” their hair.
Of course, at the end of a four-hour excursion it is impossible to have any real understanding of people for whom schools and healthcare are virtually unknown. But, as ever, I was confronted by the baffling paradox of traditional societies. Despite living in conditions that would be intolerable to those from the developed world, the Himba seem incomprehensibly content.