Tribe May Be Flooded by Progress

Namibia's proposed dam would inundate Himba tribal land

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

For hundreds of years, the nomadic Himba herders have lived in the remote region where Namibia and Angola meet, tending their cattle and planting subsistence crops.

Isolated from the worst of the region's past century of colonialism and civil war, the Himba have managed to preserve their ways to a remarkable degree.

Today, it is estimated that between 5,000 and 10,000 Himba still live largely outside the cash economy, wearing lavish ornaments and smearing their skins with a mixture of red ochre and animal fat to protect them from the heat and dust.

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But as the next century looms, environmentalists fear that a proposed dam could cut out the heart of the Himba's fragile ecosystem. Far from viewing this prospect with concern, the government seems to regard it as an added bonus.

According to Jesaya Nyamu, deputy minister for mining and energy, the Himba way of life is "a culture of poverty and deprivation," from which they must be rescued. Earlier this year, Namibia's minister of trade, Hidipo Hamutenya, told BBC television that the Himba should abandon their old customs and "learn to wear shirts and ties and suits like me and everyone else."

The Epupa Dam proposal is becoming a stark example of the struggle between tradition and progress in the developing world.

Anthropologists like Margaret Jacobsohn of the Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation in Windhoek say that the Himba's wealth cannot be measured purely in cash terms.

By carefully adapting traditional herding strategies to changing realities, they have made themselves among the most successful subsistence farmers in Africa, she believes. Compared with their uprooted cousins in the squalid shanty towns around Africa's major cities, they have little experience of social problems such as alcoholism, crime, prostitution, or unemployment.

For the government, the issue is one of money and power. Eight years after winning independence from apartheid South Africa, President Sam Nujoma's South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) is still struggling to improve the lot of Namibia's impoverished black majority. In order to achieve self-sufficiency in electricity, the government wants to build a new 360-megawatt hydroelectric dam on the Kunene River. But the favored site is in the Zebra Mountains in the heart of the Himba's home range.

Last month, an independent feasibility report concluded that this would indeed be the best site to place a dam on purely engineering grounds. The catch, it said, was that this would flood about 50 miles of green riverbank between Epupa and Swartbooi's Drift, the main source of dry-season grazing for Himba herders. The new reservoir would also flood ancestral graves and block the river crossings used by Namibian Himba to maintain contacts with relatives in Angola. The Epupa Falls, a growing tourist attraction in this remote but beautiful region, would cease to exist.

Engineers and environmentalists agree that nearly all of this damage could be avoided by moving the proposed dam 30 miles downstream. But, they say, this location might not be able to maintain peak production in times of prolonged drought.

While a final decision on the dam is not expected until early next year, the government is showing signs that it will give little weight to environmental matters. It says that any loss to the Himba can be made good with jobs and money, which it promises the dam will create. "We think hydropower will be a catalyst to open up a region to investment and to amenities - clinics, more schools, shops, trade ... to diversify the area's subsistence economy," says Mr. Nyamu.

Critics denounce this argument as a new form of colonialism. Earlier this year, the government strengthened these im- pressions when it sent paramilitary police to break up a meeting between Himba elders and their lawyers.

Ironically, SWAPO politicians who spent decades fighting South African occupation were using apartheid-era legislation to suppress dissent. Last month, the government backed down in the face of constitutional action by the Himba's lawyers.

SWAPO sees no moral comparison between its actions and those of its white colonial predecessors. "Here you are dealing with an independent state with a responsibility for economic development," says Nyamu. "A democracy gets involved with the welfare of its citizens, and that includes the Himba."

He accuses "meddling" Western anthropologists and environmentalists of seeking to conserve impoverished tribespeople like animals, in order to satisfy their own guilt and curiosity about a vanished past. The great majority of Himba want the dam, he says, and those who don't are being frightened or even bribed by the "paternalistic" foreigners.

But the Himba seem to have little difficulty speaking their own minds. A group of Himba tribal councillors gathered at Okangwati, 50 miles south of the falls, became angry at the mere mention of the dam. "If the dam is built our grazing areas will be destroyed, our ancestors' graves will be destroyed, and more people will come ... and settle here," says Mbasekama Ngombe.

The government's talk of progress, jobs, and schools did not impress the elders. "We don't need work," says Kathimbathere Mbendwa. "We already have our livestock and we live off them."

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