Urbanization threatens Namibia's traditional Himba culture
Where an ancient tribe and modern Africa meet, bare-breasted women in animal-skin skirts and men with spears join the urban flow of traffic, supermarkets, and pool halls.
As the sun drops behind the dusty main street here, the crowd at the informal market behind the OK Grocer gets bigger. Twenty-somethings in Western clothes slap hands in greeting, older men sit in the red dust drinking home-brewed beer out of plastic buckets, women haggle with stall merchants for the last best price on tomatoes and T-shirts.Skip to next paragraph
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Scattered throughout the scene are Himbas – members of one of Southern Africa's last traditionally living pastoral tribes. Two Himba women – bare breasted and wearing animal-skin skirts, their bodies covered in an auburn mixture of ochre and animal fat – lean in the doorway of a bar and pool hall. A Himba man, twiglike spear tucked behind his ear, laughs at a joke made by two men in jeans. A group of older Himba women stand in a circle, clapping frenetic rhythms as they take turns dancing in the center, shaking their heads and hips while the others laugh gleefully, some drunkenly.
Ten years ago, it would have been unusual to see Himba here, residents say. But Opuwo is changing, as are the cultures that have long flourished around it. Opuwo now finds itself on the ever-shifting border where traditional culture and modern Africa meet.
"We are many Himba here in town," says Mackey Natundu, who wears slacks and a button-down shirt, but identifies himself as Himba. He says his family is in a village in the mountains, but because he hopes to find a job he stays in Opuwo, the closest thing to an urban center in arid, remote northern Namibia. "People come here and they don't like to go back."
Another man in Western garb approaches.
"You want to take pictures of the Himba?" he asks, moving close. "You must give something." He makes a sign for money and grabs a visitor's arm. "Come, we take pictures of the Himba."
Mr. Natundu shoos him away. The sun – heavy and orange – drops lower on the Namibian horizon, and the market seems to get louder.
"The real traditions are in the village," Natundu says with a sigh. "People, they come here and drink."
For years, Opuwo has been a frontier town – the last stop before the vast, dry north beyond; the only place with a supermarket and gas station until the Angolan border 100 miles away. Under apartheid South African rule, when Namibia was called South West Africa, this was the only administrative post in the north. The town's name means "the end" in the language of the Herero, another ethnic group, which is also spoken by the Himba.
Today, Opuwo is growing – in part because of an expanded civil service, in part because of the urbanization sweeping across Africa. And it is increasingly attracting young Himba.
"Opuwo has been the gateway to the world beyond it," says David P. Crandall, an anthropologist at Brigham Young University who has studied and written a book on the Himba. "And it is a world that is attractive to the teenage boys.... These men have a leg in the Himba world and have a leg in what they see as a new, hip life in Opuwo."
Flipping through guidebooks for Namibia, it's easy to get an impression that the oft-photographed Himba are a beleaguered group. The Lonely Planet cautions travelers that paying for photos undermines the traditionally cash-free Himba culture; the Footprint guide says the "breathtaking and dramatic" Himba are "under threat" from tourism, traders, and politics.