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The Himba of Southwestern Africa and the Implications of the Nation State

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The Himba of Southwestern Africa and the Implications of the Nation State

For over five centuries, the Himba people have breathed the “hot and filmy” air of the Earth’s oldest desert, raising fat, prosperous herds of livestock in a shrewd network of grazing lands, and honoring their ancestors through ancient sacred fires and venerated grave sites (Crandall). Anthropologists suppose “the Himba's [ancestral] firelight has been flickering . . . since the 1600s, when they arrived as part of the great Bantu migrations from the north” (Salopek). Unbeknownst to them, the arid and volatile beauty of SouthwesternAfrica has provided the Himba the world’s best cultural haven from violent confrontation and influence of foreign power (Salopek). However, this desert haven is no longer a refuge from racial discrimination and environmental destruction: in an ironic twist of history, the Himba are now threatened, not by European colonists, but by their own Independent nation state governments.

In the past, foreign wars and encroaching Western colonists left the Himba relatively untouched. However, globalization has wrought a new government mind in Namibia and Angola: progress is profit at all cost, which translates to extensive tourism and unquestioned governmental river and land exploitation through hasty damming projects. As both independent governments now urgently move towards Western ideals of ruthless progress, the international community must respond to Southwest Afrcia’s government proposals for Angola’s Iona National Park and Namibia’s Epupa Falls Dam. 25,000 semi-nomadic Himba “peasants”, divided between Southern Angola and Northern Namibia boarders, now fight for their rights to choose the way of their future. In the struggle for Himba sovereignty, these two cases stand out as blaring war cries of Himba cultural and political rights under attack.

Smeared with otjize, a blend of butterfat and powered iron ochre for protection against the arid climate and blistering sun, the Himba are physically distinguishable as the “Red People” on the gold and brown landscape of Southwestern Africa ( Crandall). “ In scattered encampments [or homesteads] of 20 to 30 people” the Himba “drift with the seasons to new [settlements] in search of water and grazing lands” (Bensman). Tending to semi-permanent gardens of maize, pumpkins, and melons, the Himba primarily live off the yogurt and butter fat of their livestock (Ezzell). As animals are sacred to the Himba, the passing of an elder is the only momentous occasion for cattle to be slaughtered. By transferring ancestral fire to the exact place of burial, community life is physically and internally centered on the fire.

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"The Himba of Southwestern Africa and the Implications of the Nation State." 11 Mar 2018

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Nation State         Southwestern         Implications         Africa         Environmental Destruction         International Community         Haven         National Park         Peasants         Racial Discrimination        

Though “family groups move their households several times a year so that extensively grazed regions can grow back” (Ezzell), the Himba consistently migrate back to sacred sites and burials, carrying with them ashes of their sacred fires (Salopek). Ceremoniously blessing each morning’s cattle milking at the fire through their ancestors, the Himba are spiritually reinforced and sustained each day by their cattle, ancestors, and Creator (Crandall).

The Epupa Dam Proposal has been a monumental catalyst in Namibian Himba relations with foreign, as, prior to 1990, foreign relations had been all but nonexistent. Traditionally, “no other tribes wanted their hardscrabble land” (Ezzell) and when Germans trekked North from South Africa in the late 19th century, they saw no profit in acquiring the rocky, inhospitable terrain on which the Himba lived (Germans focused instead on conquering the indigenous Herero people in the lush regions of central Namibia). Early Himba-Western contact occurred on the fringes of tribal wars tribal wars with both the British and Portuguese, as clearly evidenced by the Himba’s intricate beaded jewelry, which is “recycled” from the everlasting supply of old bullet castings that litter their land ( Junek). Aside from occasional bouts with small missionary outfits, the Himba of Angola and Namibia lived in peace from foreigners while wars raged both to the North and South of their desert haven.

Today, the Angola Himba still enjoy their desert haven free of foreigners, but exist on the brink of globalization. Though the Angola Himba may herd their livestock, “till small plots of maize, grind millet daily, cook over open fires, make jewelry and weave baskets” (Bensman) without disruption, the Angolan government has plans. Now momentarily free of civil strife and war, the government “is hoping to launch . . . . Iona National Park, a spectacular chunk of the Namib Desert encompassing 5,000 square miles of the Himba's homeland” to build Angola’s infant ecotourism industry (Salopek). This capitalistic shift will draw insatiable streams of foreign tourists and “will rock the nomad's world” by introducing uninformed land restrictions and laws on grazing lands and cattle herding (Salopek).

Such consequences are already plaguing Namibian Himba. Currently, Namibian Himba are castrated by the Namibian government for their “primitive” ways and exploited as “a tourist attraction to match Kenya's famous Masai herders” (Salopek). While Angolan Himba remain a “self-sufficient people who are far more traditional than their cousins in neighboring Namibia” (Salopek), the international spotlight has flashed onto the Namibian Himba and the outcome of a foreboding battle with their Independent government.

The war for Namibian emancipation from German rule was won in 1991 and the new fledgling government immediately sought to develop means of economic growth and commerce independent of foreign control. Subsequently, the Epupa Dam Proposal was resurrected from a 1969 energy initiative against reliance on South African electricity companies. Sou th Africa's Burmeister Consulting Engineering Group was called upon by the freshly christened Namibia to produce the Epupa Dam Feasibility Report (Ezzell). The Feasibility Report was overwhelmingly supportive of the Dam on all accounts, and thus, fully propagandized by the Namibian government.

Yet the Epupa Dam proposal, while generating independent electricity for Angola and Namibian metropolis areas, would flood 250 square miles of traditional Himba grazing land and sacred gravesites and wreck massive ecological damage on Southern Africa’s water systems (O’Loughlin, Pearce ). Human-rights advocates predict that “[The Himba] would join a long list of subsistence groups destroyed by sudden, large-scale change” with the proposed Epupa Dam (Bensman). Located in the heart of Himba grazing grasslands, Epupa Falls exist as a key stone in Himba survival during drought seasons, and overlook two hundred sacred graves, “potent cultural totems that indicate clan power and grazing rights” (Bensman), which would be demolished in the colossal flood. South Africa’s Feasibility Report made few acknowledgements and fewer references to Himba presence in the land to be flooded, did not provide a comprehensive program informing the Himba of the nation’s decision and utterly dismissed Himba land rights and cultural sovereignty. In response to this “a new form of colonialism” (O’Louglin) and complete spiritual and cultural threat, Himba tribal leaders began and international campaign in the late 90s against the Epupa Dam. Encouraged by sympathetic Western anthropologist Margaret Jacobson, the Himba appealed to the International Rivers Network among other environmentalist groups and drew Himba drew international attention to their cause. Returning home, Himba leaders found the Namibian government absolutely infuriated. Officals went so far as to send “paramilitary police to break up a meeting between Himba elders and their lawyers”, and ironically, even used “apartheid-era legislation to suppress [this] dissent” (O’Loughlin). So deep was the desire for economic stability and growth, the Namibian government took a shocking turn.

In public speeches layered with prejudice and cultural discrimination, Deputy Minister of Justice Kawana began to advocate that the Himba attain economic prosperity as “proper” Namibians through cultural assimilation and forced relocation. Yet, as Himba leaders strove to point out in public hearings, “forced relocation also does not take into account the enormous loss in respect of spiritual connectedness” to the land (Himba). Although “the Ovahimba whose lands would be flooded when the dam is built oppose the project” (Kaira), the Namibian government claimed the Dam a necessary scheme “to bring economic development to the Ovahimba people”. Jesaya Nyamu, Deputy Minister for Mining and Energy, announced in 1997 that the strange life style of the Himba is “ “a culture of poverty and deprivation,” from which they must be rescued” (O'Loughlin). In one attempt to ‘rescue’ the Himba, the government has granted permission for one Norwegian aid worker to “import mobile tent schools” which will relentlessly “follow Himba camps with Western ideas” (Bensman). Yet the Himba do not want rescuing from themselves. In the drought of 1981, “herds were devastated” but “few families dropped out of pastoralism” and “herds were slowly restocked without Government support or subsidy with the land” (Himba). The Himba want to choose their own future.

Despite government claims for philanthropic motivations, “in a way, the dam will take the river away from the Himba and confer its benefits to people outside Kaokoland” (Ezzell). The Himba are a nation within a nation, and as such, cannot be commonplace citizens. Forces within the International community exist for the explicit purpose of regulating national behaviors that inhibit the lives of the citizens under national power. With the support of a “[a group of 150 nongovernmental organizations from 39 countries—including Namibia]” Himba are “requesting that the [World] bank conduct independent reviews of planned and ongoing projects and set up procedures for providing reparations to people harmed by earlier dams” (Ezzell). It is globally recognized that “the Epupa Dam would also have a devastating effect on the environment” (Pearce). In this respect, the Epupa Dam Feasibility Report repeatedly contradicts itself, and, as revealed by a biting review by the International Damming Commision, summarily dismisses viable arguments for alternative energy, including Kupa Natural Gas power from Southern Namibia and the mature technology of wind power (Eggers). In a culmination of Himba forces, Traditional leaders drafted a response to the Dam proposal: “We accordingly call on the Government to look at alternatives to the Lower Cunene Hydropower Scheme with the view to securing Namibia's electricity needs for the future in a way that will not destroy the Himba culture, economy and ancestral gravesites” (Himba). Katuutire Kaura, President of Namibia's main opposition party, contends, “the recently discovered Kudu gas field off Namibia's southern coast is estimated to contain 20 trillion cubic feet of natural gas—more than enough for Namibia's needs” (Ezzell). It may be that a shift in government will preserve the path for Himba autonomy.

Whereas Angolan Himba have yet to be yoked by government run parks and land laws, the Himba of Namibia have achieved a relative victory in the war against Westernization from their own nation state: the Epupa Dam has been summarily stalemated and does not look to reappear on the legislative floor. Yet, while their physical land is intact, the Namibian Himba are still castrated by the Namibian government for their “primitive” ways and customarily exploited as “a tourist attraction to match Kenya's famous Masai herders” (Salopek). The largest and most challenging threat exists in the intangible loss of youthful loyalty to Himba community groups and families: “today, many younger people have lost interest in cattle, opting for cash jobs instead” (Salopek). Though T-shirts appear, “Himba women charge tourists to have their photograph taken” and “some Himba villages now look suspiciously like slums”, the youth will carry on the Himba tradition. Without a unifying movement for sovereignty or collective rights, the Himba will fade into the desert. Ironically, it is through real, palpable threats to society that a society begins to stress its identity and collective right to exist; the International community of environmentalists and Indigenous organizations exists to support these rights and effect positive change for the Himba. Yet unifying movements for justice can be sustained and built upon in political groups and through lobbyists, like Margaret Jacobson. Perhaps the most immediate hope for the self-determination of the Himba lies implicitly in their willingness to learn the game their state government has learned, yet without the horrific colonial relationships and hate: they should play the cards they have,(indigenous rights, the politics of shame, international appeal) but they should do so with the intent of interacting with citizens of Independent Namibia as an equal and friendly people. Hate breeds loss and more hate; in keeping with their traditions and Creator, the Himba must build a political homestead of friends and family, and remember the internal fire that burns within each human being.


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Crandall, David P. The Place of Stunted Ironwood Trees. New York and London: Continuum International, 2000.

Eggers, Han.“Comments On The Epupa Draft Feasibility Study (October 1997).” International Rivers Network Site. 22 Jan 1998. International Rivers Network, Daniel Schacht, WebMaster. 11 May 2003. <>

Ezzell, Carol. “The Himba and the Dam.” Scientific American. 17 June 2001. 7 May 2003.

< 1C6F84A9809EC588EF21 >.

Harring, Sidney L. “Commentary on the Environmental Assessment Report of the Feasibility Study on the Proposed Lower Cunene Hydropower Scheme.” International Rivers Network Site . 22 Jan 1998. International Rivers Network, Daniel Schacht, WebMaster. 11 May 2003. <>.

Himba, Submissions to Public Hearing. “Submissions on Behalf of the Traditional Leadership of the Kunene Region in Relation to the Proposed Construction of a Hydropower Scheme on the Lower Cunene River.” International Rivers Network. 24 March 1998. 12 May 2003. <>.

International Rivers Network: Linking Human Rights and Environmental Protection.2001. International Rivers Network.. 9 May 2003. <>.

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Kaira, Chamwe. “To build Epupa Dam or Not to.” Namibian Economist. 3 Aug 2001. 11 May 2003. <>.

“Namibian Wildlife PHOTO GALLERY: Koakoland Desert and the Himba Tribe.” EcoVitality. Ecovitality Webmaster. 12 May 2003. <>.

O'Loughlin, Ed. “Tribe May Be Flooded by Progress.” The Christian Science Monitor.12 Nov 1997. 8 May 2003. <>.

Pearce, David. “Negative on Namibia Dam.” Scientific American: Letters. October 2001. 11 May 2003.

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Salopek, Paul. “ Angola's brutal war shelters nomads from world's intrusions.” Chicago Tribune. 6 Aug 2000. 12 May 2003.

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“The Himba Village.” Epupa Camp Site. Epupa Camp Webmaster.13 May 2003. <>.

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