Already a bit uncomfortable, I finally resolved to do something when I watched our guide touch the head and hair of a Himba woman without permission. He had Himba ancestry, he spoke the language, and he knew the people in the village. But the interaction had an unappealing power dynamic that was surely as obvious to the Himba woman as it was to me, in spite of our cultural differences.
The Himba of northern Namibia count among the region’s last people to live a traditional lifestyle. They still herd cows on the fringes of the desert, living with apparent contentment in what looks to most people like inhospitable wasteland.
When available, visits to Himba villages are popular excursions, in large part due to how different Himba attire is from Western clothing. People cover their bodies with otjize, a paste of red ocher, butterfat and fragrant omuzumba resin. It acts as a sunscreen and insect repellent, and the women often cover their braids with it, forming dramatic reddish-brown hairstyles.
The “exotic” appearance of the Himba makes them very popular with photographers. Our guide encouraged our group — a charming British couple accompanied us — to photograph the people in the village, six or seven of whom were reclining beneath a pergola of branches. When I verified that it wouldn’t be offensive to take pictures, he reassured me and suggested that he’d tell the Himba to move into the sun.
Aghast at the idea, I declined his offer. The British couple was unwilling to do any photography, but I decided to believe my guide. I approached a woman under the pergola, introduced myself and asked permission to take her photo, showing her my small camera. She nodded assent and posed for a picture. I presented her photo to her on my camera’s screen, and she smiled. My guide later affirmed the importance of showing a photo that you take.
After I had snapped a few more portraits, the British couple asked about the hairstyles, which led to our guide touching a woman’s head and hair. She had a blank expression on her face as he did so, which I interpreted as resignation or annoyance, or both. Our guide suggested that we depart, if there were no more questions, but I couldn’t let the visit end on that note. I sat down under the pergola.
“Maybe they have some questions for us,” I ventured. “Could you ask them if there is anything they might like to know about our lives?” With our guide as translator, the four of us chatted with the Himba about our families and how dry it was where we lived. They also were curious about air travel; one woman asked about the cause of turbulence. It’s an experience I’m sure many of us would like to understand better.
After chatting mostly with the women for a few minutes, the village patriarch spoke to our guide. “He says that if you like, you can spend the night in the village,” he translated. I expressed how honored I felt by the invitation, but that it was necessary for me to return to the camp. At the time, it seemed the only sensible thing to do, but doing only sensible things sometimes leads to regret. I am left to wonder what that evening would have been like.
It’s too easy for visits to traditional villages — not just in Namibia — to end up being awkward. The visitors may feel as if they’re imposing, as the British couple did in this case, and the residents may feel like objects or animals in a zoo. Our guide was well-meaning, but he didn’t give us all the information required to help the two groups connect as people.
In order to have a successful visit to a traditional village, Himba or otherwise, there are a few simple guidelines to follow:
Get permission before you take a photo, and show your subject the image after you’ve snapped it.
Make a donation to the village, or purchase some souvenirs the villagers are selling.
And of course, treat the residents as people, not an attraction. Ask lots of questions, yes, but also encourage the people hosting you to ask questions. Making sure that we all had a conversation turned an awkward visit into something more fun and connecting.