Palmwag - Opuwo
At this point in the journey we don’t really know anymore what day it is and we are definitly not counting the days. There is so much more to come and the roadtrip takes us even more northbound into Kaokoland. In the last years access to this part of the country improved, but my Bradt guide book warns independent drivers for the many dangers of mudslides, quicksand or ending up stranded in the baking desert with no one around. Even we have a bit of a dilemma as Elisabetta, our contact at Wild Africa Travel, was quite adament about the C43 road: don’t take this road! She told us it would be in bad condition after rainy season. But the alternative is a big detour and we wonder what guarantee we have for better roads there. We ask the people at the Palmwag Lodge and they don’t see a problem, so we decide to trust the locals and ignore the big cross Elisabetta drew over the C43 road. Turns out we were right: we encounter no problems at all. Lots of cows and goats by the side of the road though, often crossing. At one point we have to stop to let animals cross and a few kids take this as an opportunity to approach the car. They are quite cheecky and Lesley gives them sweets. Two boys are riding a donkey. They take off again when they see this is all they are getting and we continue to drive. We see quite poor living conditions here, primitive huts. People walking by the side of the road, here in the middle of nowhere.
The hub of Kaokoland is Opuwo, also the ‘himba’ capital. It’s in no way comparable to a city like Swakopmund. As we enter the town the main road shows us many shops, bars, barbers, ... and an eclectic mix of people. From Himba women to Herero women in their Victorian dresses, and even a few men wearing skirts. At first it’s a bit of a mystery what to expect from our next home for two nights. Coming from the main road we are directed to a sandy side road, passing houses, driving higher up till we reach the gate to Opuwo Country Lodge. We park the car by the main building and enter a nice reception area. We exchange the ‘Hi! How are you’ and get a quick tour around the place. The real surprise is the jaw droppingly beautiful view behind the infinity pool. I just can’t stop looking at it. The lodge is situated on a hillside overlooking a wide landscape and we realise once more how lucky we are to experience all this. A delicious lunch completes our waw feeling and around 2.30 pm we meet local guide Antonio for a very special visit.
We are off to visit a Himba family in the area. A British couple joins us. We have actually seen them earlier on our roadtrip in another lodge, and the woman has big trouble walking. She can’t move without a walking stick. It’s a short drive and then we park the car outside a woodfenced area where all the huts are. Being on the road we have passed many of these communities and finally we are getting a closer look. Immediately we are greeted by children. Very curious children. Ofcourse they have seen white people before, but they touch our arms nevertheless and they find the red nailpolish on my toenails fascinating. “Sweetie sweetie?” It takes me a moment to realise they are asking for candy. They are also very eager to know our names. Their names all seems to end with an ‘a’: Bonita, Stephania, Anna, ... Not your typical African names.
Meanwhile Antonio sits down in a nearby hut where a woman is taking care of her mother’s hair. The older woman lies on the ground. They invite us to come closer. We shake hands and greet them saying ‘molo! molo!’ as they do. Antonio explains a bit about the hair ritual and also the metal rings around the ancles and underlegs of the women. The rings have a meaning, it’s not pure decoration. You can tell how many children a woman has, if she’s mourning someone, .... It’s clear Antonio is a regular visitor, but he makes sure not to visit the same family every time. In return for the visit the Himba family is given mostly stuff like rice or flower. We notice there are hardly any men around. According to Antonio they are with the cattle. A man is allowed to have several wives and they marry within the group of cousins. The British couple seem apalled by everything they see. Yes, the kids have dirty little hands, and yes flies swerm around. The man stands there holding their rugsack really tight to his body and he keeps some distance. Ridiculous really!
At first I was a bit cautious about the Himba visit as I feared it might be a tourist village. But it’s not. We are invited into their homes, their daily life as it presents itself. The highlight of the visit comes when Lesley and I are called into a hut full of women and young girls. In the middle is a tiny baby. Turns out she is only 2 weeks old, born in this very same hut and the mother sits there smiling. She can’t be older than 15 or 16. We sit down with them and before we know it they put the baby in Lesley’s arms. No diapers here, so she is just a tiny bit careful not to get baby poo or pipi on her ☺ Everyone is so proud to show the baby and they ask Lesley if she wants to give her a second name. She suggests Anna but that turns out to be the name of the mum. It’s all very primitive, but they look happy and truly bonded with eachother. They tease eachother and laugh. I’m glad the British couple stays outside so we have this special sit down time with the ladies. Then Antonio takes us to the next hut where more kids are playing. Mum sits outside with them. Two boys are imitating wild animals and I ‘dance’ with a little girl. She has just been eating something from a plastic pot that looked really yugh and her hands are so dirty but I put aside those thoughts and hold her little hands anyway.
This setting couldn’t be more different to what we know in our Western world, but when the kids cry they also run to mum. A young teen girl is making a black oily substance. She uses it as a colouring for a big necklace she wears. Again, it’s more than a simple decoration, everything has a meaning relating to age, status, ... There are many rituals here and also beauty traditions. We are invited into the main hut of the family and one of the women shows us how she makes otjize paste. This is a cosmetic mixture of butterfat and ochre pigment. They use it to cleanse the skin over long periods of time and protect themselves from the hot climate as well as against mosquite bites. This is then often perfumed with aroma of the omuzumba bush. The woman spreads the aromatic smoke over her body and hair. Still, the British couple doesn’t get it. The woman keeps wondering how they wash themselves. And her dentist in London told her that the Himba knock out some front teeth once kids reach a certain age. The woman confirms - always with translation from Antonio – that this is still a tradition today. Again, they are appalled. ‘Awful!’. I admit I’m glad my parents didn’t knock my teeth out, but this is not our culture so we should not judge them over something like that. Then the British woman takes out her little camera and asks the Himba woman to look in the camera and open her mouth so she can show the photo to her dentist. Unbelievable. I’m ashamed. I can sense Antonio has his own thoughts about this too. Before we leave the hut we get a stripe of ochre on our arm, it looks a bit strange on our pale skins.
The family is not letting us go just like that. The whole group assembles in a large circle, stalling out all their goods, mainly jewelry. Now I know why they were all so eager to know our names. I hear my name all around the circle. “Petra! Petra!” Apparantly the other names were harder to remember. “Come here my friend!”. We stand there in the middle of the circle and we don’t know what to do. Ofcourse we’ll buy something, but we’ll have to disappoint so many people. Women as well as kids have stuff stalled out. We take a quick look around the circle and then I sit down with the young girls who were in the hut earlier. Immediately they cover my arm in bracelets. “Which one you like?” Oh, I’m really not good at this; I know I have to bargain. I end up buying 4 and then Antonio urges us to go as soon the sun will set.
We are very impressed by the visit. I’m guessing the British couple is quite happy to go back to the lodge and scrub their skins now. They travel with a private driver and are very impressed when they hear we travel on our own. “Just the two of you? Your parents must be very worried!” the man states. Back in Opuwo we see Himba women on the street and Antonio explains they will come into town for a couple of days for example when they need medical care or when they want to get supplies. They cannot live in town because it’s too expensive. And I wonder how they could keep their traditions alive here anyway. Back at the lodge the sun is just dissapearing behind the mountains and many guests are seated around the pool. As it gets dark it’s time to get ready for dinner and that also means washing our red ochre away, but the memories of the afternoon are very vivid and we continue to talk about the experience and look at our photos.
The evening feels cooler, but we eat outside on the terrace and wonder what the next day will bring, driving all the way to the border with Angola to see Epupa falls.