Sep 13, 2011 by


A hydroelectric dam threatens ancient tradition of the Himba in Namibia.

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The history of the Himba, a nomadic ethnic group located in northern Namibia, known for the distinctive red ocher of their body, is a story of human tragedy.  Periods of severe drought took turns with armed attack from neighboring tribes, particularly during the period of struggle to win the “independence” of Namibia and as a result of civil war with the neighboring Angola.

More recently, the Namibian Government, having proposed to encourage the repopulation of indigent animal species for the benefit of tourism, has decreed the suspension of the hunt, forcing the Himba to withdraw “inside their territory.  But the danger of a final blow to the Himba culture, and perhaps to “eradication of”  the ethnic group, is determined by the Government project to build a dam to produce hydroelectric energy, which calls for the “flooding of 380 square km, the valleys around the river Kunene, in a territory where the Himba live, hunt and bury their dead according to their ancestral rituals.

Asking a Himb to choose a place, along the Kunene River in northern Namibia, to build a hydroelectric dam “is like asking me which of my 3 children I would like to kill,” says an elderly Himba (IRIN).  But towards the end of 2007 the Namibian Government announced plans to build a hydroelectric plant in the Baynes Mountains. This decision was taken without even consulting the Himba, generating in this way, disputes over land ownership and ethnic tensions, as previously happened in the 90s, when the government SWAPO (South West African People Organization) tried, unsuccessfully, to build a reservoir near the famous waterfalls Epupa.  Under this project, the dam was to be built along the Kunene River, but a lot further north, in fact killing Epupa waterfalls surrounded by palm trees and baobab, undermining the “important and popular tourist attraction.  The government plan to build the hydroelectric system 30 km to the south of Epupa Falls, is dictated by the pressing energy needs, at regional level to all 14 member countries of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
Due to the increasing and uncontrolled flow of tourists, the lifestyle of the Himba and their culture are in serious danger. Unconsciously, tourists are affecting their way of life and their eating habits. The custom of distributing money, sweets and alcoholic beverages, is spurring the development of a mentality of “beggars”, with alarming spread of cases of alcoholism.
Although the region has been declared a protected area, and despite the increasing request to introduce appropriate controls on tourism, the Namibian Government has proved unwilling to take effective measures, and at the same time has accused the protection to be an obstacle to progress.  The old Hunga  said the decision of the President of Namibia to build a dam on the Kunene River, without asking or at least give prior notice to the Himba, is due to the fact that the government considers them a ” nullity “.  Himba opposition to the construction of the dam on the Epupa Falls, was mainly due to the loss of their cemeteries,and the destruction of 6,000 palm trees that produce nuts omarrunga, a fundamental reservation of food during periods of drought .

Himba are aware that the work and the necessary infrastructure, will lead too many people looking for work in the area.  Kapika, their leader, is concerned that those who do not find employment could be encouraged, to survive, to commit  unlawful acts such as theft of livestock. Furthermore, the construction of the road system needed to access the area, will promote tourism and thereby trigger an economic system based on services for tourists.

The end of the Himba?

The isolation of the Himba, that for centuries preserved their security, has been gradually eroded in recent years.

Adding money to a society totally unaware of its use as a negotiating tool has shown them the dangers of a society based on it.
For the Himba, a visit to Opuwo, is above all a lesson to learn about the electricity.

”Electricity leads to alcohol, because it allows you to have a fridge to cool beer, and people think about the cold beer, thereby neglecting the animals, ” says the old Mutambo.

The concern that the Himba society is being gradually weakened due to the temptations of Western fashion and the use of alcoholic beverages, is bringing the old leaders to fear, reasonably, they are close to losing their identity and their traditions.  “There will not be another generation like us, we do not like western clothes, we want to maintain our traditions. We want to be who we are. We are not suffering, we are happy to be what  we are ” says Kapika.

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