While visiting Namibia, our tour was scheduled to stop in and visit the Himba people. Immediately, I was conflicted. I have to be honest, I don’t exactly love the idea of visiting tribes during my travels. It feels intrusive, and almost as if the people are on display. This, for me, is an internal conflict, because I feel that the best way to get a feel for a country is through the people that live there. But, when it comes to really learning about people and a culture, I’m not sure this is always the best way.
Even though I had done a village tour in Fiji, the first time I felt this conflict was during my time in Thailand, while visiting the Karen and Akha tribes. It was during this experience that I learned that it was the only way the tribe people made money; by allowing people to visit their villages, the people were able to make a living. Selling jewelery, scarves, and other souvenirs, was their only was to earn money, as most of them were refugees from neighboring Burma. Because of this, I felt somewhat better about visiting the tribes, though deep inside I was still conflicted.
The conflict arose again this summer, while visiting Namibia, where we stopped to visit a Himba Tribe. Even though I was initially excited to visit a traditional Himba village, some of the same feelings I had in Thailand made their way to my conscience.
Driving through Namibia, you are sure to find plenty of Himba people along the road, waving you down to come visit with them and buy the products they are selling, but the village we visited was located on a farm. While many of the Himba people were being wiped out by farmers, the family that owned this farm decided to let the Himba people stay, eventually creating a deal with the people that in exchange for food and water, travelers would be allowed to visit their village. Seemed fair enough.
However, all of us on the tour group got a negative impression of the woman who was currently in charge of the farm. Not only could she not speak, or understand the Himba language, she seemed to talk about them in way that almost mocked or disrespected them. Later on in the day, our feelings about her were confirmed. After we had lunch in her facilities, she chose to give the leftovers to her pigs, rather than to the hired help as our cook was planning to do. It was the kind of action one would hope not to see while visiting another country, but it gave us a confirmation of the people that were in control.
Aside from our negative impressions of the woman, I tried to keep my excitement up for visiting the village, but almost immediately, as we passed through the gates and entered the village, we could tell that we were unwanted. I couldn’t blame the women. There they stood, topless, allowing our group of nineteen people to take pictures of them. The environment was one that I was not comfortable in. So instead of taking pictures, I roamed the village and tried, unsuccessfully, to communicate with the women.
With a language barrier it was difficult, but with our cameras in our hands it was basically impossible. While the women who were my age and older, sat and talked amongst themselves, the teenage girls tried to interact with us a little bit. Still, being in this village just didn’t feel right.
I decided to instead focus my attention on the toddlers. For my entire life, making connections with kids was an easy task for me. This is why I became a teacher. So, instead of worrying about the negative energy I could feel around me, I took my camera out to capture the sweet smiles and laughter of the children in the village.
In fact, by focusing my attention on the children, there were some women in the tribe that I was able to connect with, even if it was only through a few smiles and laughter. A smile from anyone in the tribe at the moment, meant the world.
Eventually, I found myself gravitating toward a group of kids who looked to be around seven or eight years old. It was here, with these young children, that I truly began to feel a connection with the tribe.
Children, by nature, are innocent, accepting, and understanding. In fact, we made several small friends that day, even if we weren’t able to verbally communicate with them. We smiled, danced, and laughed together for the remainder of our time in the village. This also began to change everyone’s perspective on the day, even some of the women who initially ignored us.
Eventually, our cameras went into the hands of the kids, along with our sunglasses and hats, and some of the best pictures of the trip resulted from those moments of excitement and laughter.
My day with the Himba Tribe, while a struggle in its own way, proved to be an incredible experience because I choose to make it one. Sitting with the members of the tribe who were willing to make connections, no matter what their age, made the experience something I will never forget.
I am still not entirely sure how I feel about tribal visits in general, however. Tribal people, especially those who are refugees or have been wiped out of their country, may have no other way to make a living and visiting may help support them, but the way they are run is often in poor taste, as I found with this experience.
I will say that I have learned a lot about the tribal groups that I have visited, more than I would have known had I not made the trip there, so I do feel that they are eye-opening experiences. But, I will also say that is because I attempted to connect with the people, and that, for me, made all the difference.