Breaking Through: A Struggle to Connect to the Himba People.

Breaking Through: A Struggle to Connect to the Himba People.

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.

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Comments (16)

  1. thelazytravelers

    love this post! this must have been an amazing experience- we love to submerse ourselves in the local culture, but we’ve never been able to do something to this degree! xo

    1. The World Wanderer

      It was an amazing experience, especially to see how some people in the world live. I will definitely never forget it.

  2. Leah Travels

    This is such a great post, Erin. I love how you gravitated to the kids. I’d be willing to bet they still talk about your visit. I’m not sure that I’d want to do something like this unless I was delivering supplies or volunteering. Like you, I’m conflicted by the whole idea. Way to turn a negative into a positive.

    1. The World Wanderer

      Thanks, Leah! It was definitely a difficult situation. I too would rather be volunteering or delivering supplies. Just to go visit, with cameras, feels just wrong. But, the connection to the kids definitely made the experience a bit brighter. 🙂

  3. Traveling Ted

    Brilliant idea in connecting with the children. I would have gotten discouraged and looked for a bar.

    1. The World Wanderer

      Haha, Ted, no bars around those parts. But, we did always have plenty of beer on board the truck. We were drunk the whole trip!

  4. Pola (@jettingaround)

    Great read! I certainly understand you were conflicted… What a great idea it was to connect with the children. So respectful of the people – and it resulted in fantastic pictures!

    1. The World Wanderer

      Thanks, Pola! The kids were amazing! So great how you can make connections with people even with no knowledge of each other’s language.

  5. Raul (@ilivetotravel)

    Kudos to you for finding a way to connect! This type of visit can be a good thing or a bad thing. There are efforts that properly focus on developing livelihoods for people in these situations – and then there are efforts that just objectivize them and make them more of a circus attraction. The former, when done well, can really empower people and change their lives for real. By the women’s initial reaction, I imagine this case was more of the latter, unfortunately. The programs have to be well-defined and involve the stakeholders. They also need consider how to maintain their dignity while allowing them to earn that precious income they may desperately need to afford seeing a doctor in a far-flung town, buy some items/food, or perhaps afford sending a kid eventually to school. And that woman did sound horrible!

    1. The World Wanderer

      She was awful! I had a bad feeling about her from the start, but she really proved it right after lunch. I was completely embarrassed to even be giving her my business. But, I guess that’s one of the downsides of a group tour – you go where they tell you. No wonder our guides stayed behind, the situation was a bit depressing.

  6. lola

    i really love this post. i’m so glad that you found some joy in the children. i bet the people feel like they are on “show” a lot. i HATE how the people in charge did that with the food though!!

    1. The World Wanderer

      Yea, it was definitely an uncomfortable situation. Good thing for the kids! That woman was the worst!

  7. John

    I’ve never visited a tribe before, but I’m not sure how I’d feel about it. I think you took a good approach in terms of earning a little trust instead of just firing off your shutter right away at everyone.

    1. The World Wanderer

      Thanks, John. It was tricky, especially because the experience was part of the tour. I tried to make the best of a difficult situation.

  8. Emily |

    Great post! I went on a similar trip but after having the same feelings about visiting tribes I decided just to wait and buy some souvenirs in the ‘car park’ while most the others went in. We started kicking around a football to pass the time and suddenly a hoard of him a children ran out to play with us – we ended up having an impromtu 5 aside match and it was absolutely fantastic! Was a great feeling that they had come to us because they wanted to spend time with us rather than us paying to go and gawk at them in their village – needless to say the ones that had gone on the tour were pretty disappointed with it and even more gutted when they realised all the fun we’d had!

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