How does a sleepy little town, a mere wide spot in the road in the middle of Southern Africa, become an art colony, enticing both artists and visitors from around the world? Namibia’s Omaruru, which in the Herero language literally means ‘this is a place where the grass makes the cows’ milk sour,’ has morphed into a creative centre and a hotspot for both locals and tourists.
A decade ago, we drove through this sleepy little town on the back leg of the triangle that runs between Okahandja, Otjiwarongo and Karibib. Used as a base by big-game hunters in the mid-1800s, by the end of the 19th century Omaruru had become home to a Rhenish Mission and populations of Herero and Damara in what was then called Südwest-Afrika. A few artists found their way here back then, among them a man called Lone Oak, who lived under a camel-thorn tree with his dog and goat and painted religious murals on the walls of the St Boniface church.
Omaruru in 2009 is a different story. Almost twenty years after Namibian independence, Omaruru has become a kind of Todi (in Umbria, Italy), drawing artists looking for a creative environment, galleries to show their work and a laid-back lifestyle. Many of Omaruru’s original German buildings have been preserved and turned into arts co-ops, restaurants, boutiques and studios.
Start at Wronsky House, built in 1907 as a shop and still serving as a souvenir and bookstore today. Pick up the Om Eye newsletter to find out about almost four dozen locals who specialise in photography, embroidery and quilts, paintings and weavings, items handcrafted from recycled car parts, sculpture carved from ancient tree roots, intricate traditional woven baskets, jewellery created from handmade ostrich eggshell beads, and more. Add to that bread baking, wine making and the production of handmade chocolate.
Several other small towns along Namibia’s highways boast small arts and crafts centres. Katima Mulilo in the Caprivi Strip has its own central craft co-operative near the middle of town. Near the border crossing into Botswana is the red rondavel (small round building) that houses the community craft centre, Ngoma. Sales at Ngoma support the local artisans, many of them women earning money to pay for school fees. Also in East Caprivi is Mashi Crafts, which sells intricate baskets and handicrafts made by dozens of women from the villages.
In Okahandja, there is the very large outdoor market, where handmade items from sculpture to jewellery are for sale. In a tiny shopping centre in Henties Bay, between Swakopmund and Cape Cross, is a shop selling sealskin shoes, jackets and other items made on site. At Opuwo, in Kaokoland, there is a small shop that sells local handicrafts and baskets.
Don’t hesitate to stop at informal shops or stands along the roads in Namibia. In the south, you’ll find small rugs made of springbok skin; further north, there are Herero ladies in traditional dress selling small handmade dolls and jewellery. Bushmen and Himba villages often have small open-air ‘shops’ selling local handicrafts. Often you’ll find one or more women creating ostrich eggshell jewellery or colourful dolls or baskets, while small children play at their feet. In the north, young men offer personalised makalani (vegetable ivory) carvings, which can be used as key chains. This is the real Namibia and you will help support a family if you stop to buy.
Marking Namibia’s culture of trust are the ‘honour’ kiosks, which stand alone along remote roads. If you stop to buy a piece of onyx, a chunk of salt, or some kind of handiwork, you are expected to drop money into the can or bowl. The owner may live many kilometres into the desert or bush and relies on your honesty to make a little money from his work.
Shopping in Namibia’s big cities is excellent, but don’t miss the opportunity to buy from local artists in remote areas. You may negotiate prices if you are buying many items, but you will generally find the prices are fair as they are set. Buono shopping!
Originally published 1 January 2010
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