The author of this article, French journalist Aurélie Jegou, visited Namibia to do research for articles for the special French edition of Travel News Namibia. She has the following to say about the cultural tour she undertook in Namibia’s far northern region.
While most tourists in Namibia find the amazing landscape the main attraction in this land of contrasts, the variety of cultures and peoples are well worth exploring.
It often happens that once back home, the tourist regrets not having met the local people. This led to the establishment of Otweya Travel, and our journey of discovery with them to discover the cultures of northern Namibia.
We leave Windhoek in a 4×4 with Puye and Cristalline from the Namibian agency Otweya Travel, and our guide, Israel. Direction? North!
We pass Okahandja and its famous traditional market and then Otjiwarongo, where we stop for a well-deserved coffee break, just over two hours after we leave.
When we take to the road again, the landscape is completely green, as it is late April, after the rains. At Othivo we turn onto the B8, which leads us to Grootfontein, where we have lunch, and enjoy the opportunity to get to know each other.
Members of the group tell me about their childhood.
Even though they are all Namibians, each one is from a different culture: Puye is from Oshakati, and is an Owambo, the largest cultural group in Namibia. Cristalline is a Baster from Rehoboth and Israel is a Herero from a small town close to Windhoek.
They tell me stories about their home life, such as the rites to become an adult, how to kill a cow or a goat and cut up the meat, how to prepare porridge, and how to take charge in the veld, all so far removed from my own childhood!
A few hours later, we arrive at our accommodation for the first two nights: Roy’s Camp. A young white man welcomes us in Afrikaans. The place is rustic but charming. Everything is made from wood; the décor is delightful. For dinner my fellow travellers join me in the restaurant. On the menu is kudu pie, sweet potatoes, wildebeest schnitzel, all fresh, farm products. Delicious!
We continue our former discussion and compare our way of life and traditions.
Puye says that in her village, they kill an animal each time a guest comes – a goat or a cow, depending on the importance of the occasion. “My father will probably kill 10 cows for my wedding,” adds the single thirty-year-old woman with a laugh.
The next morning we are treated to a full breakfast of eggs, bacon, cereal, coffee, juice, cheese, ham… Everything you could possibly wish for. Then we leave to visit the Bushmen. We jump into the 4×4 with two other tourists and drive for two hours before arriving at our destination. There, in the middle of nowhere, is a signboard reading: Wait here for your guide.
As improbable as it seems, a Bushman arrives a few minutes later and guides us to the lively museum of Grashoek. This traditional village has been reconstituted for tourists. In fact, today’s Bushmen have adopted a more modern lifestyle. In the village, a dozen or so are gathered around a fire. Some of them stay in their huts. We spend about three hours with them, enjoying their crafts, dancing, games, hunting stories, and explanations of how they survive by finding plants and fruit in nature to supplement their diet.
Our next stop is Owambo. The landscape changes rapidly, featuring ever more palm trees and fields of mahangu (pearl millet), the staple food of the northern people. Each time we pass a town, we see lots of small coloured houses, with curious names on the front. These are the shebeens, informal bars that are very characteristic of this part of the country.
We arrive at the Protea Hotel, an upmarket establishment, in Ongawa. After dinner, Puye suggests we go and have a drink in one of the shebeens, which we do. The music is loud, and the ambience very pleasant, even though the bar is not that full, as it’s not the end of the month yet.
The next day we visit a traditional Owambo village, the Tsandi Kingdom. The sun is high when our guide welcomes us. She’s from the village and gives us historical background. The Owambo are Bantu people who hail from the region of the Big Lakes. They arrived in Namibia in the fifteenth century.
Their villages are hidden behind wooden fences. At the entrance visitors are welcomed before being allowed to enter the village. Inside, each area is separated with wooden poles and is dedicated to a particular group of people.
There are spaces for young men, women, the king’s quarters, the queen’s quarters, and so on.
The huts are open or totally closed. We walk around in the village, from one room to another, and to the reception hall where all the big events are presented. Our guide tells us how to greet the king and queen. She also shows us how to make mahangu into a flower. It reminds Puye how tough it was to do so when she was young! We ask many questions, trying to understand better what it is like to live with such traditions.
We thank our guide before leaving for our next overnight stop – Oshakati Country Lodge. Before enjoying a delicious dinner around the swimming pool, we decide to visit the Oshakati market. Spread over dozens of square metres, local people sell tropical fruit, sugar cane, spices, Owambo dresses, Owambo baskets, delicacies such as mopane worms… A very great atmosphere!
The next day we leave for Kaokoland, the land of the Ochre People, the Himbas.
We stop next to Opuwo, the capital of the region, at Mopane Camp, where we will overnight in tents among mopane trees. It’s so quiet! Then we go and have lunch in Opuwo. Here, in a supermarket, we meet Jacky; a Frenchman who settled down here many years ago, married a Himba woman and now owns a campsite and restaurant.
We leave for a traditional village in the afternoon. Israel introduces us to the chief of the village and establishes if we may enter. Israel is Herero, from whom the Himba are descended, and speaks the same language. We tour the village and sit down to converse with the Himbas.
We great them “Moro! Peri vi?” There are only women and children; the men are with the animals.
These women are very beautiful, covered with a butterfat and ochre mixture, their breasts bare and incredible adornments all over their bodies.
For an hour they answer our questions and ask us a few. The chief suggests we try putting the ochre mixture on our bodies and encourages us to buy some of the crafts. Himba people know very well how to do business!
Today we are going to the Epupa Falls, but to reach this incredible oasis we must endure two hours of harsh 4×4 terrain. The Kunene River, the natural border with Angola, is lined with palm trees. This area is truly magic. We decide to sit here for a while with a book, or simply have a rest. It’s so peaceful!
Tomorrow is our last stop, in the wonderful Epacha Lodge, next to the Etosha National Park. Epacha is a very high-class establishment to end our journey with; you could say the cherry on the top. To me this amazing trip to experience the cultures of northern Namibia is unforgettable!
This article appeared in the Feb/March ‘08 edition of Travel News Namibia.