Ovambo – Life in the Slow Lane

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July 11, 2018
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July 13, 2018

The Olushandja Dam where an agricultural project took root to sustain a school in Etunda.

Text Annelien Robberts
Photographs Annelien Robberts & Nina van Schalkwyk

April is a reflection. A reflection of a good rainy season. A reflection of tall, slender makalani palm trees in the crystal-clear surfaces of oshanas (meaning pans in Oshiwambo) brimming with fresh rainwater and lined with lilies. This year is no exception. And the Owambo Region in the north becomes one of the most scenic and inviting parts of the country. It beckons you to delve into its colours, flavours and vibrant liveliness. Immerse yourself in a heart-warming culture with which about half of Namibia’s population identifies. Linger off the beaten track by linking your Etosha trip with Owambo and make the most of the last days of summer.

Outapi is a small town with a big heart that boasts its own famous ‘skyscraper’: a towering 800-year-old baobab tree. Simply standing underneath the rustling leaves of this 28-metre high tree is an awe-inspiring encounter in itself. But being inside this tree is nothing short of a spiritual experience. Many couples have tied the knot right here in the heart of the hollow tree which is now furnished with some benches and a small altar with the Bible. Our guide, Gebhardt Shiimbi, who has lived in this area all his life, shows us a sticky substance dripping from the tree and explains that the baobab heals itself when injured. No wonder that tree-inspired yoga poses are quite the thing.

According to an African proverb, wisdom is like a baobab tree: a single individual cannot embrace it. It undoubtedly rings true with this particular tree, generally referred to as the tree of life. Aside from its medicinal and nutritional value and offering food and shelter for animals, it served as a refuge for women and children during tribal wars. In later years it was used as a post office, and during the South African Border War it became a chapel in a military base.

Modern-day visitors can still find shelter here, as camping spots were set up in the shade of the majestic tree. The tree has been declared a national monument and is part of the Ombalantu Baobab Tree Heritage Centre, which also includes a little craft shop and café.

Uukwaluudhi Royal Homestead and Museum, near Tsandi

Owambo is all about trees – all sizes and species, significant and some, from a passer-by’s perspective, perhaps not so significant. En route from Ondangwa to Ongwediva, traditional dresses for sale adorn one such “insignificant” tree. The seamstress has turned it into a shop window of sorts, resourcefully operating her business from there. Who needs online shopping when you can pick the newest additions to your closet off a tree?

On that note, a loud and sprawling market will give you an unparalleled local shopping experience. Open markets are a prominent part of life in Owambo. On our trip to the north (all the way around Etosha!), my travel partners and I opted for the open market in Oshakati – the largest in the country. The Dr Frans Aupa Indongo Oshakati Open Market is an exciting burst of colour and culture. Its urban design imitates a central square and even boasts a 360-degree viewpoint over Oshakati, in case you were wondering what the tower is for.

People-watching is unsurpassed in this kind of environment, so keep out of sight and sit back, keep an eye on the crowds and soak up the scenes. This is exactly what we did. After marvelling at the endless varieties of traditional Owambo foods (think mopane worms, eembe, or chillies for the brave) and crafts and clothing on display, we picked out a table to enjoy a cold drink.

Traditional Ovambo, Ndelala's on display at the market.
Amicable encounters with saleswomen and their children at the open market in Oshakati

Be sure to ask permission before taking pictures and if a vendor refuses, move along swiftly as you might find somebody else who is keen to let you photograph their stall. A friendly seamstress beckoned us closer to take pictures of her handiwork – a myriad of striking Owambo dresses in all colours, patterns and sizes. A saleswoman nearby did not lose any time to invite us to take pictures of her and her baby, kitted out in a bright pink dress.

The region is famous for its ubiquitous bars with quirky names. Street vendors’ sun-bleached beach umbrellas attached to bicycles are scattered along the streets of the towns. Attached to the bicycles are small trailers stocked with fresh produce, a true representation of the region’s fast food. Not that anything in Owambo happens fast – there is no senseless rushing from point A to point B. As my travel partner remarked, it is one of the places in the world where herds of cattle enjoy right of way.

Outapi's famous ‘skyscraper’ at the Ombalantu Tree Heritage Centre is an 800 year-old baobab

This way of life is reminiscent of a bygone era. The German colonial period had very little impact here. The only European influence was the Finnish mission work, which started in the 1870s. When the missionaries first arrived in Namibia, the first country they were sent to, they tried preaching to the Owambo population in the Otjiherero language. However, this was a big no-no for the Ndonga people (an Owambo tribe), especially their king. If the king was not pleased, it meant the entire people rejected it. The missionaries thus learned the language and the culture of the people. At the same time they developed the Ndonga dialect into written form.

Finnish missionary Martti Rautanen, a respected figure who moved to Namibia at the tender age of 25 where he then spent the rest of his life, was nicknamed Nakambale (“one who wears a big hat”) by locals. He is well known for his translation of the Bible into Ndonga, which became available in 1924. It sprouted from his desire to offer the people, whom he loved and ministered to, the Bible in their own language. Rautanen based his translation work on an Otjiherero grammar book. His methods to collect words consisted of listening to people speak, asking local people, and inventing new words. Asking the locals was not a fool proof method, however, because in most cases they agreed with his suggestions, simply because they did not believe in disagreeing with a respected person.

The Nakambale Museum is in the former missionary house and displays items from the Finnish missionary station such as Rautanen’s paper slip collecting method, as well as some artefacts of the Owambo culture. Adjacent to the museum is a complete Ndonga homestead, which can be viewed on a guided tour. Visitors can also relax in the tranquil rural setting, as campsites are available.

Many of the foods at open markets are presented in hand-woven baskets, such as the chillies that can be found all over the region.

For me, a personal highlight on our trip was nestled amongst beautiful trees and lush vegetation in Etunda in the western Omusati Region of Namibia, where an inspirational local project has taken root. We made a quick stop at Nakayale Private Academy, established in 2016 and intended to offer gifted children from disadvantaged communities a chance to build their own future. An agricultural project on the Olushandja Dam sustains the school and boasts a tally of successful harvests.

The teachers warmly welcomed us, and eager children, between pre-primary and grade 3 age, shyly smiled and sneaked a peek at the new faces. After an official welcoming, consisting of the children singing in English and Oshiwambo, they completely warmed to us. We were chatting away like old friends. Forgotten was the fact that we were strangers just a moment ago.

Owambo is about dancing in the warm April showers and living life in the slow lane. It is a region filled with baobabs that remind us that things we might view as upside-down might actually be the right side up. It is about learning the local language – which also makes the difference between being a traveller and a tourist. A trip to Owambo is a down-to-earth, humbling experience where not only trees thrive, but also the people, whether they live there or are just passing by.

This article was published in the Winter 2018 edition of Travel News Namibia.

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Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia is a high-quality glossy Namibia travel and lifestyle magazine tasked with promoting Namibia to the world. With riveting stories, first-hand encounters and magnificent photographs showcasing tourism, travel, nature, adventure and conservation, TNN is the ultimate and most comprehensive guide to exploring Namibia. Travel News Namibia is published in five different editions per year. These include four English- language editions and one German. Travel News Namibia is for sale in Namibia and South Africa.

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