Makalani palms, oshanas and Owambo homesteads in north-central Namibia
Text and photos by Ron Swilling
I awoke with a start as the pilot’s voice announced our descent to Ondangwa Airport. The world visible through my small window had a character all of its own. Tall makalani palms, oshanas (pools of water) and fields of golden mahangu (pearl millet) dotted with typical Owambo homesteads, created a tapestry of colours. Palisades of branches enclosing small groups of huts and houses held the idyllic atmosphere of Africa and kingdoms of old.
I wasn’t far off about the kingdoms. I learnt later in the day that four of the seven Oshiwambo-speaking groups still have royal representation (the Kwanyama group with a queen). The Owambo lesson continued as I enjoyed the distinctive character of the region. Large rounded grain baskets stood on the sides of the roads, or men worked winding the moist mopane twine around the curved brittlebush sticks in preparation for storing the coming harvest. People sat outside cuca shops (informal bars) with names like Happy Life shop and Caribbean Inn, drinking homemade sorghum beer out of large orange plastic jugs. By the end of the day, I had tried various mahangu staples, including a stiff porridge eaten with cooked wild spinach in marula oil and a grainy mahangu drink.
With the King Nehale Gate in the northern section of Etosha National Park open, northern Namibia is there to be explored. Only 44 kilometres from Namutoni in eastern Etosha, the gateway to the north makes the north-central regions or Ovamboland as it was formerly called, easily accessible, as does the network of good tarred roads crossing through the region.
Although it is not all lost cities and ancient African kingdoms, the area offers a chance to experience a cultural taste of Africa, where visiting homesteads, tasting traditional food and getting to know a bit about the local life is the attraction. In this large pocket of the country, home to Namibia’s largest ethnic group and approximately half its population, mass tourism has yet to intrude. The major towns have lodges and hotels, but in between, the rural areas provide opportunities to get to know traditional culture and the people of Namibia. Simple accommodation in traditional huts, tents, and camping provides convenient bases for exploration.
Nakambale Museum and Restcamp has a late 19th-century Finnish mission house and a traditional Ndonga homestead display. Accommodation is offered in five tented huts or in the traditional huts, with camping welcomed and traditional food served on request. Fifteen kilometres from Ondangwa in Olukonda, it is surrounded by mahangu fields. A visit to a nearby homestead gives you the chance to see typical Owambo activities, chat to the friendly locals and be introduced to an alternative way of life.
Camping destinations include the Ombalantu Baobab Tree Heritage Centre and Campsite in Outapi and Hippo Pools campsite on the Kunene River. The massive baobab at Ombalantu has a long legacy of varied functions, from being a refuge for the Ombalantu people, one of the Owambo groups, during tribal wars, to functioning as a post office and a chapel. Sitting inside the sacred centre of a living baobab is an experience where arboreal and divine energy intermingle. It is no wonder that a few small benches of the chapel and the lectern remain. Situated behind the open market in central Outapi, Ombalantu is an organised and clean campsite under the branches of the baobab tree, with good facilities and friendly staff.
Located on the banks of the Kunene River, 12 kilometres from Ruacana, Hippo Pools is a basic campsite for rest and relaxation, where sitting in the shade of the large trees on golden afternoons with river birds and the sparkling water is a good way to end the day. This is a region where Owambo, Himba and Zemba groups overlap and the staff at the campsite represent all three. The manager of the campsite will accompany campers to a nearby Himba village, translating and explaining the traditional culture of these intriguing semi-nomadic people.
The Oshiwambo-speaking people are known for their superbly crafted baskets on sale at the small brightly painted Tulongeni craft market in the town of Omuthiya, 25 kilometres from the King Nehale Gate, and the craft shops at Nakambale, Tsandi Royal Homestead and Ombalantu Baobab Tree. Young girls are taught to weave palm fronds from an early age and the skill required and time spent results in the creation of works of art. Baskets woven from palm leaves still play an important part in the homesteads as containers to separate grain, plates to eat from and larger rounded baskets for carrying purposes.
At the Onankali Paper Project, 55 kilometres south of Ondangwa, exceptionally attractive paper products are created from mahangu stems and recycled paper. The cards, notebooks and bookmarks are decorated with African designs from the Ekoka San artists. They give a demonstration of the labour-intensive work involved in the making of the paper. Chilli mix and wire products can also be bought from the Onankali Centre.
The area provides a good stop-over point for the journey up to Ruacana and Epupa Falls. It is also part of a circular route around Namibia that includes this important and traditional part of the country. In northern central Namibia you feel that you want to learn the daily greetings to be included in the respectful customs. You want to eat the local foods and feel the African atmosphere that surrounds you.
A worthwhile excursion is visiting the Tsandi Royal Homestead, home to the Uukwaluudi king, where wandering through the labyrinths of the former palace is like walking through a lost city. Although Harrison Ford doesn’t appear, north-central is a glimpse of a way of life where kings still rule, traditional food is eaten, traditional homesteads are surrounded by mahangu fields, people fish in the oshanas with woven funnel-shaped traps and life slows down to allow for the harvest.
I had another chance to view the flat yellow land with its green palms and blue pools as we took off in our small Air Namibia plane returning to the south. The land lying like a yellow coat studded with blue and green jewels once again reinforced the distinctive and rich presence of the northern regions. Days of meeting and talking to local people and eating traditional meals left an inner warmth.
Visions of children laughing, carrying baskets on their heads as they walked through golden mahangu fields in the late afternoon, women cutting down the dry stalks, and others weaving baskets in the shade of a tree in the homestead, stayed with me, as did the traditional greetings with the inclusion of ‘meme’ (mother) for a woman and ‘tate’ (father) for a man and the holding of the elbow with the left hand when shaking hands, used as a sign of respect. The images passed through me like clouds in the wind. Soon we were 19 000 feet high and the makalani palms and oshanas were far below. And then there were just clouds.
This article was originally published in the February 2009 Flamingo print edition.