The small settlement of Opuwo sits just south of the Angola border in Namibia’s Kaokoland. Due to its harsh terrain including bush, desert and mountains, this part of Namibia is more rural and seems somewhat trapped in a time warp, largely due to the presence of the semi-nomadic Himba people. In what might seem movie sets for pre-colonial Africa story or a National Geographic special, Himba villages are populated by tall people with striking features wearing the same traditional dress they’ve done for centuries.
The women rub ochre mixed with butter, animal fat or petroleum jelly to protect their skin from the harsh desert conditions. Men use dusty dirt. They’ve resisted traditional dress opting for cooler and more comfortable short skirts, loin clothes and adornments of shells, beads and iron. The women weave animal hair and caked ochre in their hair and are perennially topless. Small fires in their traditional huts of sticks, mud and dung provide a smoky fragrance that they use to treat their clothing and blankets. Chased to this part of Namibia and southern Angola in the 18th and 19th centuries after losing ethnic battles with other African tribes where they live now somewhat isolated and wander the pastoral lands in search of water and vegetation for their cattle and goats.
And while the town of Opuwo sits at the center of this stark and sparsely populated region, surprisingly one can find modern society conveniences such as internet, cell phones, a supermarket and more. And wandering through that supermarket the unmistakable smoky fragrance of those Himba women alerts me to the fact that these people commingle in this modern society but have resisted modernization. Some live in semi-permanent villages while others are nomadic and move where they can find water. Which for the pa st few years has been difficult.
A scant 20 km outside Opuwo and its modern conveniences we searched for villages where we could bring water, corn meal, sweets, aspirin and other items which we purchased at the local market. Taking along with us Willy, a guide we found in town, he suggested we stock up on supplies and bring to the villages as an offering and request permission to visit. The Himba don’t speak English so Willy provided the necessary translation. The first village we visited was a permanent settlement of a half dozen structures with neither electricity nor running water. The daily task of the women of this village is to walk 8km with jugs, fill them with water return and do it again. Morning and evening. Other villages are much further from a reliable water source.
At a temporary or roving village we visited the water source was far away and over difficult terrain. Too weak to stand on its feet, a goat lie under the semi-shade of a dying tree moaning. I was sure it would be dead by morning. No water. And nothing to graze on because the sun cooked any pasture from which it could eat. And huddled under a makeshift shelter of plastic sheeting, blankets and sticks nearly twenty women and children just sat trying to grab shade in the heat of the day.
There were no men in any of the villages we visited. Out tending to livestock, looking for food or building materials. The daily life of these people is harsh and difficult. But they seem so happy. And while many may never visit the Opuwo, they are aware of the existence of a life vastly different from theirs. But they barely use currency instead trading crops, animals and artisan crafts for trade.
In the states I turn on the tap and water cometh. Hot or cold. It’s even drinkable (barely). I carry about four battery charges on my bike and at home in the states I’m sure I use enough electricity to power the simple needs of a dozen of these villages. Taking for granted what I’ve become accustomed to and rely on, I find mostly the lack of water the most disturbing eye-opener of my journey through these lands. Sure, it’s not only here. The desert of Northern Peru and Northern Chile come to mind. And while water is the lifeblood of rural settlements and primitive peoples I’ve encountered in South America, Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa. But in this blazing heat and stuck in the driver’s seat of my rented Toyota Condor, during my Himba visit I chugged nearly 2 liters of bottled water which I purchased at the market in town. And when finally leaving one of the villages the young children crowded around the door of the Toyota stepping on their tippy toes peering into the cab and spotting bottles of water on the seat and floor and eagerly grabbing for them. This, after we’d already given them several liters. One boy just wanted a sip. Another asked if he could have just the empty bottle. The happy faces I’d seen while visiting their camp turned sad and full of wanton when they saw water which they couldn’t have. I wanted to give them all of it. But we were headed yet to another village. Had I kno wn. Had I thought. Water. Simply water.These kids are hiding from the heat of the day under a temporary house of plastic sheeting and blankets.
These people have adapted and after four years of drought there’s little water. Their lives are spent wandering this hot and hostile land. They’re able to survive on less water than most. But they need it. Desire it. And spend their lives in quest for it. Water. Simply water.
Then I thought of my waterlogged riding days through South Africa, Northern Brazil, Ecuador and Bolivia. It’s either not enough. Or too much. And when the kids hands reach out and ask not for a coin or money for food, but for water, simply water, my mind spins. Water. Simply water.
The the next village we gave them every last drop we had in the Condor. We had money in our pockets, but only a bit of water. I wished we had more. Water. Simply water.