American Nomad
Larry Dale Gordon

HIMBA TRIBESWOMAN

The bone rattling road stretched out before us across the dry and unforgiving landscape; we’d actually seen no other travelers in the last two days in this Northwestern part of the Namib Desert. The road, in cahoots with the hard springs of the Land Rover seemed intent on tossing us into frenzy, while donating a generous coat of fine red dust as well. My cameras nestled more comfortably in padding of clothing and sleeping bags, wrapped in plastic bags. Everything else was coated in this fine red mist of the desert.

On this "Walkabout" I seemed to be on a "Rideabout" into a purgatory that would never end. All this was in search of members of the Himba tribe usually found in this seemingly desolate land. I had an interpreter named Clement Kaukuetu who spoke the language and a driver/guide, Axel Gruber, who knew the country, its flora and fauna extremely well. They both were from Charly’s Desert Safaris out Swakopmund and were both extraordinary men, making this sometimes arduous journey a joy. I did, however, find it necessary to take over some of the cooking! On about our fifth day of the search, we found a small Himba community not far from the track we were bouncing down and screeched to a halt in a cloud of dust. Greetings and much "negotiation" took place and we were finally invited into the village. The trade, or "payment", were loaves of bread, tobacco, rice and other small bits of food and clothing. I gave an elder my photographic vest, as he seemed to admire it, much to the consternation of my assistant! After a socially acceptable amount of time with the formalities, I quietly began to photograph members of the tribe. They were quite shy, but very sweet. I spotted the girl you see in this picture and she stole my heart. She is a 17 year old eligible woman, ready for marriage, which is designated by her hair style and especially by the white shell around her neck. Her skin is dyed the reddish brown by a paste made from the powder of a ground desert stone, mixed with animal fat and applied to the entire body. From what I could tell, it is not permanent, but decorative for courtship purposes.

They were a noble and beautiful people and I felt privileged to have spent even this thimbleful of time among them. Later on we came into the small Northern Township of Opumo, where we discovered the dark side of progress. Many of the Himba were there, some waiting for a handout from tourists for a snapshot, but there was a far worse situation. The Himba were learning to drink at a huge outdoor bar on the edge of town. A woman with a child on her back stopped us to sell trinkets. She was so completely drunk, she could barely walk. It broke our hearts and painted a searing picture of a future marred by our so-called progress, the great white way, whether they want it or not. I also heard that there was a government program to dam a nearby river and flood a great percentage of the Himba habitat. In as little as a generation, we may not find the tribe we see today.

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