Thus Came "The Ovahimba Years"
A biting wind was sweeping over the Esplanade des Invalides. I looked at an identity photo taken earlier that morning, and for the first time, the toll the years in exile had taken, was visible. I pulled my scarf over my chest and buttoned up my coat. I crossed the great central boulevard, and pushing ahead, I muttered: “I have to go, I have to continue.” Minutes later I reported at a side entrance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the other side of the Esplanade. A small man invited me to follow him as he trotted down a corridor to a palatial office overlooking the Quai d’Orsay and the river Seine. Tucked in behind her desk, sat a petite lady and to the side, her husband. She was the future French Ambassador to South Africa, he her writer husband. I was to teach her Afrikaans to prepare her upcoming diplomatic sojourn in South Africa; he was sitting in for good measure. We had hardly greeted each other when the husband asked how one would saythe words bonjour and Dieu in Afrikaans. “Goodmorning, God,” I said, and remained standing there, in my coat, with the inadvertant salutations to the Supreme Being still ringing in my ears.
I related this incident to an acquaintance working as a psychologist at Sainte Anne Hospital, an institution for the mentally disturbed. As she looked at me blankly, I thought I could see the years of psychological, psychiatric and psychoanalytical experience reel through her mind. Then she looked away and simply remarked: “Then of course, all of us are invalids!” and told me about the “Hôpital des Invalides” at the upper end of the Esplanade, where, during The Great War, the maimed, les gueules cassées, or broken faces, were hidden from the public eye…
When I first came to live in this neighbourhood, I found the bleak vastness of the Esplanade overwhelming. With time, I had made it my own and later I used to cycle under the chestnut trees as if it was a private alley leading to my home. Yet, when crossing the great lawns, I often think of that freezing morning when I had to continue, and could not but did in the end, of the broken faces hidden behind the hospital walls, of my friend’s remark: “All of us are invalids”, of a kind.
Some months later, I was to introduce the future French Ambassador to Namibia to the Afrikaans language and culture. We used to meet at L’étoile, a small café near the Arche de Triomphe. At the time, I had not yet visited Namibia, but an underlying longing for farm life might have lead me to speak of caul, beest,cracklings, and verandas overlooking windmills erect on arid limestone plains with herds of Springbok grazing in the distance. I later realised just how odd the diplomat must have found my descriptions of such rural practices and images when he casually remarked one day that he does not care much for nature in brute form. For him beauty resided in what had been shaped by the hand of man. The years of exile in France had indeed brought me to appreciate that, but an African childhood had me long for vastness delineated by the movement of a single distant cloud, untouched or almost by the human hand. This difference in perception despite, our ensuing friendship brought me on a first visit to Namibia during a research trip to Southern Africa in April 1996.
One Saturday morning, a drive around greater Windhoek spontaneously extended into a two-day excursion into the desert. Faced for the first time with the vast expanse of dunes, I started running up one great mound of sand. I stopped, thinking I had reached the top only to realise that the summit was still some way up. At the crest, with nothing but a vista of pastel coloured peaks in sight, I stripped and had a bath in the lukewarm sand. Then, with open arms, I leaped down in great strides, accompanied suddenly by a bevy of girls dressed in flamboyant bridal gowns. They uttered murmers of joy as they scrambled down the dune to where a troop of Japanese cavaliers awaited them. Clad in tailcoats, the cavaliers sat bolt upright on ostriches whose wing feathers sported an array of bright colours. They shot flames into the air from fluorescent plastic pistols before they burst into a paean of counter tenor voices to honour the coming of the brides. I reached the old tree at the bottom of the dune where I found my friend as I left him, reading a book about the life and times at Port Royal. Still covered in the fine dune sand, I said: “This is where I want to work, I am in love with this country.” True to his fine strategic nature, our diplomat friend said none but this: “It is complicated to be in love with a country,” before he closed his book and headed for the car.
In September 1996, I returned to accompany mentor and friend Jean Rouch on a university tour of Southern Africa. Jean spent much of his working years in Niger, and with the Dogon people in Mali. During our travels in South African he kept saying: “In Africa it’s like this, or like that,” and I kept countering his impressions, “We are in Africa, post-modern Africa, but Africa all the same.” He could not reconcile the worldliness of urban South Africa with his experiences in West Africa. Only when we arrived in Windhoek, a city where the rural is present within the urban, did Jean say: “Now we are in Africa, it’s very clean but it’s Africa.”
One evening, at a dinner held to honour his presence, some of the guests were complaining that South Africa and Namibia are not really Africa. What is Africa I wondered? A simple rural lifestyle that could be described as traditional and hence authentic, with impoverished Africans towards whom measured gestures of charity would be appropriate? Protested a guest: “There’s nothing African about this place!” Three Africans in dark red jackets with matching kepis and white gloves stood lined up against the wall. Trained to hear and see none but at the ready to act upon the wink of an eye. That too is Africa. Events of the past few centuries represent but a short time span in the history of the continent. Africa is vast and complex; it has histories and pre-histories of several millennia, of victories and losses of great and less great nations. Will the day come when as foreigners we will less readily relate things to the European cradle and simply accept that industrialised Africa is also Africa?
Back in Paris, the French Ambassador, on a passing visit from Namibia, told me about the Ovahimba, showed me photographs of his recent visit to their region in the north west of Namibia, and advised me to visit them. Then a French television company asked me to do a feasability study for a proposed film about the Ovahimba. With the help of some local e-mail contact addresses and following a few nights’ surfing on the Internet, the Ovahimba entered my existence as a virtual reality. In May 1997, I returned to Namibia for a first reconnaissance trip to Ovahimba country. I was fortunate to spend several enlightening days in the company of the late Katjira Muniombara and his family at Omuramba near Epupa Falls. In 1998, I returned to Namibia to begin research for « The Ovahimba Years » project. For the first time since I left South Africa in 1984, I found myself among Afrikaners again. I soon realised that the Namibian Afrikaners were of a different kind. They have an air of the pioneer in them, and it shows in their eyes. Their raillery is inherent to this world and its way of life; words such as ‘bedryf’, ‘etter’, ‘malzeit’ and ‘lebensraum’ were not heard in the good Cape of my childhood. These people show no lack of roguish repartee, and in time, I have taken to their unique sense of wit. Strange as it may be, it seems as if I came here to experience humaneness of a kind.
Shortly after my arrival in Windhoek, I stopped by an acquaintance one day when the late Chris Coetzee arrived. I had heard of the author and his book, but did not expect him to incarnate a father figure of the Paul Kruger kind – complete with long beard and pipe. I had also not read his book, « Op Soek na Mannetjies Mentz », and felt embarrassed when he congratulated me with « Uitreis », which he had just read. The conversation drifted here and there, and when I again addressed him with the formal ‘u’ in Afrikaans, he looked askance at me over his glasses and said: “Up yours with ‘u’, my friend!” When I left South Africa in 1984, it was the custom to address strangers and elders in the formal ‘u’. In 1990, when I returned for the first time, this form was no longer widely used in everyday life. During this same return journey, when I complained about the impure use of language I was hearing, my poet friend, Johan van Wyk reacted: “Language is chaotic, it keeps changing.”
During the first months of project development, I stayed at the French Residence. Apart from full time work on « The Ovahimba Years » Project, I did my share in helping with life at the residence. On one occasion I was asked to have petits pains au lait made for a cocktail party of three hundred people. Once the baker and I had figured out that pain au lait was simply milk loaf, we still had to reduce the local bread roll size more than four times to arrive at petit French proportions. On another occasion, I was asked to accompany a delegation of French parlaimentarians to do some shopping before their departure. Within a couple fof hours, the chauffeur and I had them fitted out in in Namibian T-shirts, ivory earrings for the ladies and a few ostrich eggs as additional gifts. When a Communist delegate started spending abundantly, one of his opposition colleagues whispered into my ear: “Communists are capitalists that won’t know it.” A few weeks later, I was asked to accompany the former French Prime Minister, Michel Rocard, and his companion on a guided tour of Windhoek. The tour did not happen and instead we visited a lodge outside the city for a game drive. I had grown up with elephant hunting expeditions in Botswana, and was used to seeing animals in their natural habitat. I reconciled myself with the idea that an afternoon ride in the veld would not be unpleasant. Throughout the drive, our guide explained the Oshivambo names of the animals to me in Afrikaans, which I tried to explain to our guests in French. In Oshivambo a gnu is known as an ‘almost’ bovine. When I translated it with presque bœuf the Prime Minister’s companion asked for the umpteenth time in her low voice: “What is that in French?” I had never learnt the French names for Southern African animals and she had to hear over and again: “I could not tell you, Madam,” whilst the guide, oblivious of my ignorance and her insistance, continued to point out new animals with a broad smile.
One of the highlights of my first impressions of Windhoek was the opening ceremony of a gala dinner, held to raise funds for Namibia’s participation in an international trade fair in Portugal. To welcome the President and his retinue the Convent Choir sang the Namibian national anthem. A nun, clad in African dress and health sandals trotted about in high spirits in front of two rows of children of various origins wearing African frocks. President Nujoma, then Prime Minister Geingob and Mayor of Windhoek and their spouses sat at the main table, listening with due respect to the dancing nun with her buckled sandals and the children with their crystal clear voices… It was a moment of cultural tolerance second to none.
On my way to the northwest Kunene Region, I called on three veterans of the Kunene region. On his farm just outside Omaruru Ben van Zyl told tales of his years as “Com’Zyl”; when he was the Commissary of Kaokoveld for the South African Administration, when his house was the only one of three houses in the dusty settlement of Opuwo. “In those days when we were out in the veld, each morning a henchman would bring us hot water to shave and shine our shoes,” related Ben, “we had to be tidy to set an example for the local people.” Com’Zyl’s yellow stone house surrounded by palm trees is still standing in Opuwo opposite the t-junction as one enters the village. The tennis court and the swimming pool have been demolished for construction works next door.
Dr. Eberhard von Koenen is a homeopathic doctor and an expert on the plants of Namibia and especially of the Kaokoland area. “You can heal like with like,” he summarised his homeopathic philosophy. He related various stories about his plant research and film work in the region and showed me a study of an Omuhimba family genealogy. When I told him that I was going to live and work with the Ovahimba for three years, he stared at me intently with his light blue eyes and said: “You will get healed in Kaokoland.” I accepted his words as one does with such oracles and started looking forward to the well being predicted for me.
In Namutoni, the well known Nature Conservationist who spent thirty odd years in Kaokoveld, Chris Eyre, shared his experiences and referred me to some of his friends living there, amongst which, Ukoruavi Tjambiru, the Headman of Etanga. He was quite incredulous about my ability to survive in the veld, and on a few occasions laughed heartily and said: “Rina, we’ll see, let’s talk again in three months’ time.” That night he made me sleep on the floor under an ochre drenched blanket covered with bristle-grass. Chris laughed: “That’s what it’s going to be like anyway, Rina.” The next day I travelled through Etosha to Otjivasando, an unforgettable spectacle of elephants and antelope of every kind moving alone or in herds along footpaths across the salt pans that stretched out to the horizon where a grey cloud of dust lay in wait of the new season.
Each day of my three month long sojourn in Opuwo brought its own strife, which mostly was about getting the ‘donkey’ heated for a hot bath, or getting a green papaya down from a tree to cut its skin so that it could ripen. As my last conversation with my Doctor in Paris predicted: “I am ready to go.
- But you aren’t going home.
- It is the closest to home I could possibly go.
- To go and live with the Ovahimba?
- They’re wonderful people.
- Remember, you’re not leaving planet earth.
- Yes, I know, people are people, more of the same.
People often ask me why I am here and why I like it. In any large city, be it Windhoek or Paris, one engages in senseless activities, even if only to make a living. I have travelled extensively, I attended the dinners, watched the shows, studied under the great masters. It is time now to do something with what I have learnt during that time. Since I came here, the fifteen years of exile have dropped from me like a loose skin, without ado. I have started learning Otjiherero, a language rich in metaphor. I am preparing for my stay in the field, and soon the Ovahimba will I hope teach me their version of the language. I have found a remedy against the onslaught of the powdery dust swept along by the wind through the Opuwo basin. “Milking Cream! It works for me. It could for you!” I could say in an advertisement hugging a cow. One learns with time. The way ahead is unknown. If daring is less risky than not do dare, « The Ovahimba Years » came thus.
Opuwo, 29th of June 1998
 « Goeiemôre, God », in Afrikaans.
 “Bedryf”, in Afrikaans refers to the running of a trade or a business but in Namibia is applied to any activity, especially when conspicuous.
 “Etter”, in Afrikaans means ‘ether’. In the local vernacular it refers to a person of dubious nature and morals.
 “Malzeit” literally mean ‘meal time’, but it is said to wish people a good noon meal.
 “Lebensraum” literally means living space but refers to vital living space and there is an underlying sense of the abundance of space in Namibia.
 Op Soek na generaal Mannetjies Mentz, Coetzee, Christoffel. Queillerie, Cape Town,1998. (Looking for General Mannetjies Mentz)
 Uitreis, Rina Sherman, Human & Rousseau, Cape Town, in 1997 (Outward Journey)
 “Les communistes sont des capitalistes qui s’ignorent.”
 “Je ne saurais vous dire, Madame.”
 Heil-, Gift-, und eßbare Pflanzen in Namibia, Eberhard von Koenen, Klaus Hess Verlag, Edition Namibia 2, 1996.
 A boiler heated by fire to provide hot water.