If Water Takes the Land Will Namibia's Himba Lose Their Ancestral Home?

By Blauer, Ettagale | The World and I, October 1998 | Go to article overview

If Water Takes the Land Will Namibia's Himba Lose Their Ancestral Home?


Blauer, Ettagale, The World and I


Traditional ways of life are intimately related to the environments in which they flourish. When the environment is threatened, so too is the way of living. Such is the case today with the Himba people of northwestern Namibia.

A small tribe, estimated to number between five thousand and twelve thousand people, the Himba were richly endowed with cattle and thus were often called the wealthiest people in Namibia. Cattle are highly prized in Africa and make a people self-sufficient. But a devastating, three-year drought in the 1980s killed more than 90 percent of the Himba's livestock and reduced the number of traditionalists to just the few thousand remaining.

Today this small group is threatened once again. This time. however, the threat is human. The Himba face the loss of territories and possible displacement as the result of plans to construct a dam at the beautiful Epupa Falls on the Kunene River: If the dam is built, it will flood three hundred square kilometers along the northern border of the country and the Himba's grazing lands would be covered by water: Their ancestral graves would be lost, and this self-sufficient people might have to leave their lands.

The price of progress

The Himba area, 'a desolate and remote region in Namibia--s northwest on the border' with Angola--called Kaokoland, has seemed impervious to change. Their' withdrawal to such isolation enabled them to preserve their culture, traditions, and lifestyle. Kaokoland has undergone major changes in designation over the last hundred years. At one time, when Namibia was a mandate governed by the Union of South Africa, Kaokoland was a tribal reserve. It was later declared a game reserve as well.

A commissioner's office was built here, at a place called Opuwo, which means "no more" in Herero (the language spoken by the Himba). It was chosen specifically to tell the commissioner that he could go that far but "no more." The game reserve designation was removed in 1970 and Kaokoland became a "home land" for the Herero-speaking people, including the Himba.

Seminomadic, the Himba make no claims to permanent possession of this or any particular piece of land. This attitude, coupled with the very remoteness of their territory, contained the seeds of the Himba's current vulnerability: Their lands are an easy target. Namibian officialdom and development bankers see the loss of the Himba culture as a reasonable price to pay for "progress."

Some government factions argue that the dam development would affect the fewest and least productive of Namibia's people. Consequently the dam is being pushed forward, despite evidence of a greatly biased report that ignored the personal testimony of a Himba chief. According to Professor Sidney Harring of the City of New York Law School, Namibia is actively negotiating with Angola (which must cooperate) to finalize plans for the project. …

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