The Colonial Encapsulation of the Northwestern Namibian Pastoral Economy

By Bollig, Michael | Africa, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

The Colonial Encapsulation of the Northwestern Namibian Pastoral Economy


Bollig, Michael, Africa


ABSTRACT

The inhabitants of Kaokoland, Himba and Hereto, have recently gained prominence in the discussions concerning a controversial hydro-electric power scheme in their region. They are depicted as southern Africa's `most traditional pastoralists' by groups opposing the dam and those demanding it. The article describes how Kaokoland's pastoralists suffered tremendously from the politics of encapsulation the South African government adopted against them. Having been enmeshed in interregional trade networks, commodity production and wage labour around 1900, they were isolated by the South African government within a period of twenty years. Buffer zones for the commercial ranching area and prohibitions on movement across other newly invented boundaries limited their spatial mobility. Trade across borders was inhibited altogether. Pastoralists who had diversified their assets during the previous fifty years and had taken the chance of a first wave of commercial penetration were forced back on to subsistence herding.

We have difficulty. We cry. We are imprisoned. We do not know why we are locked up. We are in gaol.... The borders are closed. The borders press us heavily. We cannot live. We are in a kraal.(1)

Glorified by Namibia's booming tourism industry, the Himba of northwestern Namibia (Kunene Province, but still mainly known as Kaokoland) are cherished as the last remnants of the `old Africa'. Photographs depicting them as a traditional pastoral people anointed with red ochre and wearing leather garments decorate Windhoek's shops and major tourism magazines. The heated debate over a huge hydro-electric scheme on the Kunene, right within the area the Himba live in, has made Kaokoland one of the most highlighted corners of rural southern Africa. Television stations have taken up the issue, and minority rights groups are protesting at the death of yet another indigenous culture and the destruction of a scenic, allegedly untouched, landscape. At the same time the Namibian government sees the dam as a unique chance for the local population to develop. Although prodam and anti-dam campaigners disagree on many points, they are united in describing the Himba as an isolated group of herders who have clung to ancient lifeways, untouched by modern commodity exchange and cut off from the vicissitudes of the global system.

Remoteness, isolation, subsistence herding detached from the economic transformations brought about by colonialism are stereotypes that most African herder societies are confronted with. They are deemed to live in bounded self-sufficient communities, to accumulate livestock beyond economic rationality and at the cost of a fragile environment (the infamous `cattle complex') and to derail any form of development with their pronounced conservatism (cf. Bonte and Galaty 1991:3-4 for a comprehensive critique of such conceptions). Waller and Sobania (1994: 45), however, argue that `much of the debate over pastoralism and its development in modern Africa unfortunately takes place in the virtual absence of any historical context...'. While their ideas are developed on the basis of case studies from East Africa, the same misconceptions are continually applied to herding societies in southern Africa. Current economic formations found in northern Namibia are not to be understood as mere adaptations to an arid environment.(2) They are profoundly shaped by a century of colonialism: boundaries restricted their spatial mobility, a prohibition on livestock trading forced them into subsistence herding and the forced internal relocation of large numbers of people led to environmental degradation. Recent economic and environmental problems within the pastoral economy of north-western Namibia are in many ways similar to those other African pastoral economies have to cope with (cf. Shipton, 1990; Ensminger, 1992; Galaty and Johnson, 1990; Galaty and Bonte, 1991). In Namibia's national economy Kaokoland's herders play only a marginal role. …

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