Himba and Dam - THE Carol Ezzell PKotography by Karin...

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Unformatted text preview: THE Carol Ezzell PKotography by Karin Retief AND THE E A questionable act of progress may drown this African tribe 3 way of life. Si Ifi'i’ififi dramas are playing out around the world NOt untll we stand on a ridge overlooking the Kunene River—which forms part of the border between the southern Af- rican nations of Angola and Namibia—does tribal leader Jakatunga Tjiuma comprehend the immensity of the proposed dam. “Look there,” I tell him with the help of an interpreter, pointing to a distant notch in the river gorge that a feasibility study says would be the most likely site of the wall of concrete. “That’s where the dam would be.” Turning, I point to hills in the east. “And the water would back up behind the dam to make a lake that would stretch to there.” I can see the shock and incredulity in his eyes as he begins to un- derstand how high the water would rise up the faraway hill- sides, flooding more than 140 square miles of Himba settle- ments, grazing land and grave sites. He clutches a blanket around his shoulders and crouches on a rock, speechless. Tjiuma is a counselor to one of the headmen for the Him- ba tribe, an essentially self-sufficient band of 16,000 people who eke out an existence from the barren, rocky terrain of northwest Namibia, living off the milk and meat of their cattle and goats, along with the occasional pumpkin or melon. The Himba are sometimes called the Red People because they tra- ditionally cover their bodies, hair and the animal skins they wear with a mixture of butterfat and a powder ground from the iron ore ocher. They say they use the ocher-butter mixture be- cause they like the way it looks, although it undoubtedly also protects their skin against the arid climate. For decades, the Himba have lived in relative isolation. No other tribes wanted their hardscrabble land, and the Germans who colonized the area in the late 19th century rarely interact- ed with them. More recently, the Himba’s main contact with outsiders has been with soldiers during the fight for Namibia‘s independence from South Africa (which was won in 1990), with marauding combatants spilling over from Angola’s on- going civil war, and with the occasional caravan of hippie Americans or Europeans. But if the Namibian government has its way, by 2008 more than 1,000 foreign workers will have settled in a temporary village just downstream from Epupa Falls, the site the government favors for the dam. With them will come a cash economy, alcohol, prostitution and AIDS— as well as improved roads, better access to medical care, schools and perhaps even electricity. The situation surrounding the proposed dam on the Kunene River can be viewed as a microcosm of dam projects around the world that are affecting indigenous peoples. A survey by the World Commission on Dams, which issued its controversial fi- nal report last November, found that 68 of the 123 dams world- wide they studied would displace people, many of them in tribes that had little prior contact with the technological world. The largest darn project, the massive Three Gorges Dam on the Yang- tze River, will require the resettlement of up to two million Chi- nese. Nearly all the dams will change local peoples' livelihoods and cultures—for good or ill, or some combination of the two. How should global society weigh the right of such peoples to be left alone against, in some cases, the very real necessity for developing countries to take advantage of their resources? Should such countries have the autonomy to decide what is in the best interests of all their citizens, even if some of them don’t want to change? Perhaps most important, how can traditional peoples decide such issues for themselves when they have only a shaky idea of how more developed societies live and what they might be getting themselves into? Into the Desert KAOKOLAND, THE CORNER or NAMIBIA where the Himba live, is truly the back of beyond. We arrive at Epupa Falls, the modest waterfall on the Kunene River that would be inundat- ed by the dam’s reservoir, two days after leaving the last tarred road. Our 4x4 truck is packed with everything from jerricans of gasoline (the closest gas pump is a day’s drive away) to cas- Himba mother and child glisten red from a coating of butterfat mixed with the iron ore ocher. Like other adult women, the mother shaves her forehead and twists her hair into multiple braids that she daubs with a mud mixture. The heads of infants are shaved until they are weaned. The situation surrounding the proposed dam on the Kunene River can be viewed as a microcosm of dam projects around the world that are affecting indigenous peoples. 82 SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN JUNE 2001 84 SCIENTIFIE AMERICAN es of bottled water, spare tires, emergency medical supplies, camping gear, and small gifts of tobacco, sugar and blankets. Tied to the top of our vehicle is a brand-new bicycle—the pay- ment requested by our Himba translator, Staygon Reiter, in ex- change for his services, although how he will use it in this in- hospitable landscape I don't know. He has asked specifically that the bicycle come equipped with a carrier basket large enough to hold a goat. Much of our journey is bumpy, jerky and slow as we at- tempt to follow the rough track while swerving to avoid washouts and potentially tire-puncturing rocks. More than once we get stuck in sand while trying to cross a dry riverbed, our tires spinning and squealing until we jump out to deflate them a bit or to stuff branches behind them for traction. At one point we stop to look at a particularly large scorpion in our path; I comment that I’ve seen smaller lobsters. The settlement at Epupa Falls, where we camp, is a kind of crossroads, a no-man’s-land where Namibian Himba mix with their Himba relatives from across the river in Angola and with other tribes such as the Herero—to whom the Himba are close- ly related—as well as with the Zemba, Thwa and Ngambwe. There is a modest thatched church built by missionaries; a tiny but deluxe safari camp; a corrugated-metal store that sells mostly bags of cheap tobacco, maize meal, and tepid Coke, Sprite and Fanta; and a community-run campsite where visi- tors like us can pitch a tent under the palmlike omerungu trees for 50 Namibian dollars (about U856) per night. Scarcely any people live at the settlement permanently: the Himba come for a few weeks or months at a time and build temporary huts while they attend funerals, divide inheritances, sell cattle, con- duct other business, and visit with friends and relatives. ’ Our first stop is to meet Chief Hikuminwe Kapika at his compound near Epupa Falls, which is part of the territory he controls. It is immediately clear that Kapika—who is one of roughly a dozen Himba chiefs—is sick of talking about the pro- posed dam with outsiders but eager for us to appreciate the im- portance of his rank. From his shock of grayish hair and weath- ered face, I guess him to be in his 705, although Himba don't have a calendar system, so they usually don’t know the year in which they were born. He keeps us standing beside his white metal camp chair (the only one in his compound) swatting flies from our faces as I try to catch his attention long enough to an- swer my questions. Several times during our interview he spits The Kunene River forms the northwest border between Angola and Namibiaz'the Himba live in the rocky, arid region known as Kaokoland [top]. Tribal leader leuma [middle] points to the spot [dam site 1 on map] the Namibian government favors as the most economical place forthe proposed dam. The location is downstream of Epupa Falls [bot- tom ], which would be inundated by the reservoir expected to back up behind the dam wall. The flooding would eliminate the omerungu palm trees that provide fruits the Himba depend on in times of drought. The Angolan government prefers a site fartherdownstream. in the Bagnes Mountains [dam site 2]. that would necessitate the renovation of an- other darn. which was damaged in the country's civil war. JUNE 2001 IMP BY sum “ELSE“ El .1 i . l i through a gap in his front teeth created in his teens when, in keeping with Himba tradition, his lower two central incisors were knocked out and the top two filed to create a V-shaped opening. He makes a point of demonstrating what a busy man he is by continuing to sew a black fabric loincloth and inter- rupting our translator to correct a group of rowdy children. Eventually Kapika tells us that he vehemently opposes the proposed dam. He is afraid that the people who will come to build it will steal the Himba’s cattle—not an irrational fear, be- cause the Himba were nearly wiped out at the end of the 19th century as a result of cattle raids by the Nama tribe, which lives to the south. And cattle theft continues today. He is also wor- ried that the newcomers will take valuable grazing land, which the Himba are careful not to overuse. Family groups move their households several times a year so that extensively grazed re- gions can grow back. The area around Kapika’s compound il- lustrates the need for such conservation: the cattle and goats have eaten everything green they can reach, leaving the bushes and trees tOp-heavy with scraggly growth overhanging trunks like lollipop sticks. Himba leaders also object to the dam because it would flood hundreds of graves, which play a central role in the tribe’s reli- gious beliefs and social structure. In times of crisis, family pa- considered two sites for the dam: Epupa Falls and a spot in the Baynes Mountains farther downstream. It concluded that Epu- pa Falls made more economic sense, but Angola has favored the Baynes site in part because building a dam there would mean that the country would also get funds to renovate a dam on an Angolan tributary that was damaged during the civil war. That cost is one reason the Baynes site would be more expensive. When the study’s consultants first came to discuss the in- tended dam with the Himba, the tribal leaders initially had no objections, thinking it was going to be a small earthen dam like the ones they built to help water their cattle. The degree of mis- communication took a while to become apparent. Margaret Ja- cobsohn of Integrated Rural Development and Nature Con- servation, a Namibian journalist turned anthropologist who worked on the social impact part of the feasibility study, recalls a telling incident a few months into the process. She went to vis- it a Himba family compound near Epupa Falls and began ask- ing their views about the proposed dam. Oddly, they didn’t seem to know anything about it, even though the Namibian government had told her that they had been informed. As she finished her questionnaire, a family member asked her to help them with a mysterious piece of paper they had received some time before. When the man brought an ocher-smeared enve- How do you describe a megadam to someone who has never seen electricity? Or a building more than one story high? triarchs consult their forebears through special ceremonies at grave sites, and graves are often used to settle disputes over ac- cess to land. Acreage is owned communally, but each permanent settlement is guarded by an “owner of the land, " usually the old- est man of the family who has lived at that place for the longest time. When deciding who should be able to graze their cattle in a particular area, Himba compare the number of ancestors they have buried there. They ask, “Whose ancestral graves are old- er, ours or theirs?” Kapika says the Himba will resist and fight “with stones and spears” if the Namibian government tries to build a hydro- electric dam at Epupa Falls. “I’m a big man," he tells us. “I’m a man who can stand on his own.” Dammed If They Do HOW DO YOU DESCRIBE a megadam to someone who has never seen electricity? Or a building more than one story high? The dam planned for Epupa Falls would rise 5 35 feet—only 15 feet shorter than the massive Grand Coulee Dam in Washing- ton State. It would generate 360 megawatts of electricity per day and cost more than US$500 million to build. A dam was first proposed near Epupa Falls in 1969, when Namibia was South West Africa, a territory of South Africa. The idea went nowhere, but it was revived in 1991, a year after Namibia’s independence, when Namibia and Angola commis- sioned a feasibility study to evaluate such a scheme. The study www.5clam.eom lope out of his hut, she recognized it as a letter about the dam in English that they had never even opened. After she translat- ed it for them, an old man of the family shook his head and said, “You’re talking about the great death of the Himba.” Lifewags of the Himba THE HIMBA ARE ONE of the last tribes of traditional people who are generally self~supporting and fully or partially isolat- ed from global society. Anthropologists find them particularly interesting because they observe a system of bilateral descent. Every tribe member belongs to two clans, one through the fa- ther (a patriclan) and another through the mother (a matriclan). Tribes that practice bilateral descent are rare: besides the Him- ba, the custom occurs among only a few peoples in West Africa, India, Australia, Melanesia and Polynesia. Each Himba patriclan is led by the oldest man in the fami- ly. Sons live with their fathers; following marriage, daughters leave to join their husband's family’s household and become a member of that patriclan. But the inheritance of material wealth—in the Himba’s case, primarily cattle—is determined by the matriclan. Accordingly, a son does not inherit his father's cattle but his maternal uncle’s instead. Bilateral descent is particularly advantageous for tribes that live in precarious environments, such as the drought-prone re- gion of the Himba, because during a crisis it allows an individ- ual to rely on two sets of relatives spread over different areas. SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN 85 The system could also play a role in alleviating inbreeding among Himba livestock. Various patriclans have taboos pro- hibiting their members from owning cattle or goats of a cer- ta in color or coat pattern. When cattle are born that violate a patriclan’s taboos, they must be swapped with nonoffending cattle from another patriclan. The religion of the Himba is also organized according to bilateral descent and is practiced through an individual’s patri- clan. Himba believe in a god-creator, but that entity is very re- mote from human affairs and can be petitioned only by in- voking dead paternal ancestors to act as intercessors. The tribe’s religious Observances center on holy fires that were ini- tially kindled at the graves of ancesrors and are maintained by the leader of each respective patriclan in his family compound. The holy fire is small, often just a smoldering log sur- rounded by several rocks. It is always located between the opening of the headman’s hut and the corral where the cattle are penned at night. That area of the compound is considered sacred: strangers cannot cross between the holy fire and the corral or between the holy fire and the headman’s but without breasted and wear traditional apron-skirts made of calfskins or goatskins; they smear themselves liberally from head to toe every morning with the ocher-butter mixture and almost nev- er use water to wash. Young girls wear their hair in two thick braids that drape over their foreheads and faces, whereas women have a cascade of long, thin braids, each of which they coat with a mud mixture that dries to a hard shell. According to anthropologists, Himba women are not mere- ly clinging passively to their traditional dress: they are actively rejecting change because it is the only way they can maintain their prestige and value. Himba men occasionally earn money doing menial jobs or selling livestock, but Himba women have not had such opportunities. By preserving their ocher-covered bodies, braids and calfskin skirts, Himba women are engaged in what modern anthropological theory calls “change through continuity” or “active conservatism.” “Remaining apparent- ly traditional can be a strategic—and rational—response to modern events,” Margaret Jacobsohn says. The recent report by the World Commission on Dams de- clares that tribal peoples such as the Himba, whether they are The recent report by the World Commission on Dams declares that tribal peoples such as the Himba often get caught between a dam and a hard place. first asking permission. Traditionally, the headman keeps the fire going during the day as he sits by it to commune with his ancestors about any problems facing the family. At night, the headman’s wife takes an ember of the fire into the main hut; in the morning, the ember is taken outside to the hearth again. The Himba are also intriguing to anthropologists as sub- jects of rapid social change. One way in which this change is manifesting itself is in patterns of dress. Many more Himba men than Himba women have adopted Western clothing and hairstyles. At Epupa Falls, where Himba occasionally have con- tact with outsiders, a Himba man can be seen one day bare— chested and wearing a Himba apron-skirt and jewelry, and the next day dressed in pants and a shirt. Few young men there wear the “bachelor ponytail” that is traditional for unmarried men, and even fewer married men follow the custom of not cut- ting their hair and of covering their heads with a cloth. And it is extremely rare to find a Himba man at Epupa Falls who wears ocher: indeed, many wash daily in the Kunene River using soap. Himba women, however, are much more conservative in their dress. Even at Epupa Falls, most of the women go bare- Young Himba man living at a settlement near Epupa Falls shows the result of contact with othercultures. Besides the thick necklace tra- ditional to the Himba, he also wears colorful necklaces from the lem- ba tribe and a Western tracksuit jacket. Himba women have been more reluctant to change their traditional attire. perhaps because they seek to preserve their identity. www.3ciam.com actively conservative or not, often get caught between a dam and a hard place. Such projects have “inadequately addressed the special needs and vulnerabilities of indigenous and tribal peoples,” the report concludes, adding that the effects of a dam on local peoples are “often not acknowledged or considered in the planning process.” It calls for improving existing water and energy facilities rather than constructing new megadams and stipulates that sponsoring countries and international lenders base their decisions to build new dams on agreements with affected communities. But in February the World Bank said it would use the com- mission’s guidelines only as “reference points” rather than as binding procedures for financing large dam projects. A group of 150 nongovernmental organizations from 39 countries— including Namibia—countered in March with a letter to World Bank president James Wolfensohn to reconsider that stance and to place a moratorium on funding new dams until the bank implements the commission’s guidelines. The organizations are requesting that the bank conduct independent reviews of planned and ongoing projects and set up procedures for pro- viding reparations to people harmed by earlier dams. In the letter, they insinuate that the World Bank helped create the World Commission on Dams in 1998 with the World Conser- vation Union-IUCN only “to deflect opposition or to buy time.” Unless the bank amends its position, they write, they “may be less inclined to engage in future...dialogues with the World Bank.” According to the commission, the bank has provided SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN 8? l l l i an estimated $75 billion for 538 large dams in 92 countries. 50 what is the case for a dam at Epupa Falls? jesaya Nya- mu, Namibia’s minister of mines and energy, emphasizes that his country currently imports 60 percent of its power from South Africa and needs to pull the plug as a matter of nation- al sovereignty. “No one seems...
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