The Epupa Falls are at the end of a road in Northern Namibia and are the spiritual heartland of the Himba people. I first traveled there in 2009 with my partner, Holly, as I was interested in learning about and photographing the Himba. We connected with a guide who agreed to take us to a village on a culture visit; however, once there, I was quickly disappointed. Everything felt staged and unauthentic. The villagers all lined up in a row on our arrival and we placed our ‘admission fee’ of food items in front of the group. Once it was confirmed that we had brought enough with us, the people splintered off to their own corners of the community. Some of the women retreated to their huts to await our round of the village while others moved over to the cattle kraal to mimic milking the cows. Everything felt like a living museum, with the villagers mechanically going through their motions until our guide stopped explaining that particular facet of daily life or of the Himba culture.
When I shared my disappointment with my guide, he was hurt but offered to show us a different village – that of his soon-to-be wife. Our guide was only 16 at the time and we weren’t used to the idea that someone so young could be married. We were most surprised, however, when we arrived at the village and saw his bride – who was not even two years old. We learned that theirs was an arranged marriage and would only take place when she reached the age of 16. Our guide told the young girl’s family about my first impression. They offered to change my opinion and asked us to stay the night. We joined the villagers for supper. When everyone was done eating, the women retreated to their huts where they sat around a fire and talked, tended to their children, or rhythmically worked a large calabash of milk back and forth. I later learned that over time, this process works the milk into a butter that is mixed with ochre to produce a red body paste called Otjiz. Holly and I were both given a chance to prove our worth but it was strenuous work. Not long after being handed the calabashes, we gave them right back.
We tried to follow the conversation as the women gossiped about others in different villages, or as they asked us about our lives in Australia. The children were curious about our presence and were happy to have new people to play a game of jacks in the dust with them. As they became tired, they went to sleep; one child even fell asleep in Holly’s lap. We were designated separate huts to sleep in; I stayed with the Himba men while Holly slept alongside the village grandmother. Our beds were worn cow hides spread out on a hard-packed mud floor. We shared a blanket with our sleep mates, snuggling together to try to keep our bodies body warm, though we never got that far.
During the night, one of the village children died from illness. Chaos erupted immediately, and we were caught in the middle of it. A headman arrived to bring the bad news. As soon as the boy’s mother was informed, she burst into an uncontrollable wail. The other women joined her in her hut, their screams and cries piercing. Some of the older children tried to join in, but they were not allowed inside. In frustration and sadness, they stood throwing rocks at the village cattle and dogs. As news spread, others from surrounding communities came to join the crying mother. They arrived both by car and by foot, shouting as they poured into the village. Strange stares radiated in our direction and we felt very uncomfortable. Even our guide looked worried. In that moment, we knew what we had to do: leave the family and the village to deal with the tragedy in peace. That’s normative culture in the West anyhow; to give space and privacy and not to intrude into someone else’s mourning.
We continued our travels through Southern Africa, moving from place to place over the course of several months. We often wondered if we should have stayed in Epupa longer than we did, or at least not have left as abruptly. There was a palpable longing within us; it almost felt like we had left something behind or unfinished in the village. After all, I had traveled to this part of the world specifically because I wanted to get to know and photograph the Himba, and I had not had that opportunity. And so, one morning while in South Africa, we agreed to return.
When we reached Epupa, our guide was surprised to see us. We explained how we were feeling and he led us back to the village. Immediately upon our arrival, we were met with questions about where we had gone the night we left and why we fled so quickly. The family we had met told us that they wished we would have stayed. They hadn’t wanted or needed us to give them space. Mourning could be public and shared.
We stayed in the village for one week. We lived as the villagers did, eating their food and sleeping alongside them. We tried to help out with the chores but were rather hopeless; our attempts brought amusement and laughs – as least the community was entertained. We learned a bit of the Himba language from the village grandmother, who took it upon herself to be our teacher. And we often volunteered as taxi drivers, taking folks into town. The walk was long and in our car, they were able to find respite from the heat of the day. At the end of our time there, we felt comfortable; like we were part of the family fold. Every year since then, I have returned to the village in Epupa for anywhere from two to four weeks. Holly isn’t always able to travel with me because of work commitments; however, any time she can, she does. It feels like a party when we return together; our arrival is always celebrated. The children have started to learn some English and we’ve picked up some more of the local language, so we no longer have to rely on the guides for translation. Our relationships with the village families are growing stronger, and we feel more like old friends each time.
When I return, I take photographs for the people of the village and continue to serve as their driver. It keeps me busy but I enjoy it; it’s my way of giving back. I also lead photographic tours where I simultaneously teach people about photography and give them an authentic peak into this wonderful, lesser-known culture. Back in 2009, when Holly and I traveled to Epupa for the first time, we were hoping just to get a glimpse into the lives of the Himba; now, unexpectedly and because of circumstance, we know so much more than we could have ever hoped. I feel privileged to have a unique connection to the community and strong relationships that have evolved over time, and it is an honor to now be able to share my experience with others.