We all know the Ovahimba. They’ve been around a lot longer than cities, tarred roads and telephones. They tolerate our urban presence with casual indifference and will accept a ride now and again. If you are willing to pay, you may even capture one with your smartphone on the streets of Windhoek, looking every bit the peacock in our questionable paradise.
Thirty-two years in Namibia, I had never spoken to a Himba, nor heard one speak. The mutual silence ended on 11 August 2013 between the walls of the Franco-Namibian Cultural Centre.
Probably like many urbanites, I am fascinated with the fact of their existence. So when I heard that a movie featuring the Ovahimba was to be screened in Windhoek, I knew I had to be in the audience.
The event was introduced by Solenn Bardet, who had organised, scripted and directed the film in collaboration with the Himba communities of Epupa and Omuhonga. Long story short, Solenn had lived with the Himba for a time during her university days and after sharing movies made about them, to which they remarked, “That’s not how we are!”, had agreed to help them make a film from their point of view. After meeting with community members to discuss what should be in the movie, she prepared a script which was reviewed and finalised in group discussion.
The movie is a delightful collection of cinematic anecdotes which are, among other things, about bewitchment, weddings, funerals, recipes, beauty tips, dealing with adultery, shopping at the supermarket and life as a tourist attraction, all served with generous helpings of tongue-in-cheek. I laughed a lot watching “The Himbas Are Shooting”. I was not prepared for what followed: A Q&A with two members of the cast.
Suddenly they were standing before the audience with their Herero interpreter. Ms. Bardet opened the session by introducing them.
I felt curiously drunk, sitting in a dark, concrete enclosure, at night, listening to Himbas talk about a movie. The situation was more dream than a social event. I can recall only a single question and the response it elicited.
“If you want to familiarise us with your culture, doesn’t the extensive use of humour detract from your purpose?”
The question came from a middle-aged male. After translation, Muhapikwa, one of the Himba guests, grabbed the microphone from the interpreter and, taking aim at her questioner, answered as if he could understand every word:
“If someone can laugh with me, they will be more willing to listen to what I have to say, don’t you think?”
Uh, hello. Only partially conscious of my surroundings, I wandered about the dimly lit room as the audience dispersed or people struck up conversations with Ms. Bardet. At some point I found myself standing at a table upon which were displayed objects of Himba handicrafts with discreetly positioned price tags. Interesting items, to say the least, even a traditional necklace of iron beads smeared with blackened fat. Hmmm, who would buy that one? Maybe it was there to prove it wouldn’t sprout teeth and bite an incredulous city dweller!
Slowly I became aware that I was not alone at the table. A bare-breasted Himba stood half a metre away on the other side, patiently observing me. I held my eyes on the items spread out on the table. I was afraid to look up and make eye contact. Not much time elapsed, however, before I realised the ridiculous nature of my predicament.
My mind was racing, “I can’t just turn and walk away; a more discourteous act of cowardice is unimaginable!” Slowly I lifted my gaze, past the leather apron, the beads and heavy iron necklace to the twinkling eyes of a beautiful woman, who I realised, at this point, had me fixed with the power of spell.
Her gaze was as steady and straight as the ekori perched on her head. The light in her eyes spoke, “It’s OK, check me out. Behold my shells, my leather, the colour of my ochre skin.”
No interpreter in sight, at a loss what to say to this strange woman, let alone a movie star, I managed a grin and uttered the first words that came into my head, “Thank you, Muhapikwa.”
Her face broke into a toothy smile that lit up the recesses of our concrete surroundings. We enjoyed a good laugh together.
Needless to say, I was captivated by Muhapikwa. Her self confidence and forthrightness in foreign and potentially intimidating surroundings was an inspiration. Her example reminded me of others who live close to the land. Namibia’s harsh climate and extreme habitat makes its rural residents tough, self-reliant people. Yet beyond those qualities, the real delight I derived from this film was experiencing the bite of Muhapikwa’s wit. You can watch a hundred films about “natives” and never encounter a living, breathing person. But there she was, in all her cheeky audacity!
Facing a critic, she was absolutely right. And that is my final point. In our efforts to understand each other, the power of shared experience strikes lame all notions of politically correct. That moment was a personal revelation: The more different we are, the more we are the same!