The Ovahimba Years – Les années Ovahimba / Rina Sherman
A Tranversal Anthropography Study in Namibia and Angola
Une étude anthropographique transversale en Namibie et Angola
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The World Turns Like the Horns of a Kudu[i]
From the Self to the Other and Back

I started my anthropological studies with Professor Hammond-Took in South Africa. I was a music student at the time. In addition to being initiated to notions as diverse as kinship, potlatch, gift, return gift, and joking relationships, amongst others, Johnny Clegg, then junior lecturer, gave a tutorial on the role of the compound housing system for single male migrant labourers in the mining industry of South Africa. The rural and somewhat idyllic traditional model stood in stark opposition to the urban industrial version of the reality of those who had left their homelands to work in the mining industry. The discovery of these dimensions of South African life contributed to my decision to leave for France in 1984.            

In Paris, I pursued my studies with Jean Rouch whose interpretation of Cinéma direct resulted in the practice of shared anthropology. My first field experience was in the wastelands of Page View after the authorities demolished and reclassified it as a white residential area. A woman stumbled onto the makeshift set of a film I was making at the time, Chicken Movie. Cluck!, an urban poem exploring the zeitgeist of Johannesburg's sub-culture of the early 1980's. The woman was drunk and needed food. In front of one of the few remaining buildings, an Indian Temple, she started singing her version of an Afrikaans religious song with which I grew up: "Wat se vriend is jy dan Jesus, jy wat ons van pot en huis ontdaan?"[ii] She was just one of the many victims produced by the imposed physical separation of people such as practicedin South Africa at the time. What causes that moment to stand out in my memory is the myriad of cultural references it captured: Indian, Afrikaans, Calvinism, the avant-garde sub-culture, and the extreme poignancy of the situation in South Africa at the time.


I have now been living in Etanga amongst an Ovahimba community since August 1998. I am trying to understand and document their cultural heritage and portray their lifestyle. The people here have taught me a great deal about their culture and their value system. I try to learn every day, and to reflect the people I work with as they represent themselves to me. I do not work according to a specific anthropological system of analyses, preferring to focus on story as narrated by the Ovahimba, maintaining their perception of space and time, as well as their specific art of oral tradition. A loosely structured intellectual and material space has been taking shape between the research team and members of the local community. It is based on kinship, friendship, affinity, opposition, attraction and rejection and all possible variables of these various states of being. The aim of the project The Ovahimba Years is to create a trace of this process of mutual exploration within Ovahimba society.        

This accumulation of cultural references is not the consequence of a systematic choice. It is the result of a personal experience that has led to a movement of thoughts between different cultural spheres: Afrikaans, Anglo-Saxon and French. Cultural multiplicity may imply profound knowledge of each of one's cultures. I do not pretend to have that. The discovery of the other, an often long and elaborate road, inevitably leads to the discovery of the self. Knowledge of others, the diversity of their cultures, their ways of being, thinking and their beliefs, cannot only be acquired from a distance, from the point of view of the observer or the spectator. It is also acquired through an intermingling that happens when people form bonds over an extended period of time. In the study of man, no one can pretend to attain total objectivity. We can at best try to distance ourselves from the point of view anchored in our original culture. If pushed to the extreme, the logic of the relativity of cultures leads to an impossibility of mutual understanding. There is no absolute way of seeing. When standing for a cause, caution should be taken, not to refer to 'universal values', since such objectivity cannot be attested in a universally objective manner.         

Our approach in the project The Ovahimba Years is holistic. It is an attempt to observe and participate in Ovahimba lifestyle within a given context, and to accept that this context is composed of shifting references both in and over time. It is an empty vessel approach with clearly determined objectives, i.e. to create a living trace of Ovahimba cultural heritage, the exact form of this trace being determined by the way our communal life with members of local society evolves on a daily basis. In Holistic Management Allan Savory[iii] holds that statesman and scholar Jan C. Smuts provided a theoretical base to holism. He quotes Smuts' 1926 publication Holism and Evolution as follows[iv]: "If you take patterns as the ultimate structure of the world, if it is arrangements and not stuff that make up the world, the new concept leads you to the concept of wholes. Wholes have no stuff, they are arrangements. Science has come round to the view that the world consists of patterns, and I construe that to be that the world consists of wholes." The term holism does not form part of the vocabulary of Emile Durkheim, founder of the French school of sociology and contemporary of Smuts. He does however espouse the characteristics of thereof. He considers that the spontaneous character of society can be associated with the holistic nature of social life: Society precedes the individual, opposing holistic to artificial or contractual. Each society is a whole, which implies a certain coherence that is imposed to the individual members. And society being a whole, this whole develops new characteristics which is not the sum total of the characteristics of the individuals that compose a given society.           

In this way, we consider the Ovahimba to be part of a broader context and environment as well, historical and present. As a cultural group they have been mobile and their culture provides witness of considerable cross-fertilization. All societies are born out of other societies. Humanity comes to an individual only through other individuals. The individual in reality forms part of a time and a place, he has ideas and feelings that he receives from those around him. He has prejudices and beliefs, and he is subjected to rules of action that he does not formulate and that he nevertheless respects. The individual is constantly shifting between respect of the Law and of rituals, the aspiration to freedom and creation, and between personal interest and empathy or friendship. Social action is both free and obligatory, calculated and disinterested, since it is by means of the detour of generosity, by accepting to go beyond ourselves, to be fully social, that we attain our individual and material, i.e. our holistic world view.Collective actions are such that man cannot invent them by himself, such as making a religion, a language or a State. They are given to him, he finds them where he is, he receives and internalises them through his education. These actions existed before man and will continue to exist after him; they are transmitted by tradition. Durkheim, as early as 7588 in his inaugural lecture in Bordeaux, evoked an idea first articulated by the economists of his time: Collective life is not the result of an institution brought about by artificial means, nor is it the result of an exterior and mechanical impulse. It is in the heart of a society that collective life is elaborated over time. Hence, in our study of Ovahimba culture, we consider lifestyle, thought system, traditional practices, environmental issues, landscape art, cattle farming systems and the current socio economicsituation to be an integral part of the context as a whole.           

In the space of just more than a year here in Etanga, my perceptions have started shifting. I noticed recently that I do not count the small herd of livestock we keep at the camp. Like the Ovahimba, who do not count their livestock numerically, I have started creating visual images of the various animals. When I recently tried to assess the number of chickens that are running around the camp, I found myself composing pictures of groups of chickens, separating them into gender, ages and colours. I have had to abandon the Western perception of kinship, and have had to integrate notions such as "mama ngero", young mother or the mother's younger sister, or "mama tjiveri", the mother's elder sister, as well as the complex set of obligations that such kinship ties involve. The structure of our base camp too reflects to a degree the Ovahimba concept of open-plan living. A space is used for a specific purpose, as the time of day and the occasion require. The areas around and between our tents have been terraced with flat stones and sand, and covered with "outase", cow-dung mixed with soil. These open-air spaces, corridors, inner courtyards, verandas and outer pavements, create the structure and limits of a space in which we evolve as if it was a house. My internal perceptions and motivations have equally been transformed. Many a time, I have had to accept that several aspects of this project will not be realised as I had foreseen it before arriving here or even during the first months. I have had to accept and integrate notions of time, organisation, spatial structure and personal privacy that were initially foreign to me. Close interaction with members of the community has brought me to associate the aims of the project to a general policy of applied development actions. Introducing the objectives of the written culture, i.e. cultural heritage conservation, into a dominantly oral tradition society, implies working in such a society for several generations. The current dominantly illiterate generation has no immediate use for the body of documentation we are in the process of establishing, even though many of them understand the importance of such an endeavour for future generations. We have found some ways and are seeking others to reinvest our research results directly back into the community, i.e. to integrate our activities in as much as possible into the social context within which we are living.            

My experience amongst the Ovahimba, a contemporary people, has brought me to reconsider the idea of 'modernity', and question the 'universal', which more often than not, is but an aspect of the particular. Like 'universality', 'modernity' has acquired acceptation that exceeds the historical time frame. It is represented by a set of techniques and cultural values, which, starting with the industrial revolution, has acquired almost global validity over the past century. As the driving force of world politics, the influence of Western technical culture is making itself felt globally. Whilst Western technological culture is powerful in the sense that it allows man to obtain more quickly and with less effort, it is only one amongst other technological cultures produced by mankind in certain socio-historical conditions, and is in no way universal. Thought of in plural terms, modernity is the encounter of diversity in one place and at one time in the present. Technology is the material fulfillment of a pre-conceived idea of the relationship between man and nature as realised in a particular social system. In Africa, technological culture is integrated into a notion of nature as a supreme force where man seeks to solve his problems in relation to nature. For many peoples of Asia or Africa, man does not dominate nature but forms a part of it. On a spiritual level too, the Western technical model has become a powerful vehicle for the belief that a unique god created man to his image, giving him the right and in the case of some religions the obligation to subjugate other humans as the rest of nature. This reality is overseen by an equitable and good divinity, which is especially sensitive to the moral behaviour of the subject. The consciousness, which makes us attribute to ourselves all the trouble that comes our way, becomes the voice of God itself. Objective discourse is used to mask the subjective fluctuations to which man is prone – of which the leitmotiv is the eternal revival of hope. Could it be possible to hope for an ethic that rises above the preoccupations of man that would call upon man to accept that he is part of the universe?            

Modernity cannot be dissociated from the question of development, of the imbalance between the technical and non-technical cultures. Imposed to non-Western societies and copied assiduously by some, it is beginning to be opposed to native traditions, considered by many to be a refuge for cultural identities. Ethnicity, ethnic minorities and boundaries, be they spiritual or material, have become recurrent subjects for discussion. Such discussion is often focused on cognitive, categorizing and comparative aspects; it rarely includes the affective dimension. What seems to matter most, is what people do, less so what they think nor what they think they think. Yet, a powerful emotion seems to underlie much of what people do. Oral Tradition, such as is known to the Ovahimba, upholds and reinforces cultural identity. It is an idiom that is used to voice and situate the emotional aspects of identity. In oral tradition, it would seem that tradition exists in so far as it justifies the present within a given context. Past decades of war, urbanisation and the recent increase in tourism have brought about a new style of dress amongst the young Ovahimba men. Baseball caps and shoes, sleeveless t-shirts of brands such as Nike and Adidas, moon bags and Casio watches are worn with colourful fabrics as front and back aprons. A far cry from the black fabrics their fathers still wear and the flowing skin aprons of their grandfathers. As a young Omuhimba man said to me before I left on a trip to Windhoek: "Bring us 'orapa' (fabrics, from the Afrikaans "lap"), you know we like bright colours."            

The study of cultures other than my own has taken me far and wide. Time and again it has led me to seek to abandon the ethnocentric reflexes of my cultural references, which in turn has led me to the question of the return to the self. Can there be comfort, or even well being for the anthropologist? This visitor who arrives where he is not expected, sent to observe his hosts? The annals, at times moralising and sentimental in the name of objectivity, rarely address this question. At times here in Etanga, I stop to simply enjoy for a moment the heretofore-unknown impression of sheer happiness. Rarely have I seen a human being or an animal arrive here and not flourish, the harsh physical conditions despite. And yet, whether it is trivial or glorious, the anthropological undertaking is not always free of moments of weakness, confusion, failure and misunderstanding. In one way or another, records such as L'Afrique fantôme by Michel Leiris, Naven by Gregory Bateson, Le retour de l'anthropologue by Nigel Barley and Journal d'ethnographe by Bronislaw Malinowski, all evoke the inherent obstacles of the anthropological voyage. So too, the texts produced in the context of the project, The Ovahimba Years, containing stories of life, death, love, hate, bedazzlement and irritation, and portraying the reality that we experience willy-nilly, may well arouse discomfort with the reader. And yet, over time, in an atmosphere of joy and despair, moments of weariness and doubt, mutual attraction and rejection for the people of our host country, these texts will deliver an account of the initiatory phases of the self in relation to the other. If the undertaking is seen through to its logical conclusion, they may constitute an extensive exercise in the study of contemporary man. I know that I will continue to seek, for what seems to be intelligible at one time, escapes our understanding at another.

Rina Sherman
Otjikopindooha – Repos ailleurs
oHere, Etanga, 20 February 2000

[i] Otjihimba idiom: Ouye otjivingurukaonya yohorongo.

[ii] English: "What kind of friend are you then Jesus, you who have deprived us of food and homes?", from the religious song: "Wat 'n vriend het ons in Jesus, Hy wat in ons plek wil staan?..."

[iii]Savory, Allan, with Butterfield, Jody, Holistic Management, Island Press, Washington, D.C. 1999.

[iv]Smuts, Jan Christian, Holism and Evolution, 1926, reprinted by The Gestalt Journal Press, Highland, N.Y. 1996.

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