The Ovahimba Years

A Multimedia Ethnography in Namibia and Angola
Petite Rina
Les années Ovahimba

Une ethnographie multimédia en Namibie et Angola


File written by Adobe Photoshop® 4.0


August 2002

Since its early development in 1997, The Ovahimba Years Project has extended into years beyond all expectations. Initially, the Project was to be completed over a period of a year. A measure of surprise allows us here to share the results of the past six years of activity, some of which has been coming to fruition during the first part of this year.


The Heads of Agreement for the Triangular Research Pole was signed at the University of Namibia on the 18th of February in the presence of the Vice-Chancellor of UNAM, Prof. Peter Katjavivi, the Head of the Service of Cooperation and Cultural Affairs of the French Embassy in Namibia, Mr. Tristan Gervais de Lafond, as well as Dr. Jekura Kavari, Senior Lecturer in the Department of African Languages at UNAM and Dr. Rina SHERMAN, respectively responsible for the Namibian and The Ovahimba Years legs of this tripartite research agreement.

The Triangular Research Pole, created between UNAM, the Laboratory for Visual and Sound Anthropological Research of the Contemporary World of the University of Paris 7, headed by Prof. Jean Arlaud, and The Ovahimba Years, makes provision for combined research projects and academic exchanges between the three designated partners. Whilst the oral tradition research programmes currently underway are focussed on practices within the Ovaherero / Ovahimba cultural group, the Agreement encompasses the possibility of oral tradition research in the widest sense of the word, both conceptually and geographically.

Initial funding for the creation of the Triangular Research Pole, was provided by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The creation of this tripartite agreement ensures the continuation of our work in Namibia and will encourage academic exchange between Namibia and France. A first combined research project, lead by Dr. Jekura Kavari is underway within the context of the Agreement. It consists of documenting through film and sound recordings, and analysing the practice of intestine readings[1] within the Ovaherero / Ovahimba culture, as a means of interpretation of current and future events. We intend to present preliminary results of this study to colleagues in France in the first trimester of 2003. In order to ensure the continuation of the Triangular Research Pole, further funding is currently being sought from local and foreign funders.


In the first part of this year, we undertook field trips to Etanga in April, July and August. During each of these trips, we noticed several shifts, in the intimacy experienced with members of the Tjambiru family and in a greater facility of our work in the field. These observations have made us understand again just how important a factor time is in the successful accomplishment of field research. We have continued to film, photograph, record sound, and take notes of every day and ritual life in Etanga, and, we have participated in the family life of the Tjambiru with increasing joy and abandon.

During the first week of my stay in April, and under some pressure to capture final moments for the exhibition, which was due to open in June, I experienced some hesitation to film or photograph. After some days of taking notes only, one day, Omukurukaze, came past the tent and said: “Mo ka hungura rune?”[2] Such words coming from the Old Mother of the homestead who had always been reluctant to be filmed, had me on my feet in no time; I grabbed the first camera on hand and emerged from the tent, ready to work. “oPerenderua tji we ya rukwao?”[3] she remarked and strolled off, wooden bucket and leather strap in hand, to the cattle enclosure to milk her cows. Suddenly the roles had been inverted; after five years of research, one of the inhabitants of Etanga, seeing their visitor withdraw into taking notes only, promptly put their resident anthropologist to work. For the remainder of my stay, I filmed and took photographs with no hesitation at all.

Toward the end of my recent field trip, I announced my departure for earlier than planned. This was because I felt too many problems and needs of the homestead were being addressed at me and found the pressure unpleasant. When she heard the news, Kakaindona came up to me and asked: “O mena ra ye?”[4] I explained that I felt it was too much for one person to solve the problems of everyone; some need money, others a trip in the car, food, medicine, clothes, cloth… The list seemed endless. “I am dead, so I am going to die in Windhoek. What would you do if everyone came to you with their problems?” I asked. “I do nothing, I just keep quiet,” she answered with patent Omuhimba aplomb. “Well, I have now kept quiet for a long time and everyone still comes to me for everything they need.” During this conversation, silence fell on the homestead. Omukurukaze was busy rubbing a perfumed unction onto the oForomana’s neck and continued as if nothing had happened. The Headman turned his ear to the side to hear what was being said and once or twice asked Pokanjo, his youngest son, to translate my utterings in Otjiherero, even more flawed due to my state of distress. At this stage, Kakaindona and I were half laughing half arguing about what I considered an unfair state of affairs. After Omukurukaze had completed rubbing the unction onto the neck of oForomana, the latter strolled over to my tent and with a large swing of the hand, said: “Ndji pao ovimariva!”[5] The sheer outrageousness of his gesture paved the way for me to act even more absurdly. Without hesitation, I too raised my arms and uttered a long and loud shriek. A hint of surprise flashed through his eyes, before we both burst out laughing, with the rest of the family following suit. Suddenly it was a free for all, with everyone from adults to children making exaggerated demands to one another and especially to me. Yet again, the ice was broken at a crucial point by the uncanny capacity of the Ovahimba to reverse a situation. And nowhere other than on the hill of oHere, in the company of the Tjambiru family, can the tenderness following a moment of conflict be so hilarious and yet so gentle.


Upon invitation of His Excellency, The French Ambassador to Namibia, Mr Eugène Berg, we presented an exhibition entitled « The Ovahimba Years work in progress » at the Franco-Namibian Cultural Centre in Windhoek from the 11th to 28th of June 2002. The exhibition was opened by the Vice-Chancellor of UNAM, Prof. Peter Katjavivi, in the presence of members of the Namibian Government, the Diplomatic Corps, The Etanga Youth Group, sponsors, colleagues and friends who have from afar or near at hand followed the evolution of The Ovahimba Years Project.

The French Embassy and the FNCC hosted the inauguration of the exhibition. The Catalogue was sponsored by Standard Bank Namibia. The opening ceremony provided the opportunity for The French Ambassador, His Excellency, Mr Eugène Berg, to situate The Ovahimba Years Project within the context of the French Government’s cultural and scientific research policies. Spread amongst various Ministries (Foreign Affairs, Culture, Research, Education), such policies have allowed for continuity in research and creation both in France and abroad. On this occasion, Mr Berg also extended a word of gratitude to some of the additional sponsors of The Ovahimba Years Project, i.e. the Cooperation Office of the Embassy of Spain (AECI), Caltex Namibia and Standard Bank Namibia. Over the years the Project has benefited from funding and sponsorship from many donors, of which the Namibian, French and South African private sector and non-governmental organisations, as well as host of friends (Cf. complete list hereafter). It was impossible on this occasion for us to mention all the names, notwithstanding the fact that each contribution has played a significant role in the development of the Project.

In his opening speech, Prof. Katjavivi had the privilege to welcome, in Otjiherero, The Etanga Youth Group[6] to Windhoek, and to emphasize the importance of their participation in the celebration of a project destined to document their cultural heritage. During the course of the evening, the Group entertained guests with a series of performances, from ondjongo playing to ombimbi war dances. Watching them perform, we noted with wonderment just how little we are able to teach these natural but first time performers about stage presence. A moment of grace it was to observe the group of young people perform with verve and definition in gesture and style, surrounded by an admiring group of spectators.

The principal objective of the « The Ovahimba Years work in progress » was to share with members of the public a series of multi-medium windows onto our work on the life and times of the community of Etanga. The aim in conception and realisation was to provide a slice of life of Ovahimba cultural heritage, from which visitors would leave with the impression of having spent time with the Tjambiru family and friends on the hill of oHere situated in the outskirts of Etanga. The exhibition was presented as an installation of soundscapes, punctuated with photographs, drawings, cultural objects and unedited video images, articulated according to themes time, place, and activity. The combined effect of sound, visuals, objects, and moving images was intended to be a composition of image and sound, in part created by the itinerary of the visitor in time and space. A number of scholarly papers presented by Dr. Jekura Kavari, Mr. Alex Kaputu and Dr. Rina Sherman, and a selection of films from The Ovahimba Years Collection and the films of Spanish anthropologist, Dr Giner Abati (supplied courtesy of the Spanish Cooperation office), completed the exhibition programme. London artist Louisa Sherman designed the catalogue and the visual interface of the exhibition. David Benade designed the sound and Struppie Reinhardt designed and constructed the sets for the exhibition.

One of the highlights of the Etanga Youth Group’s weeklong sojourn was a series of visits organised by the FNCC to schools in and around Windhoek. The Group was received with enthusiasm by the youth, celebrating the pleasure to discover the culture of the Ovahimba, and to share aspects of their own urban culture with the visitors. More often than not, these visits extended into lengthy informal discussions on a range of topics, from explanations of the dances performed to how the women do their plaits. The FNCC also organised for groups of students to visit the exhibition at the Centre, and hence effectively extended the reach of the project. On the last evening of their stay, the Etanga Youth Group performed at a private function held in the FNCC Gallery by Standard Bank.

An unforgettable moment of the Windhoek stay of the ten young people from Etanga, was when they first entered the exhibition, heard their own voices emanating from the soundscapes, seeing their photographs displayed on the walls and watching images from scenes from their lives. That was when the full circle of their participation in The Ovahimba Years Project was completed for the first time.

From all accounts, members of the public from different horizons received « The Ovahimba Years work in progress » with enthusiasm. We are pleased to have had the opportunity to share the first results of our work with the Namibian public. A film recorded during the run of the exhibition is currently being edited and will soon be available for viewing. Future exhibitions show casing the results of our work in progress are envisaged, and venues such as the Brunei Gallery at the SOAS in London and the Musée Branly in Paris are under consideration.


The Ovahimba Years Project has been involved in many different community development projects over the five years of activity in Etanga. As voluntary consultants in the development of community projects we serve as a link between the remote location of Etanga and donors disposed to become partners in community development programmes. We work with the Veripaka Youth Club of Etanga (VYC), Etanga Primary School, Etanga Youth Group as well as with informal formations of community groups on projects that advance the development interests of the community as a whole.

For the second year running, the Spanish CooperationOffice (AECI) of the Embassy of Spain has agreed to assist the Primary School of Etanga with much needed equipment and materials. The school has only two teachers for over fifty students of several grades, and a severe shortage of equipment, teaching materials and textbooks impairs teaching activities at the school on a daily basis.

The International Women’s Association donated 1.000,00N$ toward community development in Etanga, which allowed us to open a special for Community Development Account. The IWA also donated large quantities of second hand fabric and cloths that were distributed amongst members of the community in Etanga. for more than a year with the Veripaka Youth Club of Etanga on the development of the Etanga Community Resource Centre Project. The principal aim of this project is to alleviate poverty by means of training programmes for youth and adults alike and through the implementation of sustainable income-generating activities.

In December 2001, during a visit to Etanga, His Excellency, the Ambassador of France, Mr Eugène Berg agreed to assist with the construction of the Centre. The project is currently being reviewed by the Service for Cooperation and Cultural Affairs of the French Embassy in Namibia, and a decision as to the extent of their participation is pending.

In May of this year, the European Union Microprojects Programme agreed to finance the Centre for an amount of 257.073,60, according to set regulations and plans to be respected by the Beneficiaries.

In August, we were informed of NAMSOV’s decision to provide funding of one million Namibian Dollars (1.000.000,00N$) for the construction of the Centre. Funding will be released on condition that the Project is approved by the Governor of the Kunene Region, that the Community participates in the funding and construction of the Centre and takes responsibility for its maintenance and running, and that a recognised architect or builder takes legal responsibility as Project Coordinator for the construction.

With the conditions of funders in the process of being met, and with funding almost in place, we are looking forward to the laying of the first bricks of the Etanga Community Resource Centre. For the members of the Community of Etanga it is indeed a dream come true!

During a recent field trip to Etanga, the Principal of the Etanga Primary School approached me for the funding of a study trip to the coast for his students. His students have never seen the ocean and were experiencing difficulties in conceiving of certain notions related to Namibia’s marine culture and fishing industry. His proposal was conveyed to Ms Teresa van Niekerk of TheMissing Link for possible funding as part of the social programmes they manage in the private sector, and is currently being considered for funding. Ms Teresa van Niekerk also acted as link between the Veripaka Youth Club, The Ovahimba Years Project and NAMSOV for the funding of the Etanga Community Resource Centre.


Through the intermediary of a non-governmental organisation, the French Association Congé Solidaire, two voluntaries, Alban Cattiaux and Amélie Cherubin-Grillo recently arrived in Namibia to assist us respectively with video editing and English to French translations. Shortly after their arrival in Windhoek, we took them on a short visit to oHere, to meet the members of the Tjambiru family, and to provide them with a few initiatory glimpses of life in Etanga. The Tjambiru family immediately took to Alban and Amélie and it was a stay filled with unforgettable moments of joy and laughter.


The Tjambiru family and members of the community of Etanga, have now been partners to The Ovahimba Years Project for the past five years. With the three years of our initial permanent stay, successive subsequent field sojourns, including frequent visits by friends of various nationalities, and specifically the fact that the visit of the Etanga Youth Group provided a concrete link to the results of our work, our relationship with the people from Etanga has grown from strength to strength. We are set to present the first part of The Ovahimba Years Collection by the end of 2003. From all accounts heard in Etanga, the destination elected by the Etanga Youth Group for their next tour is Paris!