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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20th of August 2001

Sweeping the ground sail in front of the tent.

I have recently spent six weeks in Etanga with the Tjambiru family and other members of the community. Rain came late but plentiful to the area and the countryside is looking lush. Men have only recently started digging wells in the riverbeds from which to water their livestock. Women were reaping maize and pumpkin harvests and there was sourmilk in abundance. “It is the time for getting fat” as someone accounted for the numerous meals they were enjoying. Indeed, we spent a considerable portion of time eating during my sojourn. Food is eaten as it becomes available and there were days of maize on the cob grilled on the coals, days of pumkin, sometimes with coarsely ground maize added for flavour and consistency, days of maize porridge and memorable days of meat and more meat…

Kakaendona Tjambiru, youngest daughter of the Headman of Etanga

My arrival in Etanga one late afternoon was an unforgettable moment. Kakaendona was waiting for me at the store. She grabbed me and rubbed otjize[1] on my face, neck and arms. Katjaambia came running along with a bundle of blankets on her head. Tears of joy streaked our faces as we embraced each other. Katjaambia is the first person I met when I first came to Etanga several years ago. Chris Eyre[2] sent me to her. Over the years she has become a friend and loyal supporter of my work in the area. I left the village for Oforomana’s[3] homestead up on the hill of Ohere. I greeted him first and

Playing with Nguaarua

then turned to Omukurukaze[4] who was huddled at the fire. As I bent down to greet her, she showed to her cheecks with a swift gesture of the hand. I kissed her on both cheecks as is our private custom.[5] Oforomana asked who had smeared me with otjize. Kakaendona and Katjaambia, I said. I asked him if I could stay at the house in a small tent. Since closing the camp, Oforomana and his wife had moved into my old ondjuwo.[6] I was shown a spot next to their eldest son Uapengena’s ondjuwo where I stayed for the following six weeks. At night, lying in our adjacent dwellings, Uapengena and I would crack jokes or talk about omukwangukwangu, the milky way, or I would listen to the children sleeping with him telling each other stories or singing into the early hours of the cold mornings. 

From a research point of view, my work on the project The Ovahimba Years has never been more captivating and I am more than ever convinced that it should be continued in a full-time capacity for at least another to years as from January 2002. This time frame would make allowance for regular field trips as well as make provision for enough time to constitute The Ovahimba YearsCollection of films, text publications, photographic- and drawing catalogue. Constituting the Collection involves editing of several films, writing and finalising texts for publication, cross referencing the photographic catalogue and completing text research on the drawing collection.

Shortly after my arrival in Etanga, the Committee of the Veripaka Youth Club [7] of Etanga held a meeting to thank Cooperacion Española for the equipment they donated to the Etanga Primary School. On this occasion, they also thanked the Michelle Mclean Chidren's Fund for sleeping bags and other goods donated to the school. The members of the Committee of the Veripaka Youth Club displayed all the goods on one side of the room for everyone to see. There was a moment of grace when the children came to stand in line to each receive their own blanket, their smiling faces lit by a newly received gas light. I filmed the event which united leaders of the local community, elders, parents and children alike and lasted for several hours into the cold night.            

The Ovahimba Years have been participating in a voluntary advisory capacity in the development of the Etanga Community Resource Centre, a project of the Veripaka Youth Club. I showed the plans, drawn up by Kerry McNamara Architects as an advance investment, to the members of the Youth Club. They consulted with the leaders and the elders and apart from suggesting that the Centre has two offices, ‘a small one for people to come and write down their problems’ and a big one for meetings, the plans were approved. We are proud to announce that this project has already benefitted from two sources of assistance. Firstly, the Embassy of Germany has agreed to assist the project with the purchase of solar equipment to an approximate value of 50 000,00N$ on condition that the rest of the financing is in place. And Gamsberg Macmillan Publishers has agreed to donate books to a value of 20 000,00N$ to the Centre once it is constructed.About a week into my stay in Etanga, Kakaendona, Kapandi, Kahire and myself went to the otjize mountain near Kaoko-Otavi to mine for red stones. During our three day stay there, I filmed and took photographs of the operations which involves digging holes and breaking up large stones with not much more than a few iron bars and picks. I had filmed a previous visit to the otjize mountain and now have sufficient footage for a complete film.            

Back in Etanga, we had a visit from a team of two photo-journalists from an agency based in France. Didier and Lucia will do various articles on our work in the field for French and Italian publications. They accompanied us to the funeral ceremony of Ndoozu Tjambiru’s wife in Wakapawe. We arrived at dusk. Katjiaambia led our single file mourning procession into the homestead to pay our respects to Ndoozu and his son, Uahareka. Ndoozu’s younger brother, Tjikondomboro, showed us a tree where we could light a fire and settle down for the night. In the morning, Uahareka and Oforomana came from the house with a sheep for our company to share. 

Upon our return to Etanga, Uanderuaa was organising an Ondjongo[8] dance ceremony for her daughter, Kukatepa’s new-born baby who was ill. We spent the next few days in the riverbed filming the dancing ceremony which lasted all of three days. Vaanderua led the ceremony, and a duration performance of this nature is rarely to be observed. This ceremony was curtailed when a young daughter of Katjekere’s mother lost

Filming the Ondjongo dancing ceremony

her child at five months. The women were called to their house for a spirit welcoming ceremony, which I filmed and which lasted for another three days.

            Such were the headlines of my recent visit. But there were many smaller moments that I filmed or simply shared with the members of the Tjambiru family and friends. I filmed everyday life with Headman Ukoruavi Tjambiru and his family: leasurely afternoon talks under the palaver tree, milking of the cows, women doing each other’s hair and women preparing to go out.

            During this visit, I worked without a translator for the first time. Dr. Jekura Kavari had been giving me Otjiherero lessons in Windhoek over past months which helped me to understand the structure of the language. Dr. Kavari is an Otjiherero speaker from the Kaoko area but the Ovahimba further north speak with a different accent and use different expressions. My capacity to understand and express myself in Otjiherero is still limited but not having an interpreter brought me into much more direct contact with people.          

At times during the three year sojourn in Etanga I had doubts about being in the field on a permanent basis. My mentors had told me to establish a system of “va-et-vient”[9] in order to regain perspective and to restore one’s energy. The period of absence from Etanga has been beneficial in that it allowed me to envisage the project as a whole and to start planning The Ovahimba Years Collection of data. The absence however did not bring distance between the people of Etanga and myself. On the contrary, it brought us closer to one another. This closeness can be problematic to anthropological observation. But it is also allowing me to be a part of and observe aspects of everyday life and participate in daily discourse as no other method would have permitted.

Looking at a book by Spanish anthropologist F. G. Abati

The Ovahimba Years could be placed under the sign of the following three dimensions: Time, Space and Patience. The first two terms are known to us for today we use the notion of Time-Space. In the Otjiherero language the word oruveze refers to time and space respectively. The second most difficult thing for a foreigner spending time with Ovahimba people is to realise that one is illiterate or almost to their notions of time and evolution in space, be it physical or spiritual. The greatest difficulty lies in acquiring enough patience to brave the surprises, to discern the social phenomena, and to acknowledge the makeshift[10] aspect of one’s observations. For no sooner does one have the impression to have understood than the paradigms of understanding at very best shift or fall away. These years of observing and later participating in the mental foundations of the Ovahimba people quitted me to apprehend my own hybrid of cultures in conventional terms. However I cannot sincerely pretend to have adopted their system of thought, no more than I can attest to have retained entirely my own. This process has often resulted in a disposition of intense loneliness... These discomforts aside, I am, more often than not, aware of the immense priviledge I have in sharing slices of life with the Tjambiru family and friends.


During my recent stay in Etanga, Headman Ukoruavi Tjambiru’s youngest daughter, Kakaendona, became my assistant spontaneously, helping me in my work in every respect. Before I left, she asked me to get her a FlexiCard so that she could call me from any of the four telephones in Etanga if anything important happened. Three weeks after my return to Windhoek, she called to inform me that Tjimbosi and Toure’s[75] circumcision ceremony will take place in two weeks’ time. I will be leaving for Etanga by the end of August to attend and film the ceremony.

[1] Otjize refers to the red stones that Ovahimba women grind into powder to mix with cow butter and herbs to make the unction they use for cosmetic and hygienic purposes.

[2] Nature Conservationist who spent many decades working in the Region.

[3] Oforomana is the Otjihherero word for Headman and is derived from the Afrikaans word “Voorman” which means Foreman and by implication leader. It is sometimes written as Osoromana because in Otjiherero the ‘s’ is often pronounced as the ‘th’ of thought in English. The “Oforomana” orthograph is considered to be the more ‘educated’ version.

[4] Omukurukaze means ‘old mother’ and is often used as a name for elderly ladies. The Headman’s wife’s name is Kazinguruka, but the members of the household mostly refer to her as Omukurukaze.

[5] Once, upon one of my returns from Paris to Etanga, without thinking, I embraced Omukurukaze in the French way, i.. e. kissing her on both cheeks. Her eyes became blue with joy as she cried: “The Otjirumbu kissed me!” Since then, greeting her in this way has become our private code of affection. Otjirumbu means ‘white person’ or ‘Boer’.

[6] Ondjuwo refers to a house as part of a homestead or as a single house of a cattle post. It actually means ‘room’ and depending on the context may have a sexual connotation, as in “Matu vi kondjuwo.” Let’s go to the room, or as it is said in the Afrikaans language: “Kom ons gaan kamer toe.”

[7] The Veripaka Youth Club was created at the end of 2000 by a group of youth leaders of Etanga.

[8] Ondjongo is a dance ceremony that can last for several days on end. There are several types of ondjongo, one of which is performed for therapeutic reasons when someone in the community is ill or has been put under a spell.

[10] The word ‘makeshift’ is used to refe to the French term: “bricolage” which means to do it oneself and in anthropological terms it refers to that part of the observation that is left to the unforeseen.

[75] Tjimbosi and Toure are Kakaendona and Katjekere’s young sons aged about two and three years respectively.

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