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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January 2003


In 1998, when we arrived in Etanga in a pick-up loaded with the essentials to start our cultural heritage research work with members of the community, we did not imagine that in 2003, we would be entering into an important phase of project activities in terms of research and community development. With a year of project development that preceded our arrival in the field, we are now entering our seventh year of activity.

Years of investment and contact with members of the community, have allowed us to shift some of our focus to applied anthropology. We are now able to directly reinvest the insight and knowledge gained into the community. For most research teams it is a rare opportunity to participate in community development in such an active manner. We thank our funders, sponsors, and friends for their continued support of our research and community development activities in Etanga.

First field trip, Katjira Muniombara’s homestead, Omuramba, April 1997


The aim of our working sojourn in Paris during the fall of last year was: to report back on our activities to the services of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, one of our principal funders over the past six years; to further develop our involvement with the academic world, and notably the University of Paris 7 (Laboratory of Visual and Sound Anthropology of the Contemporary World); and to develop initiatives for the diffusion of our research results in France and elsewhere.

The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Service for Cooperation and Cultural Action of the French Embassy in Windhoek have agreed to continue their support of our research and development activities in 2003. Public distribution and academic publication of our research results both to the public and the academic community, and ensuring the long-term continuation of our research work in Namibia, were some of the central issues discussed in our meetings at the Ministry.

Triangular Research Pole. We were invited by colleagues of the Laboratory of Visual and Sound Anthropology of the Contemporary World of the University of Paris 7 to address post-graduate students in a series of lectures entitled: “Ethnologists by Themselves” («Les ethnologues par eux-mêmes»). In this address, we shared aspects of our research and community development experience in Etanga and examined some of the main questions anthropologists face during tenure in the field.

Prof. Jean Arlaud, Director of the Laboratory is planning to visit Namibia in April or May 2003. He will address and present a selection of his films to students at UNAM and cultural institutions during his stay. The purpose of his visit is to spend time in Etanga to film our work with members of the community.

In conjunction with colleagues of the University of Paris 7, Dr. Jekura Kavari and Rina Sherman are to planning present research video images and results of their study of the Ovaherero / Ovahimba intestine reading practise to colleagues in France in October of this year.

Exchange Visits. We have followed up on existing contacts and made further contacts for the diffusion of our research results in France and in the UK. We have met with the Curator of the Brunei Gallery of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London and visited the gallery. A provisional date in 2004 for an exhibition, performances, and a lecture series at the Brunei Gallery is currently under consideration. Festivals and cultural organisations have been contacted in view of organising an exhibition and performance series on Ovahimba cultural heritage in France at the same time. A youth group of Etanga will participate in such manifestations and an exchange visit with livestock farmers in France is under discussion.


Upon our return from France, we undertook a last field trip for the year in December 2002. Whilst professional strangers we remain, the unexpected visitors that we are have long been allocated a fixed spot for our tents at the homestead of Ukoruavi Tjambiru, Headman of Etanga. As always, when we arrived this time with two sets of guests, we asked the Headman if we could pitch our tents at the back of the homestead. In a diplomatic style true only to Ukoruavi, he answered with simulated agitation: “This is my homestead, this is your homestead, we have stayed here together for many seasons, your friends will also stay here.

Whilst we remain committed to an open door policy in terms of inviting guests to accompany us on our field trips, the role of cultural and linguistic intermediary can at times be trying. Following the initial years of structured research, we have grown akin to the culture and the ways of living to the extent that it may be problematic for visitors to grasp the dynamic that exists between ourselves, the Tjambiru family and other members of the community. Our research now lies in the realm of immersion in the mentality of the Ovahimba; we are no longer outsiders trying to understand, we are outsiders participating from within. We share the joys and pains of the family, knowing to a degree from whence they come, collectively and individually. This privileged relationship of friendship and adopted kinship is the result of six years of presence in Etanga.

Uapingena Tjambiru, oHere, July 2001

During an evening feast organised at Ukoruavi’s homestead by members of the youth group that participated in the recent exhibition in Windhoek, a baby girl was stung in the foot by a scorpion. After a brief visit to the local clinic, we decided to take the baby to the hospital in Opuwo. For obvious reasons, we have always refrained from undertaking private trips, but in this case, the baby’s health was in danger. We left Etanga at about ten o’clock at night, went to fetch the parents of the child in Omutati where they were attending the funeral of a relative, and headed for Opuwo. We waited for the doctor to treat the baby and headed back for Etanga in the early hours of the morning.

When we arrived back at the homestead, at about five in the morning, the rest of the party was sitting around the fire, awaiting our return. Ukoruavi walked up to us, shook our hands and thanked us, then asked one of the younger women to warm the goat’s meat that they had kept for us. It had been a long night and we had left for Opuwo without eating. As we were relishing the meal, a few bottles of lukewarm beer that had been set aside for us, was brought to the fore. A few people started singing, and soon the party was back in full swing. Someone said that we should take out the cameras. The sounds of singing and clapping travelled down the hill. More people arrived from the big homestead on the other side of the river. In a stupor of fatigue, we filmed one dance sequence after another under the shadow of the big tree until the squelching heat of midday brought us to lie our weary bones down in collective rest.

Evidently, an experience of this nature can unfold only amongst people when they know each other intimately. It constitutes a timeframe that transports the anthropologist beyond the realms of reasoned observation into the antechambers of a mentality unbeknown to those that do not share it. This is where our research is currently situated, in the inner workings of the life and times of the Tjambiru family and friends. In this sense, the title of the project, The Ovahimba Years, initially chosen spontaneously, has come into its own right.

Early fieldwork: Katjaambia Tjambiru at her
Wakapawe homestead, August 1998.


This year, much of our resources and time will be focussed on the planning, construction, and initial implementation of the Etanga Community Resource Centre. After two years of project development, funding is in place from the European Union Micro Projects Programme, NAMSOV (Pty) Ltd, and the Social Fund for Development (FSD) of the French Embassy (amount pending). As project coordinators on behalf of the Etanga community, we are currently working at creating a team between funders, architects and members of the community that will bring respective resources and energy together into a common goal, that of finalising the planning, the construction and the implementing of the centre.

This project is unique in many ways.

Firstly, from a historical point of view, it is the outcome of a six yearlong partnership between the members of the community of Etanga and the research team. During the early stages of our sojourn in Etanga, when members of the community initially asked us to help them create a centre in Etanga, we were overwhelmed by the idea. The mutual trust and friendship that grew between us over time, created a partnership strong enough to convince funders of the viability of the project. It has also allowed us as a research team to shift our emphasis from pure research to applied anthropology, and hence invest the knowledge gained from our long term studies directly back into the community.

Secondly, it is rather unique for a rural community such as constituted by the people of Etanga and its outlying districts to take their own destiny and development in hand in such a serious and dynamic manner. Ever since we started working in Etanga, members of the community, at various levels have expressed the desire and the will to develop their community through cultural development, education, and income generating activities. Their persistence and determination were decisive factors in our decision to become involved in making a success of this project.

Kazinguruka «Omukurukaze» Tjambiru, oHere, July 2001

1. Planning. Our funders agreed to support the Etanga Community Resource Centre on the grounds of a detailed project proposal submitted to them. However, we consider the final planning stages of the project before construction to be one of the crucial steps to ensure the success of the overall project. Information regarding spatial needs, different activities, conceptual plans, organisation, and financial aspects of the project were included in the proposal. In liaison with the architects and members of the community, each of these aspects has to be explored to the full in order to establish the final construction plans. Working from the widest option framework, spaces and functions have to be worked down into a functional and adaptable centre that will work as a whole and as separate units. The manner in which people occupy and utilise a new space is crucial to the ultimate and long-term success of such a space.

The Centre will work on various and overlapping levels to serve the development needs of the community. It will serve as a meeting place, a communications and information centre, a training centre, a centre for the implementation of long- and short-term income generating activities, and it will serve as a cultural heritage centre. All the various elements of information have to be taken into account in the final planning of the Centre. Planning is hence an integral and key process in the realisation of this project. It is important to make ample provision for full participation of members of the community in this process.

2. Construction. The construction will be executed under the supervision of Kerry McNamara Architects. Rural and developmental construction is of prime professional interest to Mr. McNamara, who has many years of valuable experience in this domain. Building in a remote area can become a complex operation in the sense that most building materials and equipment has to be transported from a central location to the building site. Supervision and surveillance of the actual building process is essential to ensure the long-term quality and sustainability of the building. Furthermore, members of the community, who will provide unskilled labour to the builders, has to be incorporated into the construction team in a manner that is satisfactory to standard building practice and to the voluntary team. It is hence necessary that the building process be undertaken under contractual supervision and responsibility of the architects.

3. Implementation. Whilst it took considerable resources and energy to convince donors of the necessity of a Community Resource Centre in Etanga, we consider the implementation of the Centre to be a key factor in the long-term success of the centre.

The consequences of the implementation of the centre in Etanga have to be taken into account in the planning of this process. The process of increasing specialisation in the differentiation of activities – in which art, farming, ritual, work, leisure, etc. are no longer limited to spatial and time locations – implies a differentiation of relationships within the community and in relation to the outside world. As activities become more specialised, their meaning and original function within the society may become redefined. This process of displacing any relationship from its usual context into another sphere of symbolic perception may cause the activity to evolve differently in its original framework to its new context of execution. Whilst this process is a common and constant occurrence in human society, its possible consequences should be kept in mind in the implementation process.

Vaanderua Muharukua leading a nocturnal
«Ondjongo» ceremony, oHere, April 2002.

As a place of meeting for various formations within the community, there should be a central space which will allow for ease of flow from without and within, for people to enter and exit the space, and have views from the inside out and vice versa. The communication and information (computers) centre, as well as the spaces allocated to proposed diversified activities, need to be separate enclosed spaces in which people involved with the various sets of equipment can receive training and exercise income generating activities. It is important that such spaces can be locked up for the safe keeping of equipment and tools. The results of our research work (copies of photographs, films, drawings and texts, etc.) will be made available to the centre to furnish the central meeting space, which will also in part serve as a cultural heritage centre. This will allow members of the community to use these elements as a key for interpretation of their culture for tourists in the development of the tourist sector in the Etanga rest camp currently under development.

We intend to draw on a variety of sources for the implementation of the various activities of the centre, such as foreign donors for equipment, existing educational institutions and free-lance consultants for training, existing cultural institutions and private initiatives for the development of cultural activities, and the private sector and existing tourism and conservation organisations for the development of tourist activities, in combination with the rest camp and the community resource centre.


If The Ovahimba Years Project is to remain active within the community of Etanga as a research and community development team beyond the building and initial implementation of the Centre, it will be necessary for us to seek funding beyond the timeframe of 2003.

• At the end of last year, the German Embassy in Namibia made a generous donation of solar panel equipment to the Veripaka Youth Club of Etanga. The panels are intended for use at the school, which currently serves as a community and meeting centre after school hours, and will eventually be installed in the Community Resource Centre as part of the building process.

• For the second successive year, the Cooperation Office of the Spanish Embassy has agreed to donate maintenance materials and equipment to the Etanga Primary School. The materials and equipment is due for delivery within the next few months.

• Alex Zacharia of PC Centre has agreed to act as a voluntary consultant for the planning and conception of the information and communications centre for the Etanga Centre. The planning for the use of computers in Etanga for communication and educational needs will take into account the various levels of application within the community. The interface will be designed to accommodate the literate and the illiterate components of the community.

• During the course of the first trimester, we shall liase with various potential partners for the implementation of the Centre.


A publication by the Festival International du film d’Amiens, Le Film Africain & Le Film Sud, November 2002, N° 41, includes a dossier on our work in Etanga, entitled Les années Ovahimba. Drawn from various articles and progress reports, the texts and photographs provide an overview of our work in the field.

In our efforts to ensure financing for our activities, we have found that it is at times more difficult to find funding for our research activities than for community development. In the case of our combined and often overlapping research and development activities in Etanga, the importance of our initial research years in the field has become evident. Without that extended period of groundwork, we would not have had the necessary understanding, awareness, and insight to fulfil the task of coordinating the development of the Community Resource Centre. Our work in Etanga is entering into its seventh year; we hope to accomplish our tasks in the course of this year in a manner that is satisfactory to all concerned, the members of the community of Etanga, our funders and sponsors, and ourselves.

Finally, we thank our funders, sponsors and friends, especially the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Ford Foundation, Standard Bank Namibia, Caltex Namibia, The Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany, the Cooperation Office of the Spanish Embassy and all those mentioned in a complete list included hereafter, for your continued interest in our research and development activities in Etanga.

Rina Sherman’s first tent at oHere, Etanga, 1998

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