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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22 January 2002

The Ovahimba Years project is in its fifth year! 2001 was a threshold year for The Ovahimba Years. The closing down of the base camp in Etanga changed the parameters for those working on the project as well as for members of the community. It was a time of assessment, both of the data collected during our stay of three years, and of the impact of our presence on members of the community of Etanga. It was also a time of several return trips to Etanga and an extended period of work in Paris. And if one is to judge by the richness and diversity of the raw material collected, and by the dignity and joviality of a recent luncheon held at the project offices in Windhoek, in the presence of the Headman of Etanga, Ukoruavi Tjambiru, and a delegation of his counsellors.

The Ovahimba Years is alive and well! However, we have received a deadline for the finalisation of The Ovahimba Years Collection from our two principal funders, The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and The Ford Foundation, for the end of 2003. If we are to meet this deadline, which will also involve the construction and initial implementation of The Etanga Community Resource Centre, more than ever, we will need your continued support and enthusiasm.


At the end of my last epistle, “News From Etanga”, which many of you received in August of last year, I mentioned that Kakaindona Tjambiru had called to inform me that Tjimbosi, her last born's circumcision ceremony was due to take place soon. Early in September, I headed for Etanga again, knowing that the ceremony may or may not take place, but that other things were bound to happen, and did. Upon my arrival in Etanga, accompanied by three young Spanish citizens, we were informed that the Headman had left for Ombuende, for the closing of a mourning ceremony of his patrilineal family, and that the circumcision could not take place until the he had returned. Knowing that I was coming, the Headman had left a message asking me to come and fetch him at Ombuende.

After a day's rest in Etanga, on the next afternoon, we set out for Ombuende, accompanied by the Headman's children, Kapandi, Pokanjo and Kakaindona. It was almost dark when we arrived in Otjitanda, the last village before Ombuende. When we reached Otjihende, just before Van Zyl's Pass[1], Pokanjo told us that we had missed the road to Ombuende. Following several hours of driving through the scrub, and as many giggles, whilst being shown the way by men on foot from nearby homesteads, distant fire lights lead us to the Headman's family homestead.

As we drew closer, an unforgettable scene unfolded to our eyes. Mopani tree branch shelters, used to hang blankets over for day time shade, now looked like lanterns with fires lit in their centres, highlighting the silhouettes of small groups of people huddled about. As we stopped, in the dimness of a moonless night, we could barely see the large herds of cattle, sheep and goats gathered around the homestead, but we could smell and hear them. From within the homestead came the sounds of rhythmic clapping and closed harmony male and female voices of Ondjongo[2] singing and dancing. It was a rare experience; smells of livestock, earth and meat, firelight reflections dancing on faces, voices echoing into the night. I did not attempt to film it. In life, as in anthropology, there are moments in which one ought merely to linger. Someone was sent to call the Headman, who came and greeted us with the customary reserve of the Ovahimba.

The rest of the evening was spent around a little fire lit at the periphery of the homestead. We taught the Headman a Spanish song about goats, and goats being small change in the Ovahimba exchange economy, the song was duly translated into Otjiherero and sang to its original melody into the early hours of the morning.

The next day our Spanish friends had to return to Windhoek. We walked them back to the main track, from where they were told to turn right at the “main” road, right again at the small mountain in Otjitanda and then they would be on the road to Windhoek. To counter the worried expressions on their faces, they were given the customary “Merde!” and started the 16-hour journey that awaited them. Kapandi, Kakaindona, Pokanjo and myself had to wait for another three days for the mourning ceremony to be completed. More and more cattle arrived, herded by the young men, waiting to be divided amongst the inheritors of the deceased. I filmed the elders at their temporary shelter in front of the sacred altar, as they parleyed in low voices, as they gave instructions for the slaughtering of another head of cattle, and as they ate meat and more meat. The meat was reserved for men, and after two days of barely anything to eat, I walked up to them and said: “Mba tandjara, ndji pao onjama.”[3] They protested that the meat was for men only. When I said I am not an Omuhimba woman, the Headman asked on the side: “Is your name not Tjambiru?” They gave me meat all the same but not without a solemn promise that I would not give any of it to the women. Kapandi held her head high and would have none of it. Pokanjo took whatever I would part with, and the rest Kakaindona and I shared, hidden behind the car.

Three days later, on our way back to Etanga, Kakaindona asked me to stop when we reached the narrow gorge just after Otjitanda; they wanted to go up to the sacred mountain. The Headman stayed at the car. I took my cameras and set out to follow them up the steep and slippery cliffs. Halfway up, Kapandi, Pokanjo and Kakaindona started pulling out shrubs and tying them into bundles that they threw down the cliffs. I recognised the leaves of this plant as being used to make perfume and understood the reason for our ascent. Balancing on slippery rocks, my hands filled with cameras, I tried to capture their agility as they moved around the cliffs, pulling out the shrubs, heaving the bundles onto their heads and vigorously hurling them over the boulders so that they would drop as far down as possible. They seemed to be amused at seeing me scrambling over the rocks, cameras in hand, trying to film what to them must be yet another mundane task, with the added comfort of having a vehicle to transport the shrubs back to Etanga.

The Headman came to help carry the bundles as we descended, and it always comes to mind how human and simple he becomes in these intimate family situations. When we reached the car, I produced my a few remaining oranges and apples, provisions I carry discreetly to see me through days of meat-for-men ceremonies. Each of us sought out a stone and in the scant shadow of a tree we sat, quietly, enjoying the juiciness of the fruit. 

I knew the circumcision ceremony would not take place immediately upon our return to Etanga. Travel tidings have to be shared first and a time of rest is required. When I started hearing talk of a spirit ceremony for Kazinguruka, the Headman's wife, and knowing that my departure for France was imminent, I thought it best to forget about the circumcision ceremony for this trip. In fieldwork, timing is everything. Sometimes one stays for too long and sometimes one leaves too soon. There are times when it is appropriate to ask questions, to film, to joke, and times when it is best to retreat to a state of “inattention flottante”.[4] I borrowed Kazinguruka's ox tail broom to sweep my tent. I washed my clothes, body and hair as best I could. I dragged the generator away from the homestead and charged my camera batteries. I cleaned the cameras and took notes. When all was done, I went to lie down under the palaver tree, listening to the comings and goings, dozing but ready to move whenever the next signal would come. As an unexpected visitor one does not always pick up on the right signals. It was dusk.

I was back in my tent, when I was called to come and film Kazinguruka's spirit ceremony in her “ondjuwo”.[5] Only then did I understand why the children had been chasing after a chicken in the late afternoon. The ondjuwo was filled with people. A fire was burning near the door. I was shown a spot in a corner on top of a pile of blankets. I started filming. Other than the cracking of the fire and the shuffling about of people, all was silent. Through the camera's viewfinder, I could see none but the flames and the odd flickering of light on copper bracelets, large shells hanging between the women's breasts and the whites of people's eyes. No one spoke. In this sacred silence, Kakaindona opened a pot and started handing out pieces of cooked chicken to all present. We ate in silence and returned the bones to her, which she put back in the pot. “Film in the dark”, I thought it should be called, as they started the rhythmic clapping and singing, and the taking[6] of the spirits that continued through the night. The next two days were spent on Kazinguruka's spirit ceremony. It ended with the building of her “house”[7], a sheep being sacrificed and offerings made to oMakumuka, the recurring spirit of an ancestor.

On the last evening, Kakaindona and Katjekere took the spirits of lion. I asked a child to hold a battery charged lamp, whilst I filmed them, kneeling down and shaking up stones with the violent to and fro movements of their swinging plats. Kamboo came to shake a calabash filled with stones above their heads to calm them. The remainder of the evening was spent around the fire, drinking beer, singing, and the taking of spirits of a more subdued kind.

The next day, I started worrying about getting back to Windhoek in time for my flight to Paris. This is where Kakaindona's initiative to call me for the circumcision ceremony became complicated. She felt I could not leave without it happening but Kazinguruka and several other family members where opposed to the ceremony taking place until all the elder family members were present. I told them that I would stay for another day anyway and if it did not happen it did not matter, and then retreated to my tent. Through the thin Mopani bush in front of my tent I followed the comings and goings of Kakaindona and her husband, Ngavekupe, trying to convince the family that it should happen. At times they would leave and come back, arguing with their parents and coming to the tent to tell me not to leave. I told them repeatedly not to worry about me and to let things happen the way they would have whether I was there or not.

The next morning Kakaindona came to tell that I should bring my cameras; the ceremony was about to begin. When I arrived at the Headman's sacred alter, everyone was there, women, men, elders, the person designated to do the circumcision, and a small group of young boys, aged from one and a half to three years. Toure, Katjekere's son of about three was called first. With a solemn face he walked and sat down between Kamboo's legs, allowing himself to be held down and the foreskin of his penis to be tied up and cut off. He cried out in pain and was returned to one of the elder women who were to take care of him. The next boy was called and went. One after the other, I filmed the procedures, at times from a distance and at times close by. Whilst filming I was hesitating as to whether I should film from afar and miss the detail or whether I should show exactly how it is done, since I was worried how the young boys would feel if they were to see the images once they were grown up. It was an emotionally charged moment; I had seen most of these young boys being born and followed them growing up. Years of anthropological and film training allowed me to remain focussed on my work, or so I thought…

Once all the boys had been circumcised, suddenly, the Headman jumped up from besides the sacred altar and started dancing. Holding his cane up in front of him, he jumped ahead, kicking his legs to the sides with slight movements, lifting up clouds of dust and stones. Soon the other men, encouraged by the ululating of the women and the crying of the young boys, joined him. Then, on the far side of the homestead, Tjikondomboro appeared as a tiny figure in the hazy mid-morning light. With similar movements, he danced his way through the wide-open space that separated him from us. With each cry he uttered, and each lifting of his legs, a cloud of dust would rise, making him look like a bird flying low over the ground. For the first time in four years I lost my composure. Tears started running down my face as I crouched down to film him dancing toward me. The women noticed the tears and ululated even more. Tjikondomboro, encouraged by their singing, raised his sidekicks even higher, increasing the effect of wings of sand flying off the ground. My nose started running and my ears became moist. The women, enjoying my predicament, started laughing and ululating even louder. I could do little but to keep filming as Tjikondomboro kept up his performance. It was an act of pure beauty, of men becoming elegant large birds, like mirages in the haze of midday light, with wings of dust that rise in grace and fall with pathos.[8]

The rest of the day was spent in the shade of a temporary tree and blanket shelter, with the women tending to the wounds of their little ones that lay on their backs with sultry faces and legs wide apart. The women chewed Mopani tree bark and mixed their saliva with ash to prevent the wounds from becoming infected. I was asked to go and fetch some anti-sceptic cream from the clinic, and throughout the day both remedies were applied alternately. That night the men cooked meat and made wooden forks from twigs onto which they stuck pieces of meat. The man who circumcised the young boys came and gave each boy a meat-laden fork. Some took it gladly, others still sore and angry, turned their heads away and started crying. Here again the meat was reserved for men. I went to ask for some. This was my home turf and I was given meat easily but not without promising not to share with the other women. With many women under the trees I was not forthcoming in offering any and held my pledge. Soon however, I felt a hand nudging me from under a blanket and identified it as belonging to Kakaindona. I slipped a chunk of fatty meat to her and then saw her bending down under the blanket as if to tend to her ailing son, Tjimbosi.

The next morning I packed to leave, my back and neck stiff from filming almost uninterruptedly for two weeks. Then came the round of greetings, which with each departure becomes more solemn. With heads bent down, some asked: “Mo kotoka rune?”[9] The Headman shook my hand briefly and said: “Kaende nawa na kotoka.”[10] I arrived in Windhoek with a twisted back and neck, exhausted, and had only few days ahead of me to prepare for my trip to Paris.


My visit to Paris consisted mainly of ensuring ongoing support for The Ovahimba Years, tending to administrative matters, acquiring equipment and books not available locally and maintaining contact with the academic milieu.

• The Research Department of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed their support of the project until the end of 2003. They would like to see the Collection of The Ovahimba Years reach as wide an audience as possible, both in Namibia and internationally, especially in France. They would also like to have all published material translated into French. Towards the end of the project, they may consider further assistance with the publication and distribution of the various elements of the Collection and may participate in the funding of an exhibition of the Collection in France, accompanied by a group of young Ovahimba musicians and dancers.

• The Musée du Quai Branly expressed keen interest in hosting an extensive exhibition of the The Ovahimba Years Collection, accompanied by a group of young Ovahimba musicians and dancers, at the time of the opening of the Musée in 2004. Other than films, photographs, drawings, etc. this exhibit would involve objects from Ovahimba cultural heritage that would be taken on loan from willing individuals.[75] It would also involve an animated deposit of copies of the The Ovahimba Years archives, accompanied by a CD-ROM to make it more accessible to the public. This exhibition would be a premiere on the Continent.  

• The Brunei Gallery of The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London has invited us to submit a proposal for an exhibition at the gallery within the next year or two. This exhibit would be accompanied by a group of young Ovahimba musicians and dancers and by a lecture series of specialists of Ovaherero / Ovahimba studies. It could be an opportunity for our colleague, Dr. Jekura Kavari of UNAM to return to SOAS where he completed his Ph. D. on Otjiherero Praises a few years ago.  

• During my stay, I presented elements of our work in progress, under the title: “The Ovahimba of Namibia: A Pastoral People in the process of sedentarisation”, at the Parisian CNRS Centre for Anthropological Sciences, « Dynamics of Human Evolution »,[12] a research unit whose work combines paleoanthropological data with the analysis of biological and cultural processes of adaptation of present populations. Researchers and visitors attending the presentation raised questions regarding the dietary habits and food collecting culture of the Ovahimba, some of which I was unable to answer. Unlike them, I am not specialised in this field. However, on future field trips, I shall explore the questions raised with the intention of writing a short article on the topic. 

• Some of my time was spent on renewing contacts in the academic milieu. I had the pleasure to meet Mr. Claude Langlois, President of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes (EPHE) and discuss the project and future perspectives with him. He advised me to meet Mr. Michael Houseman, Director of the Research Laboratory, « Systèmes de pensée en Afrique Noire » EPHE / CNRS. Mr. Houseman expressed keen interest in The Ovahimba Years and encouraged me to produce more academic writing in view of amore active participation in the academic sphere. He invited me to present my work at the Laboratory on my next visit to France, scheduled for the second term of this year. 

• Upon my return to Namibia, the proposed exhibition of work-in-progress at the Franco-Namibian Cultural Centre was confirmed to take place in June of this year. A group of young Ovahimba musicians and dancers will represent the community of Etanga at the exhibition. We will attempt to have a selection of Ovahimba cultural objects on display at the exhibit. These will be drawn from private collections or be taken on loan from members of the community.  



In 2001 The Spanish Cooperation Office of The Embassy of Spain assisted The Etanga Primary School with a substantial quantity of much needed equipment, such as stationary, gas lamps for night studying, blankets, cutlery, etc. The Principal of the school, Mr. Jeomba and parents organised a ceremony during which they thanked The Spanish Cooperation Office for their assistance and handed out the equipment. The ceremony was filmed. 


The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Research) has confirmed their support for the creation of a Triangular Research Pole between The Ovahimba Years Project, the Department of African Languages at UNAM (Dr. Jekura Kavari) and the Anthropological Visual and Sound Laboratory of the Contemporary World, University of Paris 7 – Denis Diderot (Prof. Jean Arlaud). The Research Pole is currently being established in conjunction with the Service for Cooperation and Cultural Action of the French Embassy in Windhoek, and an initial research programme has been planned involving the three partners. The Research Pole will initiate research in Namibia and facilitate exchange between academics and scholars in Namibia and France.


Throughout last year, The Ovahimba Years project has been working on a voluntary basis with the Veripaka Youth Club of Etanga on the development of The Etanga Community Resource Centre. A project proposal was defined, plans were drawn up, and we are confident that construction could begin before the end of the year. The following foreign and local instances have committed their support: 

The Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany – solar equipment

The British High Commission – equipment once constructed

The Spanish Cooperation Office – financial assistanceThe French Service for Cooperation and Cultural Action – financial assistance Kerry MacNamara Architects – architectural plans

The Missing Link, Teresa van Niekerk – fund raising

Gamsberg Macmillan Publishers – books

The Ovahimba Years – t-shirts, financial assistance, development consulting 

Early in December of last year I had the pleasure of accompanying H. E. The Ambassador of France, Mr. Eugène Berg and Mr. Tristan Gervais de Lafond, Head of the Service for Cooperation and Cultural Action of the French Embassy on a short visit to Etanga. The steering committee of The Veripaka Youth Club of Etanga organised a welcoming ceremony during which they thanked French Cooperation for their support of The Ovahimba Years Project, underlined the dire need for development in the area, and explained the aims and objectives of The Etanga Community Centre.  


With field trips to Etanga scheduled, the Collection to be completed by the end of 2003, The Triangular Research Pole to be implemented and The Etanga Community Centre to be constructed and implemented, 2002 will be a busy year for The Ovahimba Years Project. One of our assistants from Etanga, currently in Windhoek, Musisi Humu, is helping us with the preparation of the Collection. He is also following art and photography classes et the Franco-Namibian Cultural Centre. This will alow him to participate with the preparation of the June exhibition at the FNCC, by helping us to develop photographs. One morning he came to me and said: « I have a dream! I want to be the cultural animator at the Etanga Community Ressource Centre. » This is the snake biting its own tail, symbol of continuity and the full circle being run. Would this not be the biggest success for The Ovahimba Years, and a wondrous thing, if this young man from Ovahimba country could realise his dream. He arrived at the camp one days with a few drawings, and stayed to compose an entire collection of drawings on Ovahimba cultural heritage which will be exhibited at the exhibition in June. He then came to Windhoek where he is continuing his work with the project; he is busy word-processing the transcriptions and translations from Otjiherero into English of all our images. Despite some problems experienced with Musisi in Etanga, we admire him for his capacity to face his errors and the tenacity with which he pursues his work on the project and his studies. We wish him good luck. The past four years have represented a learning curve for team members and members of the community alike. It has also been a period of empowerment for the members of the Etanga community and a period of enrichment for members of the Project. We would like to thank you for your interest in and continued support of The Ovahimba Years.    

[1] Van Zyl's Pass is named after Van Zyl, former administrator of the region for the South African Government, who was instrumental in the pass road being constructed down to Marienfluss.

[2] “Ondjongo” is a form of dance and music playing that has varied functions: recreation, spirit taking, healing, etc.

[3] I'm hungry, give me meat.

[4] Floating or drifting inattention, a term used in psychoanalyses to the describe the disposition of the analyst.

[5] “Ondjuwo” refers to a house as part of a homestead or as a single house of a cattle post.

[6] I use the expression “to take spirits”, since in Otjiherero they say: “Kambura ozombepo”, which means “take spirits”.

[7] A scant construction of thin branches painted in black ash and red blood markings with a platform on which to place offerings and a white flag on one of the corner branches.

[8] Jean Rouch has often spoken of “Ciné-trance” to describe the condition of a filmmaker when filming. Seeing through the viewfinder with one eye and and the out-of-frame scenes with the other, creates double-vision which stimulates the brain and transports the filmmaker into a state of excitement that could be likened to that of being in trance.

[9] When are you coming back?

[10] Go well and come back.

[75] As a general project policy, and for obvious reasons, we have refrained from collecting (buying) Ovahimba cultural objects during our various stays in the field. We have a few objects at the offices in Windhoek that were gifts or exchanges. The loan system would provide the opportunity for members of the Ovahimba community to earn revenue from their objects without losing them from their cultural sphere, as it would allow members of the public, both locally and internationally to view them and hence gain greater understanding of Ovahimba ways of life.

[12] Pôle parisien du Centre National de Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) pour les recherches en anthropologie, l'UPR 2147, « Dynamique de l'évolution humaine »

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