As technology develops at a dizzying rate, cultures rooted in traditions that go back centuries are struggling to adapt, with older generations either unimpressed or frightened by the tidal wave of change that threatens them with extinction. Will peoples such as the Himba in Namibia be up to the challenge of embracing the benefits of technology yearned for by younger generations without losing the essence of what makes Himba culture unique?
Namibia just like any other country in the world is built on traditions and cultural values that have evolved over the years.
Even educating children is resisted by the older members of the Himba community whose tradition and cultural values are anchored on pastoral and nomadic traditions of owning and herding livestock, while wealth is measured by how many heads of cattle you own.
Twenty seven year old Elizabeth Ndundu (not her real name) is a modern educated Himba girl with a college degree in Performing Arts and has a dream of owning her own production house one day. Ndundu acknowledges that she is proud of her tradition, cultural beliefs and values, but is saddened by the high rate of illiteracy among the Himba people, which she attributes to their way of life.
“The Himba people believe that education is not a priority and is a foreign concept imposed on them. They are convinced that what makes you a prominent person in society is the number of livestock you own and this is leading to many parents opting to have their kids both girls and boys stay at home and look after livestock rather than letting them attend school,” says Ndundu.
She adds that people like her whose parents have defied cultural pressure and instead opted to give their children good education, are looked down upon and regarded as traitors to their culture, embracing foreign ideologies. “It is like when you go to school or dress in the usual clothes, you become anti-Himba and regarded as an outcast,” says Ndundu.
In her opinion, the Himba lifestyle is further isolating them because they at times feel uncomfortable to be amongst other groups. “We should be proud of who we are but at the same time move with the whole world and the times we live in, because culture evolves with time and the world has become a global village where we cannot afford to be left behind or live in isolation,” says Ndundu.
She gave an example of many Himba people who own mobile phones and computers, while some are on social media. “Tourists travel from all over the world, just to come and see us because we represent special cultural norms and traditions and that alone should make us proud and ensure that the new generation improves for the better” she adds.
Vitukutuku Mueja is one of the parents who believe that school is not important at all, compared to tending to cattle or goats. He says that his children can only attend school on those days that they are not expected to herd livestock. “Yes, they attend school to only know how to read and write. I can’t read and write but I am a rich man who owns a car and livestock. Why should I waste money to pay someone to look after my cattle when I have children who can do that?” says Mueja.
He is of the opinion that all those calling for the abolition of this practice should just mind their own business and realise that the Himba people are following their culture and traditions. “We don’t interfere with other people’s traditions including our fellow Namibians, why is everyone so concerned about how we live our lives?” says Mueja.
A teacher in the Himba area, Vitiku Mbumburu has expressed concern at the lack of interest in education among the Himba community, which has become really frustrating for many teachers due to absenteeism. “If you have twenty children registered in a class, you will be lucky to have a steady number of ten kids in attendance on a normal school day because there will be weeks or months that they will be looking after cattle or goats and not attending school,” says Mbumburu.
She adds that the situation usually worsens during the dry summer months when the children go away for months looking for grazing pastures in other areas. Mbumburu says that teachers and other leading organisations including the government are doing everything possible to encourage parents to let their kids attend school, but all is in vain.
Meanwhile a Namibian Historian and senior researcher in the Multi-Disciplinary Research Services at the University of Namibia Dr Kletius Likuwa believes that the Himba and many other groups throughout the world have no option but to embrace the changes happening globally.
Likuwa is of the opinion that traditions and cultures will definitely be diluted to suit the era people are living in. “The space is changing, stories were taught around the fire, but nowadays urban space is making it difficult for exchange of cultural and traditional knowledge. What we saw as normal in those days such as wearing skins and looking after cattle, does not make sense anymore,” says Likuwa.
He notes that in Namibia’s case, the colonial era was built on segregation and that dispensation widened the divisions between the citizens as well as creating superiority and minority groups, based on race and gender.
Likuwa has called on institutions of learning to ensure that they come up with a new curricula that speaks to both the new and past cultures. “Academics have an important role to play in supporting the state in its quest to promote good cultural values by establishing a new decolonised curricula aimed at finding a balance between good and progressive cultural practices for everyone,” says Likuwa.
Tjikunda Katjina Kulunga is a founding member of the Namibia Indigenous People’s Advocacy Platform (NIPAP) and former Chief Executive Director of the Hizetjitwa Indigenous People’s Organisation (HIPO) and believes that the Himba community has no option but to find a balance between practicing their traditions and evolving with the rest of the world.
He says that although there might not be reliable data it is clear that the community’s way of living has been impacted by modern society in a positive way. “Development incorporated with community education has now ensured that the Himba have access to hospitals and other modern services. Women now give birth in hospitals as compared to the past where they preferred home births. Access to roads and telecommunications infrastructure has made communication and travel very easy and safe, thus exposing them on a daily basis to changes happening elsewhere,” says Kulunga.
According to him the persistent droughts that affected the area for more than ten years have left most of the Himba communities without livestock, thus pushing especially young adults to cities and towns to go and look for employment and other forms of survival. He adds that the situation has also led to adults leaving the villages for towns and cities in search of markets for their livestock. “Most of them now have bank accounts because after selling their livestock they have been advised by experts to bank their money to enable them to restock when the grazing pastures improve,” says Kulunga.
He has expressed satisfaction with changes in the community’s attitude towards school, noting that the sad loss of livestock to drought has led to improvement in school attendance and he believes that even if the grazing situation improves, a lot has been done to sensitize the community on the importance of education and leaving their children in schools. “Improved school rights whereby vulnerable children are receiving a government grant is a form of motivation, because the parents know that if the child is pulled out of school, such assistance would be stopped,” he adds.
Kulunga also lauded the government for the mobile school programme that was put in place for Himba children who were herding cattle, adding that challenging as this practice was, it made sure that the kids were not missing out on their school work while they were herding cattle.
He is of the opinion that the Himba culture like many other Namibian cultures will soon be seen only during national days and celebratory occasions, where it will be displayed in a modernised way. “Authentic traditional attires and cultural norms will diminish and what we will see will be a modernised version of the Himba attire and way of life. Children will be in schools and parents will employ people to herd their livestock and the nomadic lifestyle will be abandoned because all that does not fit into today’s life,” says Kulunga.
Kulunga and Ndundu both believe that change is inevitable and all is not doom and gloom for the group. Ndundu says interactions and mingling of the Himba, especially the youth, with other groups whose latest norms and ways of living they have embraced, is slowly diluting their sometimes rigid approach to issues. “Most Himba and Zemba girls have ditched exposing their breasts in public and in turn are now wearing bras or covering the upper part of their bodies whenever they are wearing their traditional garbs, in conformity with the general global acceptable norm. That for me is a great stride that the youth have taken and it is sending a clear signal,” says Ndundu.