Etosha means “Great White Place of Dry Water”. We were sitting waiting for dinner and looking out at the green plains of Etosha. Our first morning we had driven through the Park and it was lush and green. The grass, at least at the south end, was fresh and shone like an emerald in the sun. Kudu grass bordered the plain and then spread through the park with their white flowers in bloom. As ever, Mopani trees were lush and in this landscape blended in since their leaves were always fresh and vigorous. There were also the occasional Moringa; these strange trees have silver-white stems and branches and the few leaves are held upright at the tips of the branches. I couldn’t miss the acacia, both the sweet thorn acacia with long white spikes and the camel’s thorn.


But we were not at Etosha for the vegetation. We were here to sight animals. And, we did see springboks, oryxes, impala, kudus, zebras, giraffes, and lions. There were enough springboks to fill the whole earth. After a while, one lost interest but they were such beautiful beasts, and the young bounce as if their heels were built of springs hence springboks, and they pranced like ballet dancers across the plain. The oryxes had a silky sable coat and their horns were marvelously straight with twists in them. These beasts traveled singly, never in herds.


We never saw any kudu close to but their shape was easily recognizable even at a distance. But the Impala with their reddish-brown coats, their sheer elegance, and slender limbs congregated at the waterhole where we spent one early afternoon studying what animals do about a watering hole.


The zebras at Etosha were larger than the mountain adapted zebras that we had been near Sossusvlei and their markings were more distinct and cleaner. They crossed the roads in single file and without hurry. The giraffes at Etosha were misplaced. I think they must have been introduced. Their long necks served no purpose in a terrain with few trees and none that had leaves high enough to require a giraffe’s neck. At the Serengeti it is always clear why giraffes are adapted they way they are, their elongated necks had survival value. Here at Etosha, the giraffe’s neck was merely an adornment even an impediment sadly.


It was the lion that was most impressive. We caught sight of two brothers standing about 50 yards apart. The one closest to us lay on its flank for a while and then stood up and walked away. Its swagger was of a self-possessed, utterly confident animal. The word ‘majestic’ can be overused but these animals are truly majestic. As it walked the breeze ruffled its mane and its deep eyes, thoughtful, rueful even, looked ahead.


Later we saw a group of 6 lions, a matriarchal group, sitting and wonderfully camouflaged behind low-lying fallen branches. The only sign of their presence was the edginess of a herd of zebras, standing absolutely still and looking in one direction as if any moment now danger might emerge from the bushes. And they were right, close by no more than 50 yards away, were the lions. The zebras must have caught their scent in the breeze but for their poor eyesight could not exactly see them. Well, that’s nature for you.


The birds were far too numerous to identify or indeed recognize. The most identifiable were the Kori bustard, then Greater Kestrel, Ruppell’s Khoran, White-tailed Shrike, Grey Go-Away bird, Blacksmith Lapwing and, Monteiro’s Hornbill. The sociable sparrow was hardly memorable except for its extraordinary nests that can be so large as to dominate the stems and branches of trees where they appear like gigantic scrotal sacs, misplaced and diseased.

Whilst we were at Tywelfontaine we visited the Damara Living Museum and watched a local song and dance, saw a fire lighting ritual and spoke to a female medicine woman. She talked about using the mountain camphor for treating coughs or as perfume, using the stinking bush for stomach pains, Marua dung for ear infections, and rock hyrax dung to treat amenorrhoea or as an abortifacient. Elephant dung she said was good as a poultice for swellings or as an inhalant for headaches and nosebleeds.


On our way to Etosha, we had stopped at a Himba village. This was remote and accessible only by poor roads and along a dried up river valley. This was a most disconcerting visit. The Himba are a sub-tribe of the Herero and had crossed the Kunene river from Angola and Botswana before German control of Namibia in the early years of the 20thcentury. When the Germans arrived and started the repression and persecution of the Herero, indeed including incarceration and murder, the Himba left their prized cattle and retreated back across the Kunene River to Angola. They were later recruited to join forces with the rest of the Herero in the fight against the Germans. They accepted this invitation from their cousins and returned to Namibia. This decision was to result in their utter destitution. Their farmlands and cattle had been totally lost and they became beggars, the origins of their tribe name, Himba meaning beggars.

Their rich farmlands like all Herero land had been seized by German farmers and after some iniquitous commission, they were offered this most useless and impossible to farm rocky outpost, a reservation in all but name. The journey into their territory traversed dried riverbeds, and the cattle (their most prized possession) that we saw were emaciated and some lay on the ground barely able to move. Horror of horrors!


The Himba are said to cling to their culture with the tenacity of a clam on rocks in a turbulent sea. The women that we met were dressed in goat leather skirts and wore no breast coverings. Their skin was rubbed in red ochre instead of washing; this is said to reduce the wastage of water that is strictly reserved for their cattle. Their hair is long but also plaited with artificial hair extensions and dressed in ochre. Their front teeth are knocked out at an early age to provide a wide gapped toothed smile. They wore perfumed smoke from myrrh burnt over a stove into their armpits and groin.


The children were all but naked and there was an epidemic of Tinea capitis, and Tinea Versicolor, ringworm in ordinary English. Practically all the children in the village had enlarged abdomens, sure sign of kwashiorkor (protein-calorie malnutrition). The men wore wrappers around their waists and walked about bare-chested.  Their huts were adobe, built of mud, wattle, and screened with animal dung. Their few possessions were kept on hooks on the wall. Parents and all their children all lived in this single room hut.


Literacy was at a low level. The government sent a peripatetic schoolteacher, an unqualified teacher, herself Herero, to give some basic education. There was a young girl of 16 years, the only secondary school educated person in the village. She was dressed in a skirt and top. Her hair was braided in cornrows. She told me that she wanted to be a doctor. She had rejected the Himba way of life but still lived at home. Throughout our visit, she did not once smile. She looked strained and utterly uncomfortable and dejected. She was a tragic sight. I took her to one side and told her that I was a doctor, asked what subjects she was studying and encouraged her to keep her eyes fixed on her goal. She nodded, bent her head to look at the ground. The only animation in the poor girl was when she retorted sharply that she wanted nothing of the business of goatskin skirts and bare breasts and then she said with vigor if not vehemence that she wished to train as a doctor.


All in all, this was a disconcerting visit. Here were people living in poverty and destitution, relying on handouts, clinging to a way of life ill-fitting for the modern world, and prey to the vicissitudes of nature. They were trapped within the prison invented and gifted to them by the diabolical trick of the German colonialists.


We traveled on to Etosha. The land became richer, greener, lusher and one saw why the Germans used all the trickery and ruthlessness that the European incursion into Africa had occasioned. They massacred the Herero and Nama, the two peoples who had a prior claim to these fertile lands. The Germans used subterfuge to classify people into tribes, to allocate poor land to people and to label these lands as belonging to the tribes, and to keep the best, naturally, for themselves.


The persecution and repression were only worsened when the South African Afrikaans took over the administration of Namibia. Apartheid was intensified. At towns such as Outjo, African Namibians could not buy white bread to eat, they were restricted to brown bread! The control of the best available pastoral land remains in the hands of Germans and Afrikaans.


At Okahandia the Herero and Nama agreed to a ceasefire between themselves and formed a coalition against the Germans and inflicted significant defeat against the Germans that is still celebrated today as part of the resistance against the cruel and unforgivable rule of the Germans and then the Afrikaans in north-west Africa.


We returned to Windhoek on our way back home. This is where our trip started. We had arrived late at night and were picked up and taken to our guesthouse. The city was already fast asleep and our host had stayed up to check us in. She was a dumpy Afrikaans woman with a sour face and a barely perceptible grimace and look that was impossible to decipher. It was somewhere between wry and knowing, suggesting some distaste for having to look after a mixed couple. There was definitely an undercurrent that was difficult to place. At Swakopmund, an entirely different reaction, an over politeness and welcome to paper over surprise I suppose. The underlying attitude in Swakopmund was revealed in how our host said of the gardener, in response to J’s praise of the garden “It’s Thomas’ doing, he’s the one with green fingers”. You could say that this was an innocuous response until you perfected the art of listening to tone and innuendo- she talked of Thomas as if he was a specimen in his presence.


All this merely puts me in mind of the electrified fences and barbed wire barriers to protect the white settlers from the supposed avarice and instinct for burglary of the true natives. The irony is, of course, that the rapacious treatment of the land, the greed and cruelty had all been expressed, if not exercised by the settlers. If there was anyone to be feared we all know exactly who that was and it was not the African natives of the land. So much fear, an absence of any restitution or penance on the side of the European settlers makes it even more likely that retribution may indeed suddenly erupt like a volcano at some date in the future.


The San and Nama are ancient peoples who have survived the most demanding stress from a temperamental planet. They have adapted to the vagaries of climate, and are self-sufficient peoples with an ethos that recognizes the fragility of the planet. They understand geological time, measured in eons, not decades. I cannot imagine a world in which they will not outlive the settlers or the rest of us for that matter.


The European enlightenment, that most magnificent flowering of human thought, the growth and dominance of scientific attitude and liberal values, and the dominance of individualism and a narrow specification of autonomy, these 16thcentury ideals shows its obverse side here in Namibia. This is the rampant individualism of the oppressor, the lack of respect for others, the rape of resources without any due thought for the long term and most importantly a complete absence of self-knowledge, of humility and a lack of any sense of shame, guilt or the need for reparation given the harm caused to the planet and to other human beings in the Victorian period and 20thcentury, most especially here in Namibia.


Namibia is the country where the polarities of European culture were most exposed to scrutiny: the ideal and the ugly. Well, it was time for home.


Photos by Jan Oyebode

4 thoughts on “Etosha

  1. A very insightful piece! It was particularly interesting to read about aspects of Himba life that have changed in response to colonialism but, which are at times lauded, such as the use of red clay on the skin. It shows the importance of understanding the origins of particular ways of living as we engage with different cultures. It also raises the question of how to preserve the past in a way that does not box people into clinging onto old ways of life for survival. Another lesson for me to ponder how to engage past with present in a meaningful way to support growth. Thank you for sharing your experience!

    1. Your comments very much valued and appreciated. Yes, there’s a real dilemma regarding the past and its relevance to the present and how not to cling to anachronisms.

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