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The Warsaw Voice » Travel » June 29, 2012
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Guardians of Tradition
June 29, 2012   
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In northwestern Namibia by the border with Angola lives an unusual tribe known as the Himba. Like their Herero neighbors, the Himba people belong to the Bantu ethic group.

As we continued into the Kaokoveld region, we met the Himba on our way. Most of them were women who stood out with the tone of their skin, a reddish tinge like that of the soil they lived on. The color comes from a mixture of animal fat and soil with which the women cover their bodies and hair. They are guardians of tradition, now that the Himba men are going into towns, wearing clothes like ours and increasingly embracing Western habits. The Himba are poor people and each time we made a stop, women and children gathered around our car and begged. That too is something that tourists encourage, convinced they are doing the right thing, while in reality they are encouraging the locals to live on what they get from others.

We finally came to a village. The local women were sturdy, beautiful and plump. They walked around almost completely naked, animal skins wrapped around their waists and handmade jewelry around their necks. Many had one of their necklaces adorned with big shells. Since tradition does not allow them to touch water, the women burn various plants to perfume their bodies. Their homes were very shabby, built of cow dung. Once again we encountered a culture that put constraints on women while leaving men with freedom of choice. It is as if there is some universal cultural rule that requires women to be treated as inferior beings. In the Kaokoveld, men are all polygamists who get to pick wives for themselves when the girls are only three years old. The marriage is concluded when a girl has her first period. When the Himba people are young, four of their lower teeth are pulled out and the upper teeth are filed down. Even if education is mandatory, a Himba family will only send one child to school. The women spend their days preparing food, talking and staring at the horizon. The Himba exist somewhere between poverty and idleness and so it comes as no surprise that many young tribe members abandon the traditional life to move to cities.

Between poverty and idleness
Other tribes are no strangers to this sense of being torn between their native culture and modern life. In the Kalahari desert, here between Namibia and Botswana, live the Bushmen, hunter-gatherers who under a government order are no longer allowed to hunt. The oldest inhabitants of southern Africa, they speak one of the famous click languages. As we listened to their language, we thought it was very funny, but also extremely hard to reproduce. Like the Himba, the Bushmen are having a hard time finding their place in contemporary society. Scattered over an infertile land, they survive on food they receive from the government. Living on external aid, the Bushmen are on a downward spiral and develop drinking problems as they try to kill time.

Lost somewhere between their ancient cultures that cannot freely develop and a consumerism that fascinates them, many tribes are ethnic minorities without political representation at a national level to protect their interests.

We then headed to Tanzania. Another country, the same problems... It is commonplace in Tanzania for Maasai men to come to Dar es Salaam to take jobs as security guards at parking lots, hotels and private houses. They are highly valued for their strength and courage. Their traditional lifestyles clash with the reality of living in a community where some interpersonal relations are governed by money. The need for money prompts tribe members to earn a wage, but faced with the luxuries of a capital city far away from their elders, young Maasai men drink their time away in bars... Removed far from their roots, they have no one to guide them.

Africa is full of contradictions. Tribes which populate the continent are torn between tradition and modernity. They are no longer able to live like their forefathers, but at the same time they preserve their culture for the sake of tourists. Still, some have found a way to live decent lives and turn the past into the future... The dilemmas which some people are confronted with, especially in Africa, are reminiscent of what Poles went through as the four decades of communism were coming to an end. Determined to turn their back on the past and set themselves free from the burden of it, they faced the future and modern times with courage, opening themselves to the world in the early 1990s. But not all were able turn their lives around like that, as many questions remain unanswered and stir up a lot of controversy. Still, Poland is on a road to the future, but Poles have not forgotten their past. This is a beautiful example for the world to follow... Development only benefits people when it is founded on history and values.

Story and photos by Igor Jeliński
Edited by Barbara Deręgowska
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