Opuwo and the Himbas - a metaphor for balance

OPUWO – a metaphor for balance

Opuwo is a beautiful and complex metaphor for how what is perceived as modern, and that which is seen as purely traditional, could live in harmony.

In this capital of Namibia’s Kunene Region, the OvaHimba people – whether dressed in their cultural attire or in the Western apparel now seen as the norm – are completely at home. In Opuwo, you walk the streets of this small town of just over 15,000 people, alongside choices made about whether to live a lifestyle that either weighs more heavily on the traditional side, or more on the modern one. Here, this group of people – ‘considered the last (semi-) nomadic people of Namibia’ –are free from the overly-inquisitive glare of those unaccustomed to the beautiful long, ochre paste-wrapped locks and headdresses of the women, the single plait of the teenage boys and the turbans of the married men. Here, you shop for groceries alongside the Himba women, whose skins are beautified by a mixture of ochre and natural oils, and perfumed by an incense of aromatic plants.

All this, without their derogation by those who disdain the red mark left by the ochre, or who are unable to look innocently at the fact that the traditional dress exposes the breasts of the women when they are not covered by the colourful blankets they use to shield themselves from the cold.

Here in Opuwo, you’re sure to find donkey carts and cars; government schools and schools of life; homesteads of stick and thatch and houses of brick and corrugated iron roofs; and a Himba girl - in goatskin skirt and beautiful leather, copper and horn necklaces, bracelets and anklets – with earphones in ear, listening to music from the mp3 player/phone a friend, dressed in shorts, t-shirt and sandals.

Opuwo is metaphorical of the balance we all struggle to strike between past and present, tradition and modernity, what was done then and what is done now. This is visible across all the ethnic groups represented in Namibia (and, indeed, the world). It is perceivable across and along time frames, and is observable across contexts – familial, community, etc.

And perfect balance is – as most things are – relative.

At the Opuwo Country Lodge, literally up the hill from Opuwo and in easy reach of Kaoko Otavi, Epupa Falls and Swartbooisdrift (all in the northwestern region of Kunene), this balance includes spectacular scenery in a setup that oozes old-country charm with modern flare. The refreshing infinity pool is the perfect spot from which to view the valley below and the surrounding hills; the thatched rooms provide delightful balconies for additional landscape vistas and comfortable beds for the weary; and the spa offers massages for those in need of extra relaxation. Achieving this kind of ‘balance’, however, particularly for local and foreign tourists, come with a clear need to support the communities that bring tourism to this area, and the Lodge appears to appreciate this need for partnership in ensuring its survival.

And in Ohungumure, a village about 20 kilometers west of Opuwo, that perfect balance might be a mix of all that comes with village life in a genuinely traditional setup, with an appreciation of the demands of modern life, including the possibilities of earning additional income by putting their culture on display to passing tourists. Here, in return for payment in cash or in kind, tourists are treated to a tour of the village, the opportunity to dialogue with and photograph the people who live here, and a showcase of the dress and cosmetics of the women. The vibrant negotiations that take place in the pop-up marketplace at the end of the visit – where the women and some young boys sit in a large circle displaying their jewelry and wares – is a clear example of how balance is created through the business of culture.

I believe that in life, we constantly negotiate small and big balances between past and present, modern and traditional. In what ways do you witness the striking of ‘perfect balances’ in your own life, and/or in your experience of Namibia?

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