What’s In A Dress?

The vast spaces and desert plains of Namibia are sparsely populated. The immensity of the country is amplified by the overwhelming stretches of limitless and uninhabited horizons.  

The abundant nothingness of Namibia

Areas of human settlement is an exception, rather than a norm. Despite  this, or perhaps because of it, many fascinating stories are hidden in hearts of those who live in this harsh and desolate landscape. I have been to the country before, but I have never ventured far enough North to encounter the beautiful Herero and Himba people, until now.

The Moment of Intrigue

I first saw a Herero woman in the town of Opuwo, but I was too shy to introduce myself. Despite my shyness I could not help but stare at her, because of the way in which her entire presence radiated elegance. She was dressed in a wide royal blue floor length Victorian dress, with long puffy sleeves and a hat of the same colour resembling wide cow horns. She moved with a slow sashay, and looked more like she was floating than walking.

The Blue Dress

She looked completely out of place. Her entire being was at such a contrast with the dusty, grey, town in with its unimaginative square buildings and streets overpopulated with floating plastic bags.

She was a walking dynasty. She was an enigma. I was immensely curious about this strange but beautiful choice of clothing, especially in the hot desert climate.  I would soon learn that there is indeed a story behind the dress. It’s a tale of tragedy, survival, resilience and redemption.


The Himba and Herero

While completely different in appearance the Herero have the same ancestors and general belief system as the Himba. Legend has it that the ancestors migrated southward from a distant land where water was abundant. The history books suggest that this corresponds to a great southward migration which hailed from East Africa, centuries ago. Around the 19th century, the group split.

Those who remained in the Northern Kaokoveld Region, would become known as the Himba. A large part of the population moved further south to Namibia’s central area of Okahandja, where they would become known as the Herero. 

Mother and son in the sun

In the harsh isolation of the Kaokoland, the Himbas retained to a semi-nomadic lifestyle and their traditional cowhide dress. The Herero settled, and led a prosperous life ranching cattle. Their decision to stay here was the origin of their collective ethnic identity. In the language of Otjiherero, the word ‘Okuhererera’ means “to have made up one’s mind”. Some began to work for European missionaries when they arrived. Over time, the Hereros adopted Victorian dress.

For both the Himba and Herero, time is measured according to seasons and years are named. Instead of using numbers, it would rather be referred to as the year of the floods, the comet, the hail, the year of the camel (introduced by Germans in 1889).  A Great Spirit is worshipped with the spirits of the ancestors acting as interpreters. In some places, priestesses keep a holy fire alight and blow them into great blazing flames during festive occasions. It is believed that this fire has been sustained since the beginning of time.

A Painful Past

Once one of Namibia’s largest and wealthiest indigenous groups, the Herero were nearly annihilated. Between 1904 and 1907, seventy percent of the Herero people were killed.  They found themselves to be trespassers on their own grazing lands under the German flag. Things seemed to reach a breaking point when the Germans desecrated the old burial sacred ancestral place of the Herero chiefs in Okahandja. An uprising followed, and was met with extreme retaliation from the empire.

Towards the end of 1904 they had been defeated in the field, exiled into the desert or captured. The desert took its toll and thirst and hunger seized a major part of the population. Prisoners were put to work on the construction of railways and harbours, while others perished at the concentration camp at Shark Island, Lüderitz. The situation was so grim that Herero women made an oath never to have children under the regime. I was never aware of this episode of history. It would appear to be overlooked by most history books.

After all the devastation, a defeated nation slowly rose from the ashes. The women once more took to wearing the Victorian dress of their former oppressors, but this time incorporated some of their own flair to the style. Something with new meaning, something triumphant.When a woman receives her first dress, it is an inheritance of a history, of darkness, of survival and resilience, of pride. Pastel colours and whites were replaced by vibrant, colours and patterns.  As the wealth of the Herero is their cattle, the hat was fashioned to resemble cow horns.  The bigger the hat, the bigger the wealth in cattle.

When a woman receives her first dress, it is an inheritance of a history, of darkness, of survival and resilience, of pride.

A Brief Encounter…

Moments after dancing in the light of the setting sun

Not long after that first time in Opuwo, I saw a Herero woman on the beach in Swakopmund. She stood out in the sunset from the crowd,  regal and elegant in her manner. This time, I could not allow myself to be shy. I was eager to meet her, even if it was just a short, or small encounter. I wanted to be in her presence.

She was radiant, and friendly – but we had trouble communicating in words. Sensing this, she started to sing a tune and sway slowly from one side to the other. It was a haunting tune, which gently drowned the sound of the beach in the background. It was one of those cinematic moments in life where every second of the occurrence is something to be savoured and cherished.

She was singing her story, with a soft smile.

Each note an utterance of what was, what is, what can be.   She carried an inextinguishable fire inside her. She was pure confidence and, she was really, really tall.  In that special moment, two human journeys connected in the infinity of an instant – we were no longer strangers.

A last thought

One of the most rewarding things about life on the road is the stories of people and places encountered along the way. There are few things like it that manages to broaden our understanding of being human, and being alive. Every time it happens I cannot help but be filled with immense gratitude.

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