Written by: Rina Sherman
Ever since Namibia’s independence in 1990, a growing stream of visitors have been to the Kunene North region, or Kaokoland, home to the Ovahimba people who live on both sides of the Kunene River that marks the border with Angola.
The savanna landscape and zebra-striped mountains of this semi-arid locality is sensational and the Ovahimba cattle farmers are friendly people with a rich cultural heritage and strong traditions.
As an ethnographer, I lived with an Ovahimba family for seven years. During this time I created strong bonds with the headman, his wife and members of the family and learned to speak their language, Otjiherero, and filmed and photographed their everyday life and their ritual ceremonies and traditions.
Over the years, I constituted The Ovahimba Years Collection, a vast archive of videos, photographs, notes and drawings that includes a series of portraits of Ovahimba women, men and children. In each of the images, a personality comes to the fore.
Over the seven years of living with the Ovahimba, two things never ceased to fascinate me: the way they look at people and their manner of appearing and disappearing without anyone seeing them arrive or leave. From the very first glance, the Ovahimba imagine the essential quality of their interlocutor. Often they assign a nickname that encapsulates the person. Thus, shortly after my arrival in the country Ovahimba, they called me Kandavi, a name from the world of fairy spirits that moving quickly in the stems of a tree. They spotted an active side in me; always busy filming and photographing.
The Ovahimba form part of the larger group of Otjiherero language speaking communities that live in the Namibe and Cunene Provinces of south western Angola and north western Namibia, as well as central Namibia and Botswana where large groups of Ovaherero communities live. They are cattle farmers that follow a dual descent system, matriarchal and patriarchal. Their large herds of Nguni cattle are passed on through the maternal family lineage and the name, material good and location are inherited through the paternal lineage.
I lived and filmed with the headman of Etanga, a small settlement located some 100km from Opuwo, the main town in the Kunene region of Namibia.
I also undertook two long sojourns in the south west of Angola in Oncócua, Namibe, Virei and the Otjiheke winter grazing areas, being the only ethnographer that has studied the Ovahimba and related peoples (Ovakuvale, Ovahakaona, Ovadhimba, etc.) on both sides of the Kunene River border between Namibia and Angola. I am currently preparing a multimedia exhibition at the French National Library in Paris in the fall of 2015 and the publication of a book, a photographic witness to my seven years of life shared with the Ovahimba.