Yes, we actually are a really sociable family! We have experienced this since the very beginning of our trip. Meeting and getting to know interesting people who live different lives has been an important and extremely enriching part of our long travel to the south. It was actually in Albania where we discovered the first real differences compared to "our culture".
Most of the time these personal encounters have just "happened" by chance on the road, other meetings with "locals", but also with other travelers we have arranged via the internet beforehand, sometimes just like a "blind date", and other people we visited were either friends or friends' friends. Everywhere on this long journey through the Balkans and Africa, we have been recieved and invited with an immense cordiality, have been invited to peoples' homes ... actually with a warmth and openness we think has become rare in Europe unfortunately. An immense wealth of exciting stories and concepts we have been allowed to learn that way and this also was an important way of delving into and thus appreciating the countries and cultures visited in even more depth. We were really lucky to meet so many interesting people and be able to establish so very many intense relationships, even deep friendships during our travels. What a great gift!
Of course, one cannot "expect" that this happens "by chance" in every single culture visited! It is not "normal" that you meet somebody who is living so interestingly different just by chance while traveling through and it is also not a normal thing that that person directly invites you to his or her home, is able to tell and explain everything to you in English and at the same time takes care of you in a for the country characteristical way in all imaginable kinds of ways. Sometimes, one has to "use" pre-organised touristic offers, but this can affect personal encounters fundamentally.
Of course, we were also very interested e.g. in the way the Mursi live (you know, the people where the ladies use wooden dishes in their lower lips for body decoration) in southern Ethiopia. But what we heard from many other travelers who really "bought" these encounters was just outrageous. Unenthusiastically the ladies pose topless in always the same manner and position (you can actually compare photos on the internet ... and most of them look the same!) ... just to seize US$5 per photo directly. How damn unromantic! And how damn artificial and maybe even top-down instead of encountering people on eye level this is! This "touristic prostitution" we definitely did not want to support and thus even consciously left out the region Omo-Valley in Ethiopia. We did this also because we had experienced the difference between regions ruined by tourism and other rather "spared" regions during the two times we visited and worked in Ethiopia.
Long before we had reached Namibia and had even planned our Transafrican overland travel Anouk had a dream, a wish going far beyond any normal interest in a different culture: she would so very much like to "be" a "Himba"!
This dream developed quite early during the frequent reading of one of her favourite childrens' books, "Tippi from Africa", a book full of wonderful photos and stories seen through the eyes of a small French girl growing up in Namibia in a setting that provides many encounters with "Himba", "San" and wild animals (here is the trailer of a film made about Tippi). Anouk identifies with Tippi and would love to be as near to the people and animals in Africa as Tippi is. The great respect she has for wild animals doesn't make her expect (in contrast to the Tippi in the book) that she can really cuddle with them, but with other people she establishes contacts in absolutely no time at all! While we are planning to find out where we could meet "Himba" in a good setting we discover that Anouk mixes up the "San" and "Himba". So, we decide to try to meet members of both cultures.
Max and Irmgard Beyer in Grootfontein ("Beyer Self Catering", actually a great place to stay; email: firstname.lastname@example.org) are an immense help in organising how we can meet the "San" and "Himba" in a small group and personal setting. Of course, we know that this will be "staged" in some way, but we will try it and be open.
First, we meet the "San" who call themselves both "Bushmen" and "San".
INFOBOX: The "San"
Both the term "San" and also "Bushmen" could be interpreted negatively; especially the term "San" which is percieved as "politically correct" these days means "bandit", "alien" or "good-for-nothing" in the language of the "Nama", who together with the "Himba"/"Herero" and "Damara" eventually in the cause of the last two to three centuries have displaced the San from their original homes in southern Africa.
In comparison with us Europeans the "San" are rather small and have a rather light-brownish skin colour which differentiates them distinctly from fair-skinned people, but also from the rather dark skinned Africans living in the region of southern Africa. Probably the "San" are the descendants of an early population of the Homo Sapiens, but maybe they are the descendants of a group which migrated from Europe back to Africa a couple of thousand years ago. From a scientific point of view it seems to be proven that the "San" have been genetically isolated from other humans for tens of thousands of years.
In the more recent past the "San" were consistently persecuted, enslaved, actually really "hunted down" in the very sense of the word by European colonialists and have become nearly extinct.
Today still the "San"-culture and people are in great danger to be wiped from our planet completely, through supersession by other peoples, but also due to the negative impact of tourism and modern diseases of civilization, but especially so due to tuberculosis. At the time of writing there seem to be around 100.000 "San" living in Namibia, Bostwana and Südafrika; 2000 years ago there were approximately 300.000 to 400.000!
As everywhere in the modern world, indigenous peoples get certain areas as "reservations" ... only to be taken away from them as soon as people discover any natural resources. This also happened to the "San" in the central Kalahari.
The "San" are widely recognized as tremendously peaceful, friendly and "gentle". They have an immensely ample knowledge on the plants and animals of the southern African bushland, but also on astronomy. In addition to that they have a large variety of different games, myths and stories. They definitely are far more than just "simple people living in the bush"!
Together with the Australian aboriginals the "San" are representatives of the two oldest continuously maintained cultures on this planet (... at least until us Europeans came as "boat people" to their shores and founded colonies on their land!). As such they still only have none or only a minor role in our so-alled "western" history curricula at school. Instead the allegedly "noble" Greek, Romans and Egyptians are being taught! The travel writer Bill Bryson once called the Australian Aborigines "The World's Invisible People" ... the "San" seem to belong into the same cathegory! Completely unjustly!
sources: oral sources, Wikipedia, Reise Know How "Namibia" (Schetar and Köthe)
Our excursion takes us into the "Fiume Bush Camp" situated about 60km east of Grootfontein and run by Jörn Gressmann, a blond Namibian who grew up on his parents' farm together with "Bushmen" and even speaks their language (yes, that's the one with the many "clicks") fluently since his childhood days.
INFOBOX Jörn Gressmann
Jörn, born in 1980 in Windhoek, moved to his parents' farm with his mother when he was three months old. The original family farm, "Klein Huis", was bought by Jörn's grandfather in 1932; he is 3rd generation Namibian.
The farm of 10.000 hectares is a large property meaning that the closest neighbours live at least 10-15km away. So, Jörn grew up with the staff kids that lived on the farm. The staff belonged partially to the "San" people. Jörn calls them "tame Bushmen" because they partly lost their culture and maybe would not really be able to live in and from the Bush anymore. They left the bush because they wanted to change their lives for the better working on commercial farms and earning an income. Jörn's father forbade all the staff to speak Afrikaans or English with Jörn. Instead they spoke the local "San"-language with him.
Those where the people Jörn grew up with and as a result at an age of 7 years he could almost speak better "San" than German, his mothertongue. His toys as a young boy were a slingshot, scorpions and snakes.
That is why Jörn has a close contact with the "San" and his connection with them from his childhood days is a gateway to their trust and the basis for mutual respect.
For the management of the camp Jörn has found the very warm and welcoming "San"-couple Erna and Morris who really affectionately take care of their guests, spend time with them around the campfire and answer all their questions.
Our complete family just loves the great food served (warthog and oryx) and we sleep in luxurious tents with bathroom en-suite and a great view into the surrounding bushland. By the way: there is no WiFi here - deliberately because the visitors are here for personal encounters and not for losing themselves in the digital nirvana!
The following day is completely structured and shows us all facettes of the original life of the bushmen, -women and -children.
We learn about different medicine plants, fruits and berries, bulbs and hunting methods, how they make fire ...
... but also the versatile jewellery they make from natural materials and of course how to make bow and arrow.
Anouk doesn't have any fear of contact and feels as right as rain with the "San".
Her new friend Kuna (with two clicks in her name) just takes her with her to collect berries and play chasey.
We witness that in the "San" culture the whole family love playing together having great fun.
In the evening we are shown a short part of the "healing dance" (which actually goes on all day and night long if somebody in the village is ill!).
By the way, the "San" obviously dance a long time before we visit their camp because their laughter and loud chattering resonates through the bush while we are still in the camp enjoying yet another great dinner. Not everything here seems to be (only) staged! After dancing and sports we now are not surprised anymore why the small and delicate "San" look so sporty-wiry. In addition to that their friendly, happy and gentle ways are just very very touching to us.
Apart from us there are only two other (German) tourists present at this organised encounter - a group-size enabling very personal experiences for all of us (later on we find out that the group size here will never exceed eight persons).
Unexpectedly positively tempered after this great experience
we head off into the Kaokoveld to meet the "Himbas"
... after an impressive self drive safari through the Etosha National Park.
As Max and Irmgard Beyer had suggested, we stay at the beautiful "Toko-Lodge". On the farm a group of "Himba" have established a more or less permanent settlement, mainly for tourist purposes just like on "Fiume".
The name "Himba" in the language of the "Nama" means "beggar". The ancestors of the "Himba", a people which from an ethnical perspective and from that of a linguist are the same people as the "Herero", migrated to northern Namibia and southern Angola from Betschuanaland (modern Botswana) about 400 to 500 years ago.
This maybe last half-nomadic people of Namibia and Angola today only has about 7.000 to 16.000 members. Being livestock owners the culture of the "Himba" today is endangered by sedentary farming following the European example, but also because of the legal protection of predators. In the past the "Himba" were - among others - suppressed and raided by the "Nama". The term "Himba", "beggar", might be connected with that because after the raids the "Himba" had to beg from their neighbors to be able to survive.
The "Himba", a really favoured and famous photo motif with tourists in Namibia, today still like wearing scarce attire if seen from a western perspective, made mainly from leather and animal hides. They are also famous for their artificial hairdos which are decorated with ocre just as the rest of their bodies are.
Just like the "San" and many other indigenous peoples worldwide, the "Himba" are extremely endangered through the negative influences of tourism and the influence of the "western" consumerist way of living.
sources: oral sources, Wikipedia, Reise Know How "Namibia" (Schetar and Köthe)
We book a guided tour with the "Himba" Imanuel who is very fluent in English. Right before we set off he asks us whether we have brought along some presents for the "Himba" and enough money to be able to buy souvenirs. Still being notably irritated by these questions we walk the short footpath with him to the "Himba" village.
At the village entry he makes us stop for some explanative words ... or rather to give the ladies in the camp some time to dress according to what they know the tourists want?
However that may be, Mischa discovers several women who quickly sneek into their huts while we are waiting here. A young "Himba" who has been attending school for years now tries to cover her breasts while the guide loudly tells her not to be so awkwardly shy and coy.
Our first impression reminds us on touristy places in Ethiopia.
Especially the children seem to be rather desolate! It doesn't take very long and Sóley wants to go back to the lodge. Our daughters have by now developed a distinctive natural sense for people and situations. Something simply "doesn't fit" here! Especially the pushy children simply scare her away. Juliane continues her village-discovery-tour together with Anouk.
With regularity another lady poses for another photo, even really pushes Juliane to take even more photos. Men we don't see here! Juliane asks the women to "make Anouk a Himba" to make Anouk's dream come true ... so off they go into one of the straw-thatched clay huts.
One of the characteristics of the "Himba" is that they don't shower or wash themselves because water is very precious here but anoint themselves with a mixture of animal fat and ocre powder and after that "smoke" themselves under a blanket using natural perfumes and tree saps.
Anouk courageously participates in everything and the "Himba"-children are extremely excited how a fair-skinned girl becomes one of them.
In this situation we first discover some "real" interest in us, some real excitement.
But when we step out of the small hut, the other village people have made a large circle to put all their handmade souvenirs on display for sale.
A sudden child's crying distracts us, a mother follows her child hitting it and an emaciated village-elder rebukes her. That guests are witnessing this incident (the guide tries to stop her) doesn't seem to be disturbing her in any way.
With a strange and really sad feeling we stroll across the improvised market place. Nothing really catches our eye but the pleading looks don't let us go. The prices are simply ridiculous and outrageous! Juliane bargains because we don't want to disappoint Anouk. But the feeling that remains is that we are being scammed here - even though we spent considerably more money when we visited the "San". The difference is that the "San" never hassled or pushed us.
Of course, the "San" were also prepared for tourists wanting to buy their jewellery and other crafts, but the way they dealt with that was absolutely discreet: a small "open air shop" offered many beautiful pieces of art which were each and every one labelled with handwritten slices of paper displaying the name of the artist and also the price. When we bought items, one of the "San" wrote down each income and - apart from 85% of the money generated which goes directly to the artist - another 15 % go into a communal coffer which then can be used for extra expenses when e.g. one of the villagers is getting ill and has to go to hospital.
Jörn Gressmann has a bilateral educational interest with his "San"project: not only that us foreigners had the chance to really learn a lot about the culture of the "Bushmen", but also for the "San" this form of tourism is a good opportunity and cause why to go on passing on their culture to the next generations.
The kids learn about their own culture and also that their culture is as exciting and important enough so that other people come from far away places just to visit them and experience that culture. Of course, they also learn that they can earn some money with this ancient but still quite vivid culture. In general, we felt that they had real fun showing us everything instead of "doing a job".
But Jörn also wants to enable these children to feel "at home" in the western culture and be able to adjust to the "western" norms of education when necessary. Because of that he has established a small kindergarten for the "San"-children living on his farm so that later on they have better chances at school. For that purpose there also is a donation box in the camp very discreet in one of the corners. This integral approach to combine tourism and education is something we really like and we hope that this social model will catch on because it actually is good for all sides, the "San", the tourists and the farm owners alike.
We can definitely only recommend the "Fiume Bush Camp" to every culturally interested traveler in Namibia!
For our children (and us!) these two visits were great lessons in a wonderful outdoor classroom! We will never forget this! "World schooling" and "travel schooling" with teachers like this can give so much more than learning in a classroom!