THE MAASAI AND OVAHIMBA – DEFYING CULTURAL COLONISATION
WITH the demise of colonisation and the wave of Western civilization currently sweeping across Africa, two of the most ethnically visible communities on the continent, the OvaHimba and the Maasai have defied outside pressure to shed off their age-old-old customs.
Despite hundreds of years of African colonisation and continued neo-colonisation to-date, the Himbas of Namibia and Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania, have survived harsh environment and ruthless human capitalist industrialisation in their countries, and refused to compromise their unique lifestyle.
Their cultural fame lures tourists from across the world who flock their territories to get a glimpse of the “untamed true Africans”.
Moreover, to test this cultural fame, the East Africans visiting other countries, are mostly associated with marathon athletes, Mount Kilimanjaro and Maasais.
Similarly, Namibians visiting other countries are most likely asked about Namib Desert, Dr Sam Nujoma, and Himbas. Ask anyone who has travelled outside the country.
Unfortunately, this is the honest truth many Europeans and Americans have on some African countries.
But how can two distinctive cultures, with their countries separated by over 6000 km, several geographical and political borders, and different migration origins, share similar cultural values and defiance towards foreign influence to continue cultivating and preserving their indigenous lifestyles that mesmerise the world?
Because I was born in Kenya and live in Namibia, it is a privilege to have received first hand experience with both communities. When I was growing up, I failed to understand why some “tall, slender and half naked dark people armed with spears” would roam Nairobi streets feeding their cows and goats on the pavements, suburb gardens, lush city greenery and even feed them fruits and vegetables sold by hawkers on the streets.
Besides, no pedestrian would dare “the mighty Maasais”, given that their adulthood initiation practices include participating in killing a lion. The Maasai warriors even send chills to the Kenyan military.
But, why would Maasais with their hundreds of cattle dare invade the city with a population of over 2 million, bring traffic to a halt, damage residents’ gardens and send street vegetable hawkers running helter-skelter for their lives while the authorities watch?
The Maasais, just like the Himbas of Namibia are constantly invaded by the rapid industrialization that threatens the survival of their customs and their main source of livelihood - cattle.
Because these tribes are traditionally semi-nomadic, they live off their cattle almost exclusively. Their measure of wealth is in terms of cattle and number of children. Any threat to cattle which provide for their children is a threat to the survival of the entire community.
Later, I understood that when the Maasai invaded the city, there was drought in their area and they were forced to travel long distances looking for pastures and water. To them, it does not matter where they got the water and pasture. In any case, Maasais innocently believe that any vegetation is God-given for their cattle whether in the city, in the rural areas or in the lion’s den.
Maasai oppression started with a 1904 treaty when their lands in Kenya were reduced by 60 percent by the British colonialists who evicted them from where Nairobi is and from the fertile Rift Valley to make room for white settler ranches. The Masaai were subsequently pushed to where they are now confined - government reserves next to game parks.
The problem is that they have to constantly fight roaming wild animals that are a threat to their livestock. In addition, their land continues to shrink due to industrialization and commercial farming.
Actually, Kenya’s capital Nairobi, part of the Maasai ancestral land, is a Maasai word which means “a place of cold waters”.
Similarly, Namibia’s capital Windhoek (popularly known as Otjomuise in Otjiherero) was originally home to Otjiherero community, a mother tribe of Himbas.
In Namibia, the Himba history too, is wrought with disasters, including severe droughts and guerrilla warfare, because of the civil war in neighbouring Angola and against Germans in 1904 - (the same year the British infringed into the Maasai ancestral land).
The 1980s drought was a life threatening experience for their herds too. In the 1920s, South African rulers confined Himbas to a prescribed “homeland,” officially forbidding them to trade, graze livestock freely, or garden and gather wild plants along the Kunene River.
“Yet they endured — even if at times it meant eating the hides they slept on”, writes Anthropologist and indigenous rights activist, Margaret Jacobsohn.
And just like the Maasais, many Himbas today live in reserves and nature conservancies among wildlife.
In both cultures, women take care of children and homes. Women tend to perform more labour-intensive work than men do, such as carrying water to the village and building homes. Men handle the political tasks and legal trials.
In both these cultures, body decorations and ornaments thrive. The Himba women are always bare-breasted and wear animal-skin skirts, their bodies covered in an auburn mixture of ochre and animal fat.
The Maasai pierce and stretch their earlobes and wear large metal hoops at the tops of their ears.
It is a sign of beauty for women to have long stretched earlobes. Decorative cuts are also made on women’s faces for beauty.
For a boy to enter adulthood, both tribes practice circumcision and elaborate rituals. Religiously, the two are monotheistic– Maasai worship the sun god, Ruwa who lives on Mount Kilimanjaro, while Himbas worship the ancestral ‘holy fire’ god Mukuru.
Ironically, despite the fact that the two tribes share many customs, historically they do not share common origin. While the Himbas are Bantus who migrated southwards from central Africa, Maasais are Nilotes who followed River Nile from Northern Africa to modern day Tanzania and Kenya.
What makes these tribes famous is the fact they retained most of their traditional ways even though Namibia and Kenya are becoming more modern and industrialized.
Yes, some members of the Himba and Maasai tribes have moved out of their homeland and into urban areas. Many have remained and kept their customs.
To date, some educated Maasai have moved to positions in commerce and government. The Himbas too, infiltrate nearby towns like Opuwo to look for jobs, schools and a taste of modernity.
Yet despite the sophisticated urban lifestyle they may lead, many of them will happily head homewards dressed in western clothes, only to emerge from the traditional family homestead wearing a shuka (East Africa’s home made colourful piece of cloth), cow hide sandals and carrying a wooden club (o-rinka) - at ease with themselves and the world.
Although the Tanzanian and Kenyan governments have instituted programs to encourage the Maasai to abandon their traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle, the people have continued their age-old customs. Recently, Oxfam has claimed that the lifestyle of the Maasai should be embraced “as a response to climate change because of their ability to farm in deserts and scrublands”.
Now I understand why I see the Himbas in Windhoek’s busy streets. Its African culture untamed. Just like the Maasai. PF
(The author, Elvis Mboya is a Kenyan born freelance journalist based in Windhoek, Namibia. Additional sources: Christian Science Monitor and East Africa Standard)