OP-ED: Protest by Himba and Zemba Indigenous Peoples Erupts in Namibia

By Rebecca Sommer
OP-ED:  Protest by Himba and Zemba Indigenous Peoples Erupts in Namibia
Hundreds of semi-nomadic  Himba and Zemba marched again  in the southern African nation of Namibia on Dec. 5, 2012,  protesting what they believe are Namibia’s human rights violations against them.




The protests were in Opuwo, a small town located in the heart of the “Kaokoland”  in the far north of a country that 100 years ago was a German colony called German Southwest Africa. Kaokoland  has  been occupied for centuries by the semi-nomadic Himba people and is a favorite region for tourists in the southern African nation.



The Himba are known to roam with their goats, sheep and cattle, herding them from one grazing area to the next. There are still Himba that live a nomadic life as hunters and gatherers. Most of the small groups have been forcefully settled by the Government, with stories of them enduring hunger and bribery that can be watched in a video interview (translated by Himba volunteers) on my “sommerfilms” youtube account about Himba.



The Zemba indigenous people, whose ancestors about 200 years ago  received  permission from certain Himba chiefs to settle on Himba land  -- formally  known as Kaokoland  --  protested jointly with the Himba in Opuwo. It is  likely that  permission for the Zemba to settle on Himba land goes further back in history. In several areas occupied by Himba, one finds  Zemba groups that live there as well. The Zemba themselves claim the territory around Ruacana. The borders of Zemba Land are confirmed by the neighbor tribe, the Himba people.


The  major grievance of the Zemba people is that  they are not recognized to be legitimate Namibian citizens by the ruling powers in the nation's capital, Windhoek. Instead, the Government claims that they are from Angola -- not from Namibia.


For several months, the author of this article interviewed   Zemba Elders, and Himba Elders. They could trace back Zemba occupation in Opuwo in Himba communities as far as 150 years ago. Oral history is a legitimate tool to evaluate what the very people say has happened in the past with no written records. To this day, most Himba and Zemba do not read or write. But they do preserve their historical information and traditional knowledge that is important to the  by teaching and forwarding to the next generations.



Namibia is wrong to  marginalize the Zemba, and intimidating everyone who tries to speak on their behalf. Indigenous peoples often live between borders -- the situation with  the Himba and the Zemba people on the border with Angola. This is why there is a specific article in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), that specifically explains that Indigenous Peoples cannot be separated by borders.



Zemba and Himba alike have many similar grievances, and feel that their voices are not being heard in Windhoek, the capital, and by the dominant SWAPO party which is comprised of the ethnic majority Owambo, a non-nomadic tribe.


One of the grievances  is that the Himba and Zemba have had a traditional governance system since time immemorial. But Namibia, since Independence, refuses to accept the traditional chiefs of both tribes as legally recognized tribal authorities, which bring enormous hardships and injustice to the Himba and Zemba people.


Another point of outrage by Himba and Zemba is the school system in their territories, which doesn’t allow the tribal children to attend school in their traditional cultural attire.


Himba boys show their status and their tribal identity by having specific hairstyles according to their age, for example, a long pointed hair tail.  In order to attend school, they must cut their hairdos off.  Himba girls have also special hair-dos, that must go, in order for them to be allowed to enter school. That is also the case with the traditional female Himba attire, the orange-reddish natural pigment ochre used to cover the entire body and hair, the body paint must go as well, if a girl wants to enter a school building. Away from that they can’t go topless, they must wear a school uniform that reminds one of these old style British school uniforms.


Most Himba parents and their children don’t want that. This is one of the many reasons why the Himba and Zemba are protesting. Even so many want their children to be educated, they also say that the educational system in their region is so bad, that the children learn nearly nothing. They also say that school is too expensive for the parents to pay for, school uniform and shoes would cost too much. There is also the need for mobile schools, as the children must follow their semi-nomadic parents, that follow the needs of their herds for good pasture.



The Himba and Zemba also protest against the proposed  dam in Orokawe --  a dam that Namibia is  determined to build. Both tribes say that they haven’t been consulted, and they do not want the dam.


The Indigenous Peoples that protested on Dec. 5  asked the World and Namibians to read their three Declarations  that have been submitted to the United Nations by Earth Peoples, and once again during the visit of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, that visited Namibia 2 months ago. The protesters handed their three Declarations and a Petition addressed to the President of Namibia to Opuwo’s governmental authorities, and requested that the documents are forwarded to him directly.



The NBC -- Namibia’s Broadcasting Company  -- again refused to report about the protest march, and therefore refused to inform the Namibian public about Namibia’s minority grievances. It seems that enough interesting things are happening in this small country, so that a protest by a small minority is not worthwhile the news.  One wonders, is this Government as democratic as tourists are made to believe?


To view photos and the petition from the protesting Himba and Zemba addressed to the President of Namibia: click here:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/earthpeoples/sets/72157632175021335/
DECLARATION BY THE ZEMBA PEOPLE OF NAMIBIA: http://earthpeoples.org/blog/?p=1059
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