Tag Archives: traditions

The Tale of the Tortoise Shell

Christmas is a time of traditions, stories and folklore.  In Africa it is no different, although the folk tales are told throughout the year to many willing listeners.  With acknowledgements to Chinua Achebe, the renowned Nigerian novelist who wrote Things Fall Apart (the most widely read book in modern African literature according to Wikipedia) – let me tell you the tale of how the tortoise got the lovely patterns on its shell.

Leopard tortoise

Tortoise was a cunning fellow, who was known to pull a trick or two on the animals in the district.  When he heard that the birds had been invited to a feast by the sky people, his mouth watered at the thought of the delicious food that would be on offer.  The land had been stricken by drought and Tortoise was so thin that his shriveled body rattled inside its shell.

He used his powers of persuasion to get the birds to allow him to accompany them to the feast.  Of course he didn’t have wings like they did, but they were a friendly lot and each bird kindly donated a feather to Tortoise, which he made into two nice big feathered wings.  As I said, Tortoise was a sly reptile and the birds didn’t really trust him at all, but he assured them that he was a changed man.

They all dressed themselves and then took off together for the feast in the sky.  Tortoise, being widely traveled and knowledgeable, told them that it was important to note that when they were invited to such a great feast, it was customary that they should change their names for the occasion.  This was news to the birds, but they respected Tortoise for his great wisdom.  After the birds had all assumed new names, Tortoise renamed himself  “All of you.”

Leopard tortoise

When the party eventually arrived at its destination in the sky, they were warmly welcomed by their hosts.  Tortoise, in his beautiful feathered plumage, stood up to thank them for their invitation and he was so eloquent and grand that the sky people assumed that he was the king of the birds.  The feast began with pots and pots of delicious food being set before them.  Tortoise could hardly believe his eyes.  The sky people invited the birds to eat.  Tortoise immediately jumped up and asked them who the food had been prepared for.  “For all of you,” the man said.

Tortoise turned to the birds and reminded them that his new name was “All of you” and he said that the custom here was for the spokesperson to eat first and then the other birds would be served after he had eaten.  Tortoise ate and ate and ate and the birds grumbled angrily.  The people of the sky thought it was the bird’s custom to allow their king to eat first.

Leopard tortoise

Tortoise ate his fill and left the birds nothing but bones and meagre pickings.  They were so angry with him that they chose to fly home with empty stomachs.  Before they left, they each took back their feather that they had given to Tortoise.  He stood there in his shell, with his belly bloated from all the food and wine.  He had no wings to fly himself back home again.  He asked the birds to take a message to his wife, but they all refused.  Eventually an angry parrot offered to relay his message.

Leopard tortoise

Tortoise asked parrot to tell his wife to cover the ground around his home with soft things, so that he could jump from the sky and make a soft landing.  Parrot promised, but his message to Tortoise’s wife was the opposite and he told her to put lots of hard things around the home (like hoes. guns and a cannon).  Tortoise could see her working hard, but was too far away to see what she was putting out.  When she was ready, he let himself go and dropped out of the sky.  He fell and fell and at last he crashed into the compound around his home.

His landing caused his shell to shatter into many pieces.  Tortoise survived the fall, but his wife had to call the local medicine man to fix him up again.  The medicine man gathered all the broken pieces of his shell and stuck them together.  We can still see where all the joins are today.

A lovely African tale, don’t you think?  I’m enjoying the book too.

 

The Himba – Namibia’s proud people of the past

It is hard to imagine that just a few hours drive from the teeming metropolis of modern Windhoek, there lives a small native tribe who exist pretty much as they have done for hundreds of years.  I’m referring to the Himba who are found in the Kunene region of north-western Namibia.  A tribe that is clinging tenaciously to the customs and traditions of their forefathers with little hope of being able to stem the tide of Westernisation that is lapping at their feet, beckoning the youngsters with the trappings of modern life.

Originally part of the nomadic Herero tribe that lived in southern Angola and migrated to Namibia in the early 16th century, they were driven into the waterless and inhospitable Kaokoland area by the Ovambo’s who guarded their own territory jealously and ferociously.  The Herero’s eventually decided to head east where life was easier and they were converted to Christianity, whilst the Himba stayed on the western side of the country and resisted change to their culture.  They often had to beg for food in order to survive and the name ‘Himba” derives from ‘Tjiiimba’ which means ‘the people that beg.’  And they still do, believe me!

Kaokoland/Kunene Region

Kaokoland/Kunene Region

The Herero’s covered their bodies with long dresses and multiple petticoats, whilst the Himba retained their tradition of near-nakedness because of the heat and lack of water. The two tribes still speak the same language in spite of their differences, although the Himba’s are looked upon with disdain by their former tribesmen.

Today they still live a nomadic existence, often abandoning their mud huts and settlements in search of water for themselves and their herds of cattle, goats and sheep, which are their main currency and provide for all their necessities in the way of milk, meat, clothing and utensils.   They have adapted to their arid environment, but are becoming more sedentary due to tourism and modern innovations such as water pumps and wells.

An arid and harsh environment

An arid and harsh environment

The Himba have many unique customs, which tourists find most interesting.  The women are physically very beautiful and adorn themselves with fine jewelry made of metal, bone and skin.  They rub ‘otjize’ over themselves, which is a mixture of butter fat, red rock powder and sap from a local tree.  It gives their bodies a glowing red colour and protects them from the sun and insects.  Himba women don’t wash themselves, probably because of the lack of water.  Instead, they use the sweet smoke from an herb burned in a container called an ‘ombware’ to cleanse and perfume their bodies before smearing the otjize on themselves every morning.  This beauty preparation takes three hours every day.  Time is obviously not a problem for them.
Beautiful lady - beautiful smile!

Beautiful lady - beautiful smile!

Himba hairstyles tell a lot about the person; identifying their social status.  For example, pre-pubescent girls wear two thick braids in front of their faces – these look like ram horns.  After puberty the braids are replaced by many strands hanging all over their heads and faces.  As she gets older the braids are lengthened and tied back, indicating that she is ready for marriage.  Once married, an ‘erembe’ (a piece of goat leather) is tied to the top of her head.  Single men wear their hair in a single braid running backwards from their crowns (called an ‘ondatu’) with the rest shaved off; two plaits if they are eligible to marry and a turban style hairdo for married men.  Often these are covered by a similar shaped hat or material.

On our drive from Kunene River Lodge to Epupa Falls, we came across a Himba burial site.  The gravestones were surrounded by a wooden fence and a number of ox skulls placed on a tree in the area.  The skulls apparently denote the wealth of the deceased – each skull representing one hundred oxen that the person owned.  Also the direction the skulls are placed tells whether the deceased was male or female.

Burial ground

Burial ground

Death of the physical body is not the end for the Himba as they believe that the deceased stays in the homestead with them for two generations.  Each Himba settlement has what is known as the Holy Fire (Okoruwo).  This is always positioned between the entrance to the kraal and the door of the main dwelling.  The Holy Fire is used to light all fires in the settlement and it is the duty of the oldest member of the patriclan to ensure that it is kept smoldering and never goes out.  Flames from the Holy Fire are used for daily rituals and special ceremonies like births, deaths, marriages and circumcision, and it is through this medium that communication takes place with the ancestors.  Special rituals are always performed by the Onganga or witchdoctor.

So much more could be written about this fascinating tribe, but I hope that I have whet your appetite a bit to come and see them for yourselves.  They are a proud and friendly people, although as I said earlier, their begging can be a little off-putting to travelers who would like to get to know them better.