The Scent of the Women
The Himba are semi-nomadic pastoralists, keeping cattle and goats.
Words and Pictures Ron Swilling
Journeys, if given a chance, gain a life of their own, often going off on tangents and adopting a momentum you didn’t anticipate at the start. On one such trip in north-western Namibia, I found myself peering into the muddy Hoanib River that was rushing down in torrents through the usually arid landscape, barring our route to the opposite bank.
Herb-sellers on the streets of Opuwo sell a variety for those unable to find the ingredients for their favourite perfume near their home ground. Ochre is also sold.
I was forced to shrug off my early morning stupor, lack of sleep and need for a strong cup of coffee, and climb out of the bakkie; my feet immediately sank into the slushy mud. Around us, two vehicles and their occupants waited for the water to subside, and I had the feeling it was going to be a long day.
Eventually, one of the drivers felt it time to risk his vehicle in the water and motored across. The next one followed, only to bog down mid-stream. The Himba women waiting on the bank rushed into the water to push. Finally, it was our turn. I exchanged my muddy boots and jeans for a pair of shorts and sloshed through the mud ready to run into the river and manhandle the vehicle, should it hesitate. I looked around at the gloomy, grey day and had to remind myself why I was here. What was it for again? Perfume, of course.
The Himba women’s beauty (and hygiene) ritual involves smoking blankets with a fragrant herb blend and applying a herb mix around their necks and a lotion made of ochre, butterfat and commiphora resin over their bodies.
It was an unlikely errand but this was Namibia, after all, where the extraordinary and out-of-the-ordinary are commonplace.
I was in Opuwo, in north-western Namibia, for the opening of the Opuwo Processing Facility and Visitors Centre. This translates into ‘the perfume factory’, where the Commiphora wildii tree, or omumbiri in the local Otjiherero language, is distilled and processed to extract a fragrant oil.
Commiphora (as it is commonly called), synonymous with the myrrh of ancient times, has been the Himba women’s preferred perfume since time immemorial. The women collect the golden droplets of resin from the ground and add it to their beauty cream of butterfat and ochre that gives their skin a glistening red sheen.
But the opening of the small centre was still two days away and I was beginning to doubt we would be able to collect the honoured guests from their remote villages and make it back in time for the opening. We still had an odyssey ahead of us, fording rivers, getting stuck in the mud, negotiating slippery tracks and rocky roads, and changing overworked tyres before even reaching their villages. It was important that we made it, and in time. This would be an opening with a difference.
In acknowledgement of the Himba women as custodians of traditional knowledge, two of the harvesters from each of the five conservancies involved in the project had been invited to the ceremony. But with no transport in the furthest reaches of remote Kaokoland, it was up to the staff at the centre (ably supported by the intrepid writer) to give the ladies a ride.
The fascinating commiphora project was initiated by the Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC) and a woman who is just about as at home in the far-flung north-west as the semi-nomadic Himba themselves, Karen Nott. On my first night in Opuwo, we met up over dinner to discuss Himba perfume as the rain showered down around us.
The story of Namibian ‘myrrh’ unfolded, with many amusing anecdotes spicing up the telling. Namibia’s successful conservancy programme has enabled conservancy members to take responsibility for and benefit from the wildlife and natural resources in their areas. When the IRDNC took a deeper look at women in the north-western conservancies and how they could benefit from the programme, they noticed that women traditionally manage the plant resources. A Participatory Rapid Appraisal was used, drawing a map in the sand with stones for mountains and sticks for trees, to ascertain what indigenous plants the women used and valued.
After extensive research documenting the traditional resources in the area, Karen presented her collection of botanical samples to the oldest woman in a group from the Orupembe conservancy. Much to Karen’s horror, the old woman commenced to pull off all the leaves and fruit from the samples, threw them over her shoulder and arranged the twigs in front of her on the ground. Being more familiar with the plants in dry years, when they may bear no leaves or fruit, she had simply stripped them down to basics. She picked up each twig, rubbed it, smelled it and confidently identified it.
Three teams went out walking in the rocky countryside of the Kunene to assess the number of commiphora trees in the area and how much resin they produce. After two weeks, when Karen thought they had identified the key perfume species, the Himba women confounded the entire operation by identifying two completely different species as the same tree, creating the impression that they didn’t know their commiphoras from their twigs.
“Omumbungu,” they called out, wrinkling their noses. Karen could eventually breathe a sigh of relief when she realised that the women base their taxonomy classification on use and the ones that smell bad are all classified in the same way – omumbungu (tree of the hyena).
The project has come a long way since then and the women have been organised into teams of harvesters who, during the dry months of the year, collect the golden droplets of resin from the ground and take them to a buying point where they are weighed and recorded before being transported to the processing facility in Opuwo. The aromatic essential oil is now used in local cosmetic ranges and European perfume.
In an area where there is little or no opportunity for employment, the work provides the women with a much-needed income, enabling them to access health care, pay school fees and purchase food when the earth is barren and cattle are thin. Importantly, they are able to harvest the resin while maintaining their traditional lifestyle and household responsibilities.
The processing facility and visitors centre are owned by the five conservancies who hold the traditional knowledge and are managed by a trust with representatives from each.
Adventuring into the muddy interior continued to be exciting and we made it by nightfall to our overnight stop. Next day, we were fording rivers again and bogging down in the mud three more times on our return journey, this time with the ochre-hued Himba guests on board. On the final bog-down, even when (what seemed like) the whole male population of a particular village assembled to help push the vehicle, we were unable to dislodge it from the mud.
While we stood in the rain, losing hope and trying not to entertain the thought that we might possibly be there for days, or weeks, a powerful Land Cruiser and a daring driver appeared and dragged the vehicle from the mud in a cloud of black smoke. We were going to make it to the opening after all.
If ever Western women think they are overdoing their dress and make-up before heading to the shops, they can think again. It was time for shopping before the big occasion and the women were dolling up in Himba fashion with everything they had on hand.
An epic session ensued, where ochre and herbs were procured from bundles and smeared over bodies, headpieces were put in place and elaborate jewellery and decorative skins donned.
And they did look strikingly beautiful, strong and self-assured, as they always do, when they sat in front of the proceedings like queens from a different time and dimension, and were duly honoured by the governor of the Kunene region as the keepers of the desert garden.
Beauty comes naturally to these strong and self-assured women, regardless of age.
Source: Country Life