Namibia – Birth, Death and Marriage

Marriage is a loose affair in Namibia, and for that matter many other parts of Africa. Polygamy is still practised in many tribes. It is a common custom that after years of marriage the husband will select a new wife to join his household. The number of wives depends on his wealth. A wealthy man owns a large herd of cows, goats and sheep that will enable him to pay the bride price. He will also need stamina to service multiple wives as there is an expectation that everyone will share his bed. Hence, families are large, complex and extend over many locations and tribes.

Family succession is an important issue that has to be resolved. The family always looks to the headman for leadership and to make decisions that will affect them all. These decisions can be trivial day-to-day issues such as family arguments, or important matters such as marriage and property disputes.

When the husband decides it is time to select his successor as head of his family, he elects the eldest son of his sister. He asks his nephew to come to his home and stay with his wife or wives for a couple of weeks so they can “get to know each other”. During this period, the husband leaves the village and goes off hunting or visiting distant friends and relatives. Meanwhile the nephew is taken into the family and is given all the rights and respect of the husband.

On the husband’s return, the nephew moves out of his uncle’s house and the uncle resumes his position as head of the household. On the death of the husband, the nephew comes to his house and takes his uncle’s wife or wives to his own house and they then join his family. Hence, in a tribe, everyone is related by blood or by adoption. There is a shared responsibility for the caring and nurturing of all children. No child is ever left homeless should something happen to his parents.

Another important issue is inheritance. This importantly determines the person’s status and ability to pay a larger bride price to attract more desirable women into the family. If inheritance is determined after death, should the man not have selected his nephew by the time he dies, the tribe believes that the dead person was “witched”. To determine who will then take the dead man’s wives, family and possessions, six eligible men of the tribe are nominated to carry the “witched coffin” until one of them feels that the dead man inside the coffin moves. This signifies that the ancestors have chosen his successor and the person who “felt the coffin move” inherits the wife or wives, house, cattle, possessions and children.

Many people have conveniently blended their traditional beliefs and values into Christianity. I met Jonas’ uncle Nicky. He and Jonas are like brothers as only a few years separate them in age – they went to school together and now both are guides at neighbouring camps in southern Namibia.

Nicky is devilishly handsome, with a wide warm smile that showcases his perfect white teeth. He is wearing a large gold cross around his neck and when I asked him how all these tribal customs rest with his Christianity, he replies,”he is very comfortable”. He can reside in the belief that both can co-exist. It seems that the people “cherry pick” what they like from both belief systems and blend them into a framework which dictates their current social and spiritual norms.

For example, when Jonas was born he was given two names. Those being: Jonas from his grandfather, who was a Christian and a tribal name of “Kakumbire”, which translate to “he didn’t pray when he passed away”. The name Kakumbire came about when Jonas mother was pregnant with Jonas, his grandfather was very ill and everyday it was his custom was to offer a Christian prayer. However, the day he died he did not pray and hence this sentiment was captured in Jonas’ Himba’s name, “Kakumbire” -“he didn’t pray when he passed away”.

Traditional spiritual customs are not the only things that co-exist with modern practices. Male circumcision is still widely practised. When the village has a number of children to be circumcised they call in the “specialist”. Each family has to buy a new blade and pay the specialist $100 Namibian (AUD20.00) each. After the deed is done, they apply a paste of paraffin and roasted herbs, which is then applied to the wound. This is slowly worn off as the cut heals.

However – the most painful tribal practise is the knocking out of the four bottom teeth in the females and males. Luckily this is not commonly practised by modern Himba but is still widespread in the tribal areas. The headman is designated to carry out this ritual by taking a nail and hammer or two stones and knocking them against the gums where the roots of the teeth are. This sounds horrifyingly painful, and no doubt it is. This practise occurs at puberty and is important part of the Himba culture that easily identifies them as Himba apart from wearing the distinctive traditional Himba clothing.

The traditional costume and grooming includes dressing the hair, particularly for the women. They braid their hair thickly with a mixture of red ochre and animal fat. These braids are finished off with large fluffy pompoms of hair at the ends. The women “bathe” their bodies all over with the red ochre/fat mixture, which makes their skin very soft and it becomes like a burnished brown colour. Their necks, ankles and arms are ornamented with a variety of jewellery, belts and metal work. They wear around their waist a small skirt of goat hide which covers their bottom and in front a small cloth for modesty.

Categories: Animals, Elephants, Giraffe, Hippos, Leopards, Lions, Namibia, Oryx, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized, White Rhino | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Zambia – Hippos and other things that go bump in the night!

On leaving the salubrious surrounds and 5 star accommodation of the Royal Livingstone Hotel overlooking the rapids of the Zambezi River and Victoria Falls, we were keen to get back to the bush. After 2 days of civilization we were hankering for the wide-open spaces and the daily adventures of spotting animals and other exciting events that occur in the African wilderness.

We flew out from the Victoria Falls airport on a small 20-seater plane bound for Lusaka in Zambia. The flight challenged the most flight-hardened stomach, as the plane lurched and rolled through turbulent air currents. This had many passengers reaching for the little bags in the seat pocket. Somewhat green about the gills, we finally touched down and made our way to a small bush plane that was to carry us to the Jeki airstrip on the Lower Zambezi River.

Our initial confidence in the pilot and plane was somewhat diminished when we arrived at the plane sitting on the airstrip and found the pilot banging a window back into place and also noticing that a good part of the door mechanism was held together with gaffer tape. Gulp!!

We managed to shoehorn ourselves into the cramped twin-engine eight seater, with the window finally in place and door somewhat secured behind us, we commenced to taxi to the runway. As the engines revved up, the noise was deafening and the vibration had everyone’s teeth chattering. After taxing for 5 mins, the pilot announced that he was not happy with one of the engines and was returning to the hangar for maintenance. We, and the luggage were offloaded and after a 30 minute wait a solution was sorted out. The decision to change planes was made and we transferred to a larger and speedier plane as the afternoon light was slipping away and nightfall was only a couple of hours away. This meant that landing on a bush strip would be impossible after sunset.

We left civilization behind us as the townships below gave way to farmland, and then in turn, the farmland gave way to wide-open spaces dotted with small isolated villages of round thatched huts and wooden fences. After the plane crossed the rugged and sparsely vegetated highlands we dropped over the escarpment and there spread out before us, was the panoramic view of the Lower Zambezi Valley. The mighty Zambezi River in places was up to a kilometre wide; punctuated by grassy islands, reed beds and sand bars. However, we knew that more exciting and dangerous things lurked in the river. As the plane began its descent, we spotted crocodiles lolling on the sandbars catching the last rays of the day, and in the river, large pods of hippos were submerged in the deeper water.

While circling Jeki airstrip checking the surrounding bush for any animals that could wander onto the strip, we spotted our guide and jeep waiting to take us on a 10 minute trip to the high-speed boat for a 60 minute ride upriver to Sausage Tree Camp which will be home for the next four nights.

The boat rounded the river bend and there hugging the banks was Sausage Tree Camp. Overlooking the river was an open sided dining area with a large wooden terrace with a central fire pit, where in the evenings everyone would congregate to share stories of their great African adventures. Tall tales and true!

Our homes for the next 4 nights were comfortable thatched huts with walls made of reed canes, large doors opened onto a wooden veranda overlooking the river and the resident hippos. The bathroom was “en suite” which in Africa means that your bathroom comes complete with geckos, lizards, monkeys, insects (some the size of small birds) and anything else that can fly, climb or walk its way into it. The bathroom had a wonderful view of the river, which could be enjoyed from all vantage points, including sitting on the toilet.

My “butler”, was a charming, shy young man who is married with a little baby girl – Isabella- whose picture he very proudly showed me on his phone. He seemed to materialise at any time of day or night. In the morning before dawn, there would be a discrete “knock knock” at the door and he would slip into the room to deliver a morning cup of tea. In the evening, he would be waiting at your door to escort you to and from dinner, while walking along the paths he would cast his flashlight into the surrounding undergrowth to make sure that no intruders were lurking there. During the day, when we were out on safari, he would prepare the room and bathroom and make sure that the laundry was done and all was ready for our return. He was very caring and professional and would be a credit to any five-star establishment.

Sausage Tree Camp is unfenced and therefore open to all animals so we were unable to roam at night and before dawn and needed to be accompanied to and from the rooms and jeeps. This was an important precaution as the resident hippo “Dexter” was very happy roaming about in the night and many elephants made themselves at home as well, day and night. It is not unusual to see furry, large toothed carnivores roam around as well, so these precautions were not over rated.

Dexter does not venture very far from his pool in the river in front of the camp. It appears that his attachment to this spot is because he is the son of a resident female hippo that used to bring him there when he was very small. Sadly she no longer around, and it seems that Dexter has taken up residence at the camp. He spends his days in the water in front of the camp and occasionally he will make landfall on one of the immediate islands to graze during the day. At night he is a constant visitor around and about and you can hear him grunting as grazes at night.

Our camp routine was quickly established: early morning “knock knock” call, a quick breakfast, onto the jeep for a game drive or other activities such as fishing, walking safaris, canoeing or boating, home for lunch and a much needed thirst quenching beer, the usual afternoon siesta, afternoon tea, afternoon game drive, sun-downers, home for dinner, and then fall into bed to the sounds of the night.

The African nightly chorus can be deafening. When all the members of the choir are in full voice there are frogs whose croaks vary from bell-like tinkling to a deep throated bass rasp. The sound builds in strength and volume until it feels like the air will split and then inexplicably they will all stop and silence descends on the river. There are a myriad of crickets whose sawing sound comes and goes in waves of sound. The hippos splash, snort and grump about in the water before making their way onto land at night to graze. Some nights, sleep is interrupted by the deep barking cough of male lions proclaiming their territory to any likely intruders. This can be heard from many kilometres away and is a terrifying noise if it is close by. In the marshes you can hear the elephants foraging for water-lily roots, which they thrash about in the water to remove the mud before gorging themselves.

During our stay we were treated to a special lunch. We were taken by boat out onto the Zambezi River and beached on a sandbar in six inches of water. What a surprise – we were delighted to find the lunch table set up under a canopy, set with pristine glassware and cutlery. We were treated to a delicious BBQ lunch washed down with Pimms while enjoying the unique experience of the Zambezi river rushing through our feet. The thought of crocodiles and hippos joining the lunch table did cross my mind but I am sure that our hosts had this under control.

Next post – Namibia. A different Africa with amazing scenery, huge skies and wonderful people.

Categories: Animals, Botswana, Elephants, Hippos, Lions, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized, Zambia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Botswana – Safari Adventures, Okavango Delta – Part 2

The Okavango Delta is a vast inland delta in the Kalahari Desert that drains each year into a swamp covering up to 1500 sq km. In January – February the rains that fall in Angola drain 1200km into the Delta, which means that for the next few months there is abundant ground water and vegetation that attracts wild life and thousands of birds. The Delta is a unique landscape in all of Africa and varies from vast grass savannahs, dry sandy desert, wooded areas, low-lying islands (that twice yearly become isolated refuges for many animals during the flooding), vast marshes, channels and lagoons.

Our camp, Sandibe, is perched on the edge of one of these vast lagoons that is filled with papyrus and reeds. The sleeping quarters at the camp consists of eight thatched cottages with canvas sides where large insect screened windows catch any breeze. Attached to the tent is an “en suite” bathroom which is an open air (complete with monkeys and geckos – actually the monkeys really have a taste for soap). The room is well furnished with a really comfortable queen sized bed which I find hard to leave on those chilly mornings when the sun has not crested the horizon.

Just a few minutes walk from your tent along a sandy path is the main “building”. This large, open sided space houses the bar (well used when you come home after a game drive hot and parched), the dining area and several squishy lounges and comfy chairs where you can sit and let the wildlife pass you by. No animal is deterred from venturing close by. Elephants freely stroll through the camp, knocking over the fence around the swimming pool, but are careful to manoeuvre gently and gracefully around the outdoor furniture without ever knocking over a chair.

Our arrival is heralded by a chorus of African women singing a welcome song and providing cold towels, used to refresh faces and hands which are now covered in fine Kalahari dust.

Our host, Kate, gives us the camp overview and instructions that will be consistently reinforced no matter where we are in Africa: don’t go outside your tent at night, wait to be escorted to the main building before dawn and after dusk, stand still if you are on the path and an elephant is close by, don’t run if you see a lion or leopard in camp (running means prey and you could be the next meal), use the mosquito net and insect repellent liberally every day, don’t leave anything outside your tent because the hyenas will eat it or the baboons and monkeys will be wearing it.

We easily adapt to the pattern of camp life: wakeup call at our tent is 5:30am, collection for breakfast at 6am, into the jeep for the morning game drive at 6:30am and ready to see the sunrise at 7am. Usually there is a stop at a picturesque bush location around mid-morning for a coffee/tea and a “wee” stop at a location that is free from man-eaters and other potential dangers. I am reassured that the guide will scout out the bush toilet to ensure that there are no nasty surprises lurking in the foliage or behind the anthill.

Late morning we return to camp for lunch and a very welcome cold beer to wash away some of the Kalahari sand that is in our throats. Following lunch it is time to return to the tent for a siesta, take a dip in the pool or sit on your veranda and enjoy the quiet (apart from the grunting, snorting and bellowing of the hippos) and watch the passing parade of wildlife and the birds that dart about in the trees.

At 3pm we gather for a cup of tea before heading out for the afternoon/evening game drive. Our guide, Gee is full of information and quickly becomes our new friend. We exchange jokes and share stories of our different homelands, customs and cultures.

Gee is in his mid-40’s with a wife and three daughters. They live in Maun, a 4 – 5 hour drive over incredibly rough, sandy roads. Usually he works for two months and then gets two weeks off where he returns to the family. His aspiration is to retire from guiding when he is 50 and grow vegetables on a plot of land that he has bought outside Maun. To supplement this, he will take private guiding jobs. His knowledge of trees and plants and the animals and birds of the Delta seems limitless and he recounts many amazing stories and opens our eyes to the secrets of what is the African bush.

As we drive through this vast open land Gee is able to recollect every bush, tree, anthill, swamp and stream as though these landmarks are indelibly printed on his mind like a road map. As we drive along, bouncing over rutted, pot holed roads or sandy dredges where the wheels sink up to the axles, he is forever examining the horizon, peering behind every tree, bush and blade of grass to point out some animal or bird that is so well camouflaged that it takes us a few minutes to focus on where his finger is pointing.

Next blog we discover the big cats…

Categories: Animals, Cape Buffalo, Elephants, Hippos, Leopards, Lions, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Botswana – The Okavango Delta – Part 1

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The Okavango Delta, Botswana
After rendezvousing in Johannesburg with my friends from Australia, we spent a night in a hotel that was distinctly reminiscent of Las Vegas in the 70’s. Funnily enough it was attached to the casino as well. The next morning dawned and everybody was in a high state of excitement – we are going on safari! Next stop Maun, Botswana.

The Maun International Airport is a small, makeshift building that contains Customs and Immigration and Departures and Arrivals as all airports do. However in this instance, it is difficult to tell who is coming and who is going, who the officials are, and who the passengers are. A mass of humanity from all corners of the globe huddle in this small overcrowded room. The place is teeming with people of all colours and ethnic backgrounds and countries of origin – with one united purpose – to find a plane. Somehow out of this chaos we find our onward connection.

We transit through the next security checkpoint and as usual, my metal knees (due to knee replacements) set off the metal detector. When I look up, the three male security guards look back at me in bewilderment and then at the machine and each other in surprise. I can read the looks on their faces and imagine what is going through their minds… “what the hell are we to do now? Pat down this woman? Ignore the metal detector? or, Call a supervisor?” They choose the path of least resistance, all looking at me with big smiles and say quietly under their breath…“ Please just move on”. I look into their eyes and I can see they mean … “please just go away and we will pretend that this never happened”. Gladly I move on and they turn their attention to the mass of people pressing to get through the gate.

At last, we make our way across the sweltering tarmac to our plane – a single-engined 12 seater. As the engine revs up, the body of the plane starts to shake, the engines whine, people grip onto their seat belts and we are off. The excitement mounts knowing we are off into the Okavango Delta and the African bush where wonderful and exciting adventures await us.

The 40-minute flight passes quickly as we fly over vast plains and lightly wooded ridges. Everywhere looks deserted. The vegetation is sparse and many trees are devoid of leaf and the ground is bare of grass. Occasionally there is a glimmering pool of water or a swamp with tracks leading to it from all directions. The shout goes up as we spot our first animals – elephants, giraffes and hippos dot the landscape. This is a foretaste of the amazing and exotic wildlife that we will see in the ensuing days.

The plane slowly descends from 10,000 feet and the bush airstrip below is a ribbon of bleached white earth studded with huge clods of elephant dung. The pilot buzzes the strip a couple of times to make sure that there is no game that can wander onto the strip when he is touching down. Flying into elephant poo is one thing, but a whole elephant in the propellers would certainly cause a mess on the windscreen.

We are met by our guide for the next three days – Gee. His big smile greets us and we are warmly welcomed in a truly hospitable African way. The hour long trip to camp takes us through dry savannah grassland which is punctuated by Camel Thorn, which is the stereotypical African tree. It has that signature umbrella shape with thick green foliage where the animals seek the cool shade in the heat of the day. It is a welcome variation against a dry, golden landscape of parched grass.

Occasionally we cross swamps and streams where the water from the last rainy season. The Okavango Delta has two faces: dry and wet. The “dry” winter officially runs from May to October; and the “wet” summer from November to April. These oases of cool water are a respite from the ever increasing heat of the day. Many animals inhabit these pools permanently, whilst others make their way to them twice a day to quench their thirst. These pools and swamps are the lifeblood and beating heart of the Delta.

The thirstiest of animals is the elephant. When really thirsty, they drink up to 120 litres a day. Apart from drinking water, they love the pools to bath in and to create mud baths where they spray themselves with a muddy slurry which acts as protection from biting insects and the sun. The elephants are majestic and amazing creatures and we are delighted to see so many of them and to study their habits and family life at such close quarters.

Did you know:-
• elephants are right or left handed? They use the tusk of their preferred side as a tool for digging, foraging and investigating potential sources of food
• the cows and calves form a cohesive group and spend their days and nights together. When bull calves reach their teenage years and become a nuisance in the group, they are chased out and join a bachelor group
• the soles of the elephant’s feet are padded and allow for silent movement
• they eat 150 kgs a day of vegetation; mostly grass and only 40’% of this is assimilated, hence the enormous piles of elephant poo everywhere. They excrete up to 100 kgs of dung per day
• the cows gestate for 22 months – the calves are 120 kg when born and are weaned at 3 – 8 years. Just before the next calf is born
• they live to 60 years
• they feed up to 18 hours a day and when sleeping they stand or lie down. The bulls with large heads and heavy tusks will often lie down beside a termite mound and use it as a pillow
• their trunk is like an arm with fingers and it is so dextrous that it can pick up a single seed and it is strong enough to uproot trees
• as their chewing teeth wear away, they are replaced from behind by a series of six in each jaw.

Categories: Animals, Botswana, Elephants, Hippos, Leopards, Lions, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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