Oryx

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: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Namibia – Action at The Waterhole

Next stop is Ongava Camp just outside Etosha National Park in Northern Namibia. Ongava is set in 33,000 sq hectares of dry savannah grassland with large areas of mopane forests intersected by rocky volcanic crags, rugged forested hills and a myriad of dry creek beds. It is a thirsty, dusty landscape and the occasional waterholes are dry but patiently waiting for the next rainy season. During spring temperatures are in the mid 30’s and unbelievably 45 – 50 in summer. In summer it is just hot, hot, hot day and night!

My guide for three days is Bono, a very handsome man around 30 years old, with a quiet and respectful manner but with a quick turn of wit and a devilish sense of humour. I am fortunate to spend these days in his company learning so much about the African bush, the wonderful and unique animals, his life history and his future aspirations plus the challenges that face the people of Namibia.

The accommodation at Ongava is in 12 large comfortable tents with en suite bathrooms with open air showers (definitely not recommended for use after dark or before down as you may be bathing with a lion, a hyena or a leopard). The open air dining and bar area sits at the base of a dolomite hill and fronts onto a very busy waterhole where a procession of animals come day and night to quench their thirst.

The journey home to my tent each night is an edgy experience. I am accompanied by Rio who is the camp sharp-shooter and his trusty rifle as you never know what predator you may meet during your trek back to the safety of your tent.  We make our way from the main lodge to my tent which is the second to last tent in camp (more time for that hungry lion to size me up as his next meal). Rio is in the lead with rifle gripped in one hand and torch in the other. He walks slowly while shining the torch around the surrounding bush and trees as we make our way through the dark. The hot breath on his neck was not that of a lion bearing down on him but me only centimetres from his back gripping onto his arm for reassurance. Why is it always at times like these that nervous chatter turns to the weather?


The waterhole in front of the camp attracts numerous animals day and night. These include impalas and gazelle with their delicate fine legs and beautiful big eyes set in their pretty faces. They remind me of ballerinas “en pointe”. Their graceful movements and agility is remarkable as they prance and jump skittishly about. Bigger antelope such as the kudu are ever watchful and anxious, the males with their magnificent horns that spiral upwards of a metre. There are also the fantastic oryx with their black masked faces and horns that are straight black sabres pointing directly skywards for a metre. Hartebeest with deep red-brown coats and curved short horns. Zebras pushing and shoving each other like kids in a sweet shop trying to be first to the counter. Their shimmering coats of black and white stripes make it difficult to tell the number of individuals in the herd. Their markings “en masse” appropriately give credence to the collective noun for zebras which is “a dazzle”. And dazzle they do!

Then comes the graceful and so impossibly tall giraffe – they carefully splay their front legs apart so their heads can reach the water. I am amazed that such a tall and large beast can be so graceful. They have a slow and rhythmic walk and when running the break into a smooth canter.
Did you know that:
• they have a black tongue which is 18 inches long
• they are rarely heard but can moo, hiss, roar and whistle to communicate with one another
• giraffes have the longest tail of any land mammal – up to 8 feet long, including the tuft at the end
• ancient Romans and Greeks thought that the giraffe was a mix between a camel and a leopard. This is where their scientific genus name of “camelopardalis” comes from
• their heart is 2 feet long and weighs about 25 pounds and pumps about 16 gallons of blood/minute
• mother giraffes form a type of day-care for their young. One of the females in the herd will stay behind and baby sits all of the youngsters while the rest of the females go out foraging for food
• despite its extreme length, the giraffe’s neck is actually too short to reach the ground. As a result, it has to awkwardly spread its front legs or kneel on its front legs in order to reach the ground to drink water
• it is the tallest animal in the world – males stand 16-18 feet
• females use their hooves as weapons only to defend their young. They are strong enough to kill a lion, which is the giraffe’s only real predator
• they can gallop 31-37 miles per hour
• males are known as bulls and  females are known as cows
• giraffes rest standing up and only sleep 5 minutes at a time. When sleeping, the giraffe generally lies on the ground, tucking its front legs under itself, then curls its neck back and rests its head on its rump
• they spend between 16 and 20 hours a day feeding.

The waterhole is a dangerous place – this is where all the animals gather, the strong and the weak, the old and the young. Here is a great opportunity for the predators to strike and get a quick meal. Everyone is on guard and often sentries are appointed as lookouts, ears and tails twitch and there is much nervous shuffling of hooves but the need for water far out ways the fear of predators.


At night, there were some special visitors – a small group of white rhinos came to drink. There is a mother and baby who is around three years old and is already two thirds her size. They silently appear out of the darkness like silent grey ghosts. Their huge bodies and large square heads swinging low as they walk, their bulk is in stark contrast to their soft footed and silent approach.

Categories: Animals, Botswana, Elephants, Giraffe, Leopards, Lions, Namibia, Oryx, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized, White Rhino, Zebra | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Namibia – Jonas’ Story of Love and Marriage

My guide while I am staying in the Kulala Wilderness Reserve in Southwest Namibia is Jonas. He is 35 years and has two sons –Milton Marvellous who is 15 and Gilbert Donald who is an energetic 10 year old. When the boys were small Jonas’ former partner died, and as is the custom, the children were collected from her family and have been raised by Jonas’ parents in their Himba village in the far northwest of Namibia. Tribal identity is very important in Namibia and quickly establishes an individual in a social and ethnic hierarchy.

The roots of the Himba come from the isolated northern areas of Namibia and even today there are groups that practise a very basic and ancient nomadic herdsman way of life. However, Jonas’ traditional home is in a permanent village, but life in the village is still firmly rooted in tribal customs and practises.

Jonas tells me that he has a fiancée now and plans to marry her in December. The auspicious date was selected by meeting with the headman at the “holy fire” in his village. The holy fire is the focal point of the village and this is where all the important meetings and decisions occur officiated over by the village’s headman. They believe that the holy fire is the avenue by which the headman communicates with the ancestors. Jonas and his fiancée initially wanted to marry in August but the ancestors decided that the 29th December was a more appropriate date. However, this can be delayed a whole year should a close member of the family die in the intervening period, and as a matter of protocol, the wedding will be postponed to another auspicious date.

Bride price is always negotiated as a matter of protocol. The usual price is four or eight head of cattle depending on the groom’s status and how hard the negotiations go. If the bride is working or even better, if she is educated or qualified, the price can escalate. The dowry can be $20,000 Namibian dollars, which is approximately AUD $2,500. During the negotiations, the representatives of the groom approach the bride’s house and they sit down quietly on the left of the headman and elders. No one talks as they wait to be formally greeted by the headman and elders – only then can negotiations begin. Negotiations can be a protracted affair, lasting for many days, even weeks, with much to-ing and fro-ing from village to village until the “contract” is finalised.


The wedding festivities and ceremonies are held over a weekend so that the guests and family from far and wide will be in attendance. On the wedding weekend, the official party go to Jonas’ fiancée’s house where the head of the family consults with the ancestors at the holy fire and instructs the bride on her new role as wife and mother, and the expectations of her new husband and his family. He also instructs her to obey her husband and particularly the mother and father of the groom. She will leave her own family for good and now be considered a part of her husband’s family.

The procession, including daughter-in-law to be, then moves to the house of the groom where they sit before the head of the house and the holy fire to once again consult the ancestors. The headman of Jonas’ household tells the fiancé how she will be treated as part of their family and that she will be respected as a beloved daughter.

That night after partying, feasting, dancing and after much alcohol is consumed; all the guests and family retire. Once everyone is asleep, Jonas will creep into his fiancé’s bedroom and fully clothed (minus his shoes) he will get into her bed and lie with his back to her. His best man will be there to ask any questions of her regarding any issues that might be worrying the groom to be. Just before dawn, Jonas must sneak out of the house without anyone seeing him. Should he be discovered in the house he will have to pay the bride’s parents a penalty of two or three goats or a case of brandy. This ritual is repeated the next night.


Finally on the third day, the wedding formalities are conducted. Everyone dresses in their finery, a new suit for Jonas (his only suit which he will probably wear to his children’s weddings and he will probably be buried in it too), a large white wedding dress for his finance and the eight best men and bridesmaids will need to be newly suited and dressed for the occasion.

The festivities include the slaughter of two cows to feed the masses of invited and uninvited guests. The number of guests can be in the hundreds and of course there will be lots of singing, dancing and drinking of alcohol. The wedding feast will be stewed beef, lamb and goat, maize meal porridge all washed down with sour milk.

At the appropriate time, Jonas and his new bride will retire to a specially built wedding hut constructed out of mopone timber. In here, they will consummate the marriage, and auspiciously if the ancestors are smiling on them, a child will be conceived that night.

Categories: Namibia, Oryx, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Oryx of Namibia – Beauty, Power and Grace

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In the southwest of Namibia, there is a narrow strip along the coast called Sossuslei. Here you will encounter the famous giant red dunes stretching as far as the eye can see. The wind has carved wonderful contours, ridges, gullies and spines into them. Behind the dunes are flat valleys sparsely covered in grass the colour of pale yellow gold. These plains are intersected occasionally with dry creek beds, where groves of small trees add a welcome ribbon of green to the landscape. In the distance, the stark rocky hills and mountains rise up steeply from the valley floor. They make a striking contrast to the grassy plains and are dramatically coloured in hues of black, blue, red and purple to create a rich palette.


This area is in the Namib Desert and is part of the 50,000 sq km Namib Nauluft National Park. This “sand sea” was formed when the ephemeral Tsauchab River was blocked by sand and now the dunes stretch for 400 km along the coast. To the west along the coast there is a cold current that runs the length coast, bringing cooler winds and a little moisture and the escarpment that runs parallel to the coast is some 100 km inland.

Kulala Wilderness Reserve is 40,000 hectares in area and home to oryx, ostrich, springbok and some small carnivores where occasionally, cheetah and leopards can be sighted. It is a dry place with a very low rainfall of less than 4 inches or 100 mls a year. Amazingly the animals have adopted to these harsh conditions and have developed many unique and ingenious survival mechanisms.

The climate is hot and dry in summer and cold and dry in winter. What little rain there is, will make the many ephemeral rivers and creeks run and this is a boon to many animals who are near death from thirst by this time, such as the magnificent oryx. They trek each day, or every second day, to the nearest source of water which can be hours away from the grass plains where they eat what little grass is left at the end of the dry season.

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The oryx are strikingly beautiful antelope and have developed some unique physiological changes to cope with the heat and lack of water. The blood that circulates from the heart to the body is then sent to their muzzle of their nose where it is cooled. This cooled blood is then circulated to their brain. Also, they do not urinate very often and have a specially adapted muscle in their anus that extracts moisture from their faeces before they defecate.

They live in herds and the newborn calves are able to run with the herd immediately after birth. Both males and females possess permanent horns and are of equal length. The horns are narrow, and straight and are lethal — the oryx has been known to kill lions with them. The horns also make the animals a prized game trophy, which has led to the near-extinction of the two northern species.

The social system of the oryx is unusual, in that non-territorial males live in mixed groups with females, or with females and their young. Groups are composed of 10 to 40 males and females of all ages and both sexes.

The dominance hierarchy among oryx is based on age and size. As they grow, calves test one another in what look like games, though in reality are tests of strength. As the hierarchy becomes established, the need to fight is reduced. Ritual displays replace actual contact, except when evenly matched individuals may have to fight to establish their rank. Along with lateral displays, oryx perform a slow, prancing walk and sometimes break into a gallop. When several males are making these displays, they may clash horns.

Herd composition in the wild constantly changes according to need. Oryx wanting to drink, for example, form a group to go to water, or females with young form a group that moves more slowly. The result is a social system that allows for individual needs but retains the advantage of group living. Oryx range widely over a large area, but their keen sense of smell alerts them to rain in the area, so that groups quickly assemble, often in herds of 200 or more, to feed on new growth.

Categories: Animals, Cheetahs, Leopards, Namibia, Oryx, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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