I learned a good many things about photography while living in Africa. I found it is particularly challenging to photograph dark skinned people in harsh desert light. A fair number of my slides of indigenous people from this period came out too dark and I set them aside, but now that I am scanning my old slides and have access to editing software there are hidden treasures to reveal.
These two women were off to the left of a wide crowd shot I took on an extraordinary day in late August, 1992 in northern Namibia. It was August 26th, Ongulumbashe Day in Namibia, the day now called Heroes Day that coincides with the opening engagement of the armed liberation struggle in 1966 against apartheid South Africa. I was living and teaching at that time about 30 kilometers from Ongulumbashe, but the road to that remote cattle post had not been fully de-mined and it would be another 5 years before I would actually visit the site.
On this day, though, it seemed as if all of Ovamboland were convening in one central place for a great rally, and modernity gave way to tradition. Old women who normally dressed in modest print dresses pulled down their cow tail switches and pelts from the rafters of their huts, donned their shell beads and adornments, walked barebreasted out into the sunlight and so rolled back the decades by at least 50 years. I saw Kwanyama men wearing skirts and what looked like old German Schutztruppe hats with ostrich plumes carried their massive drums, 2 meters long and carved from the trunks of trees. Young men performed great leaping feats, vaulting over each other in the warrior's ompembe dance.
The two women above are wearing the traditional headdress of the Ngandjera, one of seven sub-groups within the Oshiwambo-speaking people of Namibia. The rally was at their principal settlement Ongandjera, the home of Sam Nujoma, the founding president of Namibia. It was the only time I ever saw so many Ovambo people wearing their traditional garb. The distinguishing feature of the Ngandjera headdress are the three, crescent shaped appendages that hang on either side of the head and down the back. In 1982, the colonial government of what was then known as Southwest Africa released a series of stamps depicting traditional headdresses from various tribal groups, including the Ngandjera and Kwanyama types, both of which I saw at the rally that day.
The Ovambo outnumber all the other ethnic groups in Namibia and dominate Namibia's ruling SWAPO party. For that reason, and particularly in those first years of independence, SWAPO promotes a national rather than a tribal identity. One nation, one Namibia was the path forward for this nation rent by war and the divisions of apartheid that set group against group. On this day, in the President's hometown, I saw the Ovambo celebrate their tribal identifies, and I heard Sam Nujoma speak not in the labored, thickly accented English of his office but the soaring, animated language of his birth.
My friend Michael and I were the only two Americans there, and aside from a reporter or two we were the only whites celebrating Ongulumbashe Day with these tens of thousands of Owambos. This was a day for Namibians, but it was even more a day for the people of the north, and they showed that while they could set aside their tribal identities for the sake of national unity, they still had rich and vibrant traditions of their own, and among their own they would celebrate them.