Where Fire Speaks

From the introduction by noted anthropologist and writer Hugh Brody:

"The Himba are a tribal group whose lands lie in northern Namibia, a region of arid scrub, sands, thinly wooded hills and the fertile edges of the Kunene River. They are pastoralists, moving herds of goats and cattle, following the changes of season and climate, and using their distinctive understanding of land, animals and their gods to live well despite the apparent harshness of their environment. The Himba have been among the most successful of African pastoralists, with large herds of animals and a secure economy in all but the worst periods of drought.

David Campion and Sandra Shields live on the west coast of Canada. David grew up in Africa, and first visited the Himba in 1988. They traveled to Namibia together in 1995, impelled to go when they learned about the possibility of the Epupa dam being built and reading the words of a Namibian official: “The Himbas don’t want to stay like baboons. They also want television and lights in their homes.” They were funded by the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development. They wanted to see for themselves: was there a real threat to Himba wellbeing, to the lands on which they depended, to the ecology of one of Africa’s wildest rivers? Or was there an authentic - an appropriate and necessary - development?

The power of this book lies in its plea on behalf of the Himba, on behalf of all such peoples who are attracted to development, and yet threatened by it at the heart of who they have been in the past and need to be in the future. The power of this book comes from the way the authors speak to the past and future of one tribal group by seeing and describing the realities of here and now."

– Hugh Brody, London 2002


We reached Epupa Falls in the middle of the afternoon. The place reminded me of campgrounds back in Alberta where everyone parks side-by-side next to their own picnic table. All the campers seemed to have brought folding tables, chairs, and portable barbecues. Four men in short skirts with their chests bare stood nearby watching us. Under the nearest palm tree, several white men in lawn chairs were drinking beer and were also watching us.

The dog was whining to get out of the truck. When the door opened, he ran to the river and leapt in. The current bore him towards the falls and David had to scramble along the bank in order to grab his collar before the water went over the edge.

A young woman was making her way from camp to camp; the men drinking beer waved her away, and she came over to us. Her skin was stained red-brown and glistened in the sun; her skirt was made of goat skin and she wore thick bands of jewelry. She had a baby strapped to her back, and carried a carton of orange juice under her arm. When she stuck a finger in her mouth, I could see that her top two teeth were filed, creating an upside down v gap. She sucked on her finger and it took us awhile to figure out she was asking for a cigarette. I shook my head. The baby on her back reached out a hand; I took it and smiled, hoping the woman would stick around. I was keen to meet people but wanted our conversation, even the limited kind we could have without a common language, to be about more than just what I could give them.

Another woman with several kids came along and crowded around, asking for candy. When David raised his camera, everyone lined up in snapshot formation. He looked frustrated and put the camera down. They asked for candy again, but it seemed wrong to give it to them when I knew they didn’t have toothbrushes; I hadn’t thought about that when I bought it. I left the candy in the truck, everyone looked disappointed and maybe a bit pissed off. The smile on my face grew stiff, and the group moved on.


She arrived after supper, pulled up a stone and sat down, settling her young daughter between her knees. “The men have no respect for the old ways,” she said through Jackson. “My husband should have stayed to greet you but he has gone drinking at Epupa Falls so I have come instead.” She wouldn’t give us her Himba name. “I took a new name,” she said, ”a better name,” and insisted we call her Maria.

We had met her earlier that afternoon, sitting silently beside her husband, staring at us and pulling hard on a pipe. Her husband had rejected our initial offer, saying that the sacks of ground corn we had were only little ones and he had many people to feed. We had been embarrassed and also worried; so far everything had cost more than we expected. We added a sack of sugar, a pouch of coarse black tobacco, and got his grudging acceptance.

Now it was night and his wife was sitting at our fire, stretching her legs, and reaching out her bare arms to embrace the warmth of the flames. "Why haven't you got a baby?" she asked me, and I struggled to describe how the birth control pill works. It came out sounding more like magic than medicine. “Babies are a problem,” she said. “You get them from the man, they hurt and then you must always carry them around.” Maria said she had already decided that her daughter would go to school to learn English so that she could go to the tourist camp to get things from the white people.

David asked if Maria remembered the war and she responded with, “Tat tat tat tat tat.” We all laughed and when David made the boom boom boom of shelling, she nodded vigorously.

The coiled copper bracelet on her forearm glinted in the fire light. “Do you ever take the bracelet off?” I said. “No,” she said, “it is for hitting my husband if he tries to hurt me.” She laughed and demonstrated with a swift smacking motion.

She asked where our plane was and I explained that the plane that brought us to Africa did not belong to us, that it was like the train, something you bought a ticket for and rode in with many other people. She knew about the train, she said; she had taken it to the capital last year. We had passed through Windhoek ourselves only a week earlier, where the sidewalks were crowded with businessmen and tourists, the stores were full of safari gear, and people talked on cell phones while sipping espresso. Maria had gone with friends and said that it had been good to see the city but not to stay there. The traffic lights had confused her and she had stood on the street corner for a long time, not knowing when to cross.

I asked her how old she was, but she didn’t know and said we should ask her husband. He had not yet returned when Maria bid us good night and went back to the little hut. During the night we heard people passing, and early next morning one of the boys left herding six goats down the path towards Epupa Falls. Jackson said the animals were being sent to pay for what Maria’s husband and his friends had drunk the night before.


The headman’s name was Karamata and his village lay an hour’s walk upstream from Epupa Falls. A road ran between the village and the river, a bumpy route popular with the 4 x 4 crowd, and it was beside the road, under cover of several large trees, that we parked the truck and made camp.

The first few times I walked into the semi-circle of huts that made up Karamata’s village, I hesitated, unsure about how to respect the holy fire and not cross between it and the main hut or the animal enclosure. The animal enclosure was easy to identify, but there was nothing obvious by which to distinguish the main hut from the other three, and nothing I could see to indicate which of the two fires was holy. The fires were small, barely smoking affairs, not big roaring fires like the kind David and I and the rest of the white people had made at Epupa Falls. I thought maybe by following Jackson I would be okay. The holy fire was something the Herrero shared with the Himba, but Jackson didn’t seem to have qualms about walking anywhere, and after wandering around behind him for awhile, I began to feel uncomfortably like I was crossing the line.

After a day or two, the rocks and huts began to look familiar and the two fires became easy to distinguish. The cooking fire often had an old tin can boiling away on it. The holy fire was never used for cooking, and the rocks around it were well back from the wood, far enough away that a person could sit on them. The fire was a short distance in front of the first wife’s and, early morning, Karamata could often be found here, one of his children sitting close beside him. The holy fire was the conduit of ancestral voices. Only people who had been introduced to the ancestors were allowed to cross the line. Karamata explained that the fire had been passed down to him from his father. Though his father was dead, he could speak with him when he sat at the fire; he laid out his problems and his father gave him advice about what to do. To my untutored eyes, it often looked like the holy fire had gone out, but wood in the Kaokoveld was dry as a bone, and held heat for hours. Karamata would squat down and, with his face next to the earth, could blow the holy fire from charcoal gray to smoking orange.


The goats cried like babies. They raised their noisy voices first thing in the morning and cried off and on throughout the day. Now it was night and they were quiet. “How many goats do you have?” I asked Karamata. He had taken to joining us around the fire in the evening to share our supper. These evening conversations were calm and friendly, and even Jackson seemed to relax and enjoy them. Karamata looked at me and said, “There are too many goats to count.”

The Himba way of knowing the world had not, until recently, involved putting numbers on things. Like Maria, Karamata didn’t know how old he was, “We don’t count years,” he said. He was unfamiliar with numbers, although, as we would find out, he did understand that there is a meaningful difference between $20 and $200. Throughout the region, we would meet people who were learning to count under the tutelage of money, looking long and hard at the coins in their hands, trying to understand how much purchasing power they held, what they could trade those coins for at the store, whether it was enough for a bag of candy, a bottle of wine, or a 50 kg sack of ground corn.


When tourists stopped at the village, I thought about how white people must appear to the Himba. It looks like all we do is drive around in vehicles stocked with food, take photos and sit beside roaring fires. They don’t see us working, and have no way of knowing that our lives are not an endless round of sight seeing.

In the evening, we tried to explain some of the complexities of our world to Karamata. One night we asked Karamata if he thought all white men have cars and he said yes. David then explained that the truck we were driving was not ours, that it belonged to his father and soon we would have to give it back. He explained that in Canada we didn’t own a car, that we often walked. It took awhile to make it clear that David was a white man who did not own a car. Once he understood, Karamata burst into laughter.


One day a relative of Karamata’s came by. Like David, he spoke some Afrikaans, so the two were able to talk. “Change is come,” the man said. “It is time to change.” He was wearing shorts and a windbreaker. “Some other of my brothers have put on pants,” he said, “and I followed them.” He explained that his wife didn’t wear traditional clothes anymore either.

The man asked the family why David wasn’t paying for the photos he kept taking. Montebella answered that we were giving them ground corn, tea, and salt. Before he left, the man asked David to give him some soap, sugar, a blanket and a water container. “But if you are not going to live like a Himba anymore,” David said to him, “you must get these things for yourself.” “Yes, I know,” the man replied, “but it is not easy.”

The next morning I joined Karamata at the fire where he was boiling coffee in an old army helmet. He asked for sugar and told me, “I want a truck.” When I asked why he explained that if the children got sick, he didn’t have a truck to take them to hospital.

Before we came here, I had expected to find that the Himba’s traditional ways were intact and threatened only by the prospect of the Epupa dam. What we were finding instead was that, while many of the people still lived as herders, based within family units and moving with the seasons, western norms and goods were making inroads. The sources of change seemed to be as simple as desire and as complicated as global economics; I felt uncomfortably that David and I embodied both.

See more projects of Sandra and David in NOTEBOOKNINE