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Tribe May Be Flooded by Progress

Namibia's proposed dam would inundate Himba tribal land

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For hundreds of years, the nomadic Himba herders have lived in the remote region where Namibia and Angola meet, tending their cattle and planting subsistence crops.

Isolated from the worst of the region's past century of colonialism and civil war, the Himba have managed to preserve their ways to a remarkable degree.

Today, it is estimated that between 5,000 and 10,000 Himba still live largely outside the cash economy, wearing lavish ornaments and smearing their skins with a mixture of red ochre and animal fat to protect them from the heat and dust.

But as the next century looms, environmentalists fear that a proposed dam could cut out the heart of the Himba's fragile ecosystem. Far from viewing this prospect with concern, the government seems to regard it as an added bonus.

According to Jesaya Nyamu, deputy minister for mining and energy, the Himba way of life is "a culture of poverty and deprivation," from which they must be rescued. Earlier this year, Namibia's minister of trade, Hidipo Hamutenya, told BBC television that the Himba should abandon their old customs and "learn to wear shirts and ties and suits like me and everyone else."

The Epupa Dam proposal is becoming a stark example of the struggle between tradition and progress in the developing world.

Anthropologists like Margaret Jacobsohn of the Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation in Windhoek say that the Himba's wealth cannot be measured purely in cash terms.

By carefully adapting traditional herding strategies to changing realities, they have made themselves among the most successful subsistence farmers in Africa, she believes. Compared with their uprooted cousins in the squalid shanty towns around Africa's major cities, they have little experience of social problems such as alcoholism, crime, prostitution, or unemployment.


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