These dunes, scorched by the sun and lashed by the winds, finally come to die on a coast mercilessly beaten by the waves. The same coast which, for centuries, the sailors who plied the commercial routes between Europe and the West Indies feared, respected, and above all avoided. This coast has inspired many a writer. Its sands are strewn with the skeletons of dead animals, bleached by the sun, testimony to the harshness of this coast, where only the strongest and best adapted are capable of surviving. They have seen many tragedies at sea, and this place has well earned its fearful name: The Skeleton Coast. Not so long ago, the White Man also tried to adapt to this dry land. They came here lured by the promise of untold riches, the diamond deposits. But nature proved stronger, and they soon had to admit defeat. Entire towns were abandoned overnight, as they fled from the terrors of the desert. These ghost towns still provide the greatest evidence of the hostility of this land. Shipwrecks, of many ages and many nationalities, worn by the passing of time, still lie half-buried, perhaps silently lamenting their absurd, unexpected fate. The old ships, made of wood, have slowly crumbled away, the combined effect of the sea, the wind and the sand, but the most modern ships, made of metal, rise like ghosts from the deserted beaches. The Skeleton Coast marks the limit of a desert which covers a narrow strip, no wider than 200 kilometres, running from southern Angola to the Orange river, the border with South Africa. Like a coastal belt, the dunes and rocks of the Namib desert cover 250,000 square kilometres along more than 2,000 kilometres of the Atlantic coast of Namibia. The Namib is one of the oldest, and most arid, deserts in the world. Its mountains were witnesses to the cataclysms of the Jurassic age, when the super-continent Gondwana split apart, creating new landmasses, among them Southern Africa. Just a few kilometres away, enormous dunes, over 300 metres high, transform the landscape, making it unrecognisable. That is the Namib, a constantly-changing desert, a dry land where life lies in hiding. From the air, this mass of orange-coloured sand seems endless. These are the tallest dunes in the world, and below them lies the world’s largest diamond deposit. It is a fantastic sight, which could only have been created by nature. As the light changes, the dunes of the Namib take on a thousand different hues, of spectacular beauty. They are like mobile sculptures, shaped over thousands of years by the wind. The underground rivers provide just enough water for the odd acacia, adding a not-quite-adequate green to the symphony of crude colours dotted across the landscape. But every year, there is a veritable explosion of life along the Skeleton Coast. In October, the sea-lions come to these coasts to give birth. The cold Benguela current, which travels up from the glacial Antarctic Ocean, and along the south-west coast of Africa, carries with it a considerable quantity of nutrients. The sea is soon swimming with fish, and these attract the sea-lions, which are the final link in this particular food chain. At this time of year, Cape Cross is home to the largest colony of sea-lions over one hundred thousand of them. Outside the breeding season, males of the species are rarely seen they start to arrive at the end of October, in order to mark out their territory. They are well-fed when they arrive, and can weigh up to considerable amount of energy, defending their territories and protecting the females, and can lose up to 200 kilos. The first European to set foot on this coast was the Portuguese, Diego Cao, in 1486. A year later, another Portuguese navigator, Bartolomé Días, with his three ships, sailed into the bay, seeking protection from a storm. After many attempts, he finally managed to land, and named the bay ‘Angra Pequena’ (small cove) But it was not until 1883 that the first stable settlement was established, when the German navigator and merchant, Adolf Lüderitz, reached an agreement with the head of one of the Nama tribes. Lüderitz bought the bay for a relative small amount of money and sixty rifles, in order to set up a whale processing plant here. A few months later, Kanzler Bismark declared Namibia a protectorate of the German Empire. In 1904, war broke out between the Nama and the Germans, and Lüderitz became the first prisoner of war. These are rich waters, and the whaling business rapidly flourished. The port, and a modern processing plant were built. But the real industrial and economic boom came later, with the discovery of the diamond mines. This was in May 1908, when, during the construction of the railway line, a worker called Zachary Lewala found a small, bright stone, lying on the ground. He showed this stone to his boss, the German Augustus Stauch who, realising what it was, requested permission from the authorities to prospect in the area. The news spread like wildfire and soon merchants, adventurers and fortune-seekers began to arrive in Lüderitz. In just four years, the town was transformed from a small, remote fishing port, into one of the most important cities in Southern Africa. Still today, very little has changed around Lüderitz. The most prosperous businesses are still where they were a hundred years ago, and are still run by the descendants of those first colonists. And the city itself, though it has changed slightly more, still retains the atmosphere of a remote frontier town. Lüderitz is today a sleepy, somewhat surrealist German colony. Just like a typical, small Bavarian town, but transposed to one of the most remote corners of Southern Africa, where the wind blows furiously all year round. The railway disappeared a long time ago, but a magnificent road connects the town with the outside world. Lüderitz still lies well off the beaten track, stranded in the desert, between two enormous diamond-producing regions, which are prohibited zones, and heavily guarded. The majority of the streets are still sand, and the houses are painted in bright colours, to break the monotony of the landscape. The town is surrounded by almost endless diamond deposits, but these are transported directly to South Africa, and have very little influence on the local economy. Nonetheless, Lüderitz remains prosperous, thanks to the same activity which was the reason it was founded fishing. Due to the cold Benguela current, these waters are the largest, richest fishing grounds in the South Atlantic. The entire city owes its living to the hake, lobsters and seaweed, which provide work for over 5,000 people. This industry is, after diamonds, the second largest source of income for the Namibian government. But long before the arrival of the White Man, a nomadic people, once to be found throughout the continent of Africa, had sought final refuge in the Namib and Kalahari deserts. They were probably the last survivors of the hunter people that had been persecuted and displaced by the Bantu tribes who arrived from the north. Those who did not manage to escape into the desert were exterminated or enslaved, first by the Bantues and the Hottentots themselves, and later by the European conquerors, who rather contemptuously named them Bushmen. In the sacred mountains which are home to the spirits, the drawings carved into the rock are irrefutable evidence that, six thousand years ago, the Bushmen already inhabited these lands. Nowadays, the majority of the 100,000 Bushmen that live in the Kalahari desert are to be found in remote ghettos, in subhuman conditions. Most of their cultural heritage has been lost. They now rarely hunt, and subsist on the tiny benefits they receive from the government. There is a great deal of alcoholism it’s the only way they have of killing time. The authorities are trying to introduce agriculture and livestock farming, but these people who, for over 20,000 years have been hunter-gatherers, are finding it very difficult to adapt to this lifestyle. Some of them work for the White Men, or for neighbouring tribes, as hunters, farm-workers, or herdsmen, in conditions of near slavery, in exchange for food, clothes and tobacco. Historically, the neighbouring tribes have treated them as pariahs, with no rights. Since 1992, Amnesty International has been denouncing the abuses and torture they suffer at the hands of the military. Little by little, the situation is getting better in Botswana, for example, which, in 1998, enjoyed the strongest economic growth in the world. But still, the Bushmen are the most extreme example of the poverty and underdevelopment which has not been eradicated. Little by little, they are losing ground, their territory reduced to an ever-smaller area. Fortunately, however, there are still families who refuse to give up their culture and their traditions, and try to survive in the most remote regions of the Kalahari. Chonwati is a small settlement, inhabited by just four families, a total of 14 people. The Bushmen live in small, scattered groups, adapting to whatever the land can offer, Kushai, Samgao, Tuka and Bo are the heads of the Chonwati family. Several days ago they ran out of meat, the basis of their diet, and so have decided to set out to try to catch a hare in the area around the village. Politically and socially, the Bushmen are organised into groups with no designated leader, though authority is assumed by the oldest or the most skilled of the active members. Each group is made up of a number of hunters, generally related, and their wives and children. The group normally moves around a limited territory, which they don’t leave this is their hunting ground and, though the limits are not well defined, and there is no specific obligation to respect them, other groups would never enter, so no one needs to defend them. The technique they use to catch the hares is simple, but extremely ingenious. Their only tool is a long, very flexible rod, with a hook at one end, which they introduce into a burrow. When the pole has been pushed all the way in, the men place the end against their cheeks. If they can feel the rod vibrating, it means a rodent has been trapped on the hook. No luck this time! The four friends return to the settlement with empty hands. The extreme drought means the situation in the settlement is desperate. The only thing they have left to eat is millet, from which they make a bread, but this is not very nutritious. However, they know that during the dry season hunting is much easier than in the rainy season. Kushai, Samgao, Tuka and Bo have decided to go hunting. At this time of year, the animals all gather around the few pools that still have water, and in all likelihood they will be able to hunt something decent to eat. Namibia is one of the African countries with the greatest variety of wildlife. In the Etosha National Park alone, the largest in the country, covering an area the size of Belgium, 114 species of mammals and 340 different types of bird live. The heat is absolutely unbearable, and the large pachyderms are hurrying to get into the water. The big cats, just like the Bushmen, know that hunting is plentiful at this time of year. By the watering holes, the lions lie in wait, ready to attack, protected and camouflaged in the shade of a tree. Possible candidates for a swift death must be on the alert, and are extremely jumpy. In December the first rains will arrive, and will continue uninterrupted to the end of March. During these months, a thick green blanket of grass covers the vast plains. The mammals spread out, finding a space in which to give birth, and once again, life will return to Etosha. But, for the moment, every drop of water, essential for survival, is precious. Only the large predators will regret the coming of the rains, for then Etosha will become one enormous quagmire, and in those conditions hunting is an exhausting task. The elephants have to come here every day for their mud-bath, to get rid of parasites. They are the masters of the pool, and when they arrive all the other animals know they must move aside. The Bushmen also fear and respect them, and will always try to avoid them on their hunting expeditions. The next morning, the four Bushmen get ready for the hunt. Their most powerful weapon is to be found below ground. With the help of the metal bars they have acquired through barter with other tribes in the region, they dig holes, looking for tiny spheres which look as if they are made of ceramic. They are not easy to find, and the search may be quite long. They need at least ten of these tiny capsules in order to make the poison. Back at the camp, the men get everything ready to concoct the potion. There’s no rush. Rushing is a western concept, and not one they welcome. Bo, the oldest of the four, says that in the West we have clocks, but they own time. The first step is to scrape and then pound the seeds from the Kamungarunga tree, which grows wild here in the Kalahari desert. The result is a fine powder. While Tuka prepares the arrows, Kushai will take charge of the preparation of the poison. Their expert hands carefully extract the tiny larvae. Once they have caught hold of the larva, they rip the head off. Then, like a tube of glue, they squeeze out the contents into a giraffe bone. These spheres are really the protective wrapping around the larvae of a type of beetle, and their body fluids produce a deadly poison. Little by little, they collect together the yellowish liquid, the appearance of amber. Sometimes they apply the liquid extracted from the larvae directly onto the arrows, but if they want to make a stronger poison, the process is a little more complicated. Samgao chews the root of a sansevieria, a plant which contains a powerful toxin, and which, when mixed with the liquid from the larvae and the powder from the seeds, will give them a poison capable of swiftly killing a man, and for which there is no known antidote. The poison is now ready, and all that remains is to smear their arrows with it. Each hunter carefully covers the tips of his arrows, making absolutely sure the deadly mixture does not come in contact with any cuts they may have on their bodies. If it does, it can cause severe suffering, and even death. The arrows are not large, and the tips are not especially sharp, because the prey will not be killed by the impact, or the wounds the arrows make The small metal tips are strong enough to make a small wound in the animal, and the poison will then do the rest. The weapons are ready. All they need to do now is wait until the poison is dry. Meanwhile, Bo, who is also the shaman, scrutinises the runes, looking for good omens that the hunt will be successful, and that the spirits of the dead are with them. The wooden tips will show them the way to their prey. They must perform this ritual if they wish to have good fortune, and ward off the evil spirits. Kotoke: Where should we hunt? The tips point to where the sun sets, that is where the zebras and the kudu are. The wood says that where the sun rises, there is a group of oryx and gazelles. The four hunters will set off in that direction tomorrow, before sunrise. Seven hundred kilometres northwest of Chonwati, in a remote, mountainous region called Kaokoland, lie semi-arid lands where a cattle-rearing tribe has settled permanently. The river Kunene, the natural border between Namibia and Angola, is what makes life possible in this inhospitable land. The Himba are one of the most interesting, and most intact tribal groups in Africa. They have a reputation as the most competent herdsmen in Africa. This is what they are famous for, but their success is not due to their knowledge of cattle alone, but also to their organisation and social relations, as they themselves recognise in many of their traditional proverbs: “life depends not on animals, but on people. If you have people, you will never die” Himba society is organised according to the principle of dual lineage. This practice of taking into account both the mother’s side and the father’s side, can be found in only six regions of the world: West and Southwest Africa, India, Australia, Melanesia and Polynesia. All Himba people are born into the matriarchal clan of their mother and the patriarchal clan of their father. Lineage on the mother’s side determines inheritance of material wealth, including the cattle, while the father’s side decides how groups are organised, and the structure of authority. Opembe is a small settlement inhabited by just two families. Yakujá Yambirú is the Omuyona, or clan chief. Four years ago, he suffered an incident which almost cost him his life. “It was during the rainy season. We were at the foot of the Omusati mountains, leading the herd up to the highlands. In the late afternoon, just before the sun went down, a group of nine famished hyenas began to attack the cows. Armed with only sticks, we tried to drive them off, but one of them jumped on my back, and, with one bite, ripped off my arm. A group of herdsmen came to my aid, and took me to the hospital in Opuwo, where I arrived two days later, almost dead. It was the first time I had been outside my territory.” Yakujá is married to Wazindi Kiruá, and together they have had three children. The oldest, Navizó, is responsible for the cows, and will inherit them. The youngest son is called Kamá Iguan, and he is in charge of looking after the goats. And last but not least, Komané, the only daughter. Today is a special day in Opembe. Komané has had her first menstruation the Esuko and this is celebrated with a dance, attended by all the women from the neighbouring villages. When a girl has her first period, her father will remove the bracelets made of vegetable fibres, which she wears around her wrists and ankles. He then cuts off her braids, and places on her head the Ekori, the women’s headdress. Komané is now ready to get married, and her parents will decide who should be her future husband. Polygamy is practised among the Himba, and Komané may have sexual relations with whoever she wants, provided she asks her husband for permission. But it is important for a woman to be the first wife, as this confers certain privileges, such as the care of the sacred fire, which give her a more dignified status. In Himba culture, image and appearance are all-important. Almost their only art is the decoration of their own bodies. They have no paintings or sculptures, but they do spend a considerable amount of time enhancing their appearance. The most precious ornament, worn only by the most privileged women, is the Ohumba, a sea shell which they obtain through exchange with the neighbouring tribes, the Zemba, the Tuwa, or the Hakaona. A good, conical-shaped shell can cost the price of an ox. Their hairstyle not only fulfils an aesthetic function, enhancing the elongated shape of the head, but also serves to express their sex and social position. An adult woman will keep this hairstyle until she dies. From time to time, the braids are undone, and then plaited again. This generally takes about two days, and they wash it not with water, but with ash. But the truly distinctive feature of these people is the reddish colour of their bodies. This comes from a dye which the women regularly apply to their bodies. It is made by crushing very valuable stones, which contain a ferrous component they call Okid Maui. The fine ochre powder is mixed with fat, and the result is a thick, reddish cream, which they not only find attractive, but also provides efficient protection against the sun and insect bites. As a final touch, Wazindi Kiruá adds some aromatic herbs to the cream the most prized herb of all is the Kaokoland myrrh. There is only one thing more important for the Himba than their physical appearance: the cattle. They are the basis of their economy and a subject which arouses a great deal of passion and rivalry. It is more than a merely economic activity, affecting also political, social and religious aspects of life. The cow is the symbol which best expresses their identity and their songs are full of reference to their favourite cows. The cows provide them with everything they need to live: milk, which, beaten, is a staple of their diet, as well as providing the fat to make the dye. From the hides, they make clothes, and the excrement is used in the construction of their huts. Building and repairing the huts is traditionally the work of the women, as is milking the cows. They must find and prepare all the different materials. Four things are essential: flexible branches from the homutati tree, fresh cow manure, clay sand, and ropes made with fibre from tree trunks. While Wazindi watches over the village, Navizó, his eldest son, takes the cows to drink at the well dug in the dried-up river bed. During the dry season, water is very scarce, and so all the herdsmen meet at the same place. The cows drink first, before the goats, and the goats must be kept together, so they don’t get mixed up with those belonging to a different clan. But they all want to drink at the same time, and so there’s absolute chaos. To be able to survive as nomadic herdsmen in such a dry land requires great skill and considerable knowledge. Until the worst drought in living memory, at the start of the eighties, the Himba were among the richest herdsmen in Africa. Their basic strategy is to move around, according to the season. When the rains arrive, they move their cattle away from the permanent sources of water, and take advantage of the pasture that springs up on the edge of the desert. When water and pasture run out, the men return with their cattle to the permanent watering-holes. So, this forage is kept till the very end of the dry season. It is now the turn of the goats, which the youngest members of the clan are in charge of. Once they have been circumcised, the boys may look after the cows. The girls are given this privilege after their first period. In the areas closest to the Namib desert, the government has built windmills, to encourage the tribes to adopt a sedentary lifestyle. Kushai, Samgao, Tuka and Bo left Chonwati several hours ago. Not even they know when they will return the hunt can last for days, or even weeks. Nonetheless, they take with them only what is strictly necessary: the bows and arrows, the iron bars, a knife, the implements to make fire, and tobacco. Anything else they will find on their journey it’s not a problem, no one knows better than they how to survive in this barren land. These men know how to read the signs on the dry land of their territory, showing them where to find whatever they need. To compensate for the lack of water, the men know a number of tricks. One is the Koa, which lies hidden beneath the ground. It is a fleshy bulb whose roots contain a bitter liquid. This they use for drinking and washing, out here on the scorching desert plains. Food can be found, too, if you know where to look. Samgao and Tuka both love the Chui, a small, very sweet and very nutritious fruit. Whenever they come across one of these bushes, they eat and eat, until not a single is Chui left. They know over 100 species of edible plants, and 55 species of animal. They are an incredible store of specialised knowledge of the region in which they live. Of all the edible plants, the one they most appreciate is the Gwe, a type of insipid sweet potato, with very little taste, but a high water content. Because they are buried a metre below the surface, the liquid remains relatively cool. A large gwe is enough to food the four hunters for a day while they are out hunting. Gathering is mainly a task for the women, and this work gives them equal status with the men, when it comes to taking decisions. Tobacco and Dagga, or marihuana, are also important elements in the culture of the Bushmen. Nowadays, they rarely smoke Dagga, and the tobacco they obtain by means of exchange with the Jerero tribe. Both men and women are heavy smokers. The group sets off again. When they are out hunting, the Bushmen always walk in single file. They are now getting close to the first pools. Though they are still too far off to frighten off the prey, they have to walk very carefully. Kushai has the best eyesight of the four, and he acts as lookout. Each one has his specific function on the hunt. Tuka is the best hunter, and will kill the animal. He is ultimately responsible for the success or failure of the hunt. From this moment on, he will be in charge of the operation. Once they have chosen the arrows with the freshest poison, Tuka moves to the front of the line. The hunt has begun. They have hit a male oryx. They must now be patient, and not lose the trail of the wounded animal. If the arrow has hit a sensitive area, such as the neck or the lungs, the oryx will fall down dead in a matter of hours, but if not, the slow chase can go on for several days. It’s now Bo’s turn to take the lead. He is one of the best trackers in the Kalahari. So good, in fact, that he was recruited by the South African army to track down the rebels belonging to SWAPO, the Namibian guerilla group which, at the end of the eighties, fought for the independence of the country. After tracking the animal for three hours, they come across the first blood stains. Tuka has again proven what a fine marksman he is the arrow punctured the oryx’s left lung, resulting in a slow, painful death. The Bushmen are, in fact, extremely respectful of their natural environment, as many anthropologists have pointed out. When hunting, they are careful not to wound the females or the young. They gather only what is strictly necessary in order to eat, and they use the minimum amount of wood for their fires. For thousands of years, they have lived in perfect harmony with these extremely marginal lands. They must cut up the animal very quickly, because dangerous hyenas may be prowling around in the vicinity. They haven’t heard the story of what happened to the Himba chief, Yakujá Yambirú, but they certainly wouldn’t want to find themselves in a similar situation. This meat will provide enough food for a couple of weeks. They preserve it by smoking, and it belongs to the community as a whole. When meat is taken back to the village, a taster, normally an old man, must test it before anyone else can start to eat. Once they have removed the intestines, they drain the blood out into a hole made in the sand. The Bushman love bathing in blood and this is not a ritual, they are simply washing themselves. Another example of how these men have adapted to the desert. In less than an hour, they have cut up the oryx, and now they must carry it back to the village. But four men are not enough, so they will have to come back later. The meat they leave behind is wrapped in branches and aromatic herbs, and then buried. They clean away all traces of blood, so as not to attract scavengers. When the Bushmen go out gathering, they take with them reserves of water, which they leave around their territory, to be used by the men when they go out hunting. The water is kept in ostrich eggs, and buried beneath the bushes, so that it stays fresh. In the village of Opembe, day is drawing to a close. Wazindi Kiruá prepares the evening meal: beaten milk. Though the Himba could eat meat every day, they only do so on very special occasions. The cattle are their only wealth, and they must increase the size of their herds, in order to ensure the social and economic well-being of their children. But the future of the red people of the dried-up river beds is uncertain. A large part of their territory is to be flooded by the waters of the river Kunene. The governments of Namibia and Botswana have signed an agreement to build an enormous dam, which will provide electricity for a large area of the country. In the village of Chonwati, Kushai, Samgao, Tuka and Bo relax with their families around the sacred fire. With this dance, they give thanks to the good spirits for the success of the hunt and the abundance of food.