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The Ovahimba Years: Keep the Dance Alive

Submitted by on November 28, 2012 – 4:18 pm

Young women play dancing Ondjongo in the riverbed on their way home, 1999, Etanga, Namibia, Rina Sherman©

A film about the music, dance and spirit possession practices of the Otjiherero language speaking groups of Namibia and Angola. Ovahimba, Ovadhimba, Ovahakaona, Ovagambwe, Ovakuvale, Ovatua… all share a common culture and belief system. The film explores the various ways in which music and dance transcend their everyday lives from infancy to death.

Question 1:  Dance has a very firm root in Ovahimba society that stems from ancestry and tradition.  As I watched the Ovahimba dance in Keep the Dance Alive, they truly lost themselves to the dance once they started.  Every ounce of their mind and body were consumed by the art. Were there any other forms of art or expression that the Ovahimba embraced so completely and fully as they do song and dance?

Rina:  Many of the dance sequences in Keep the Dance Alive is known as Ondjongo or dance playing, composed of dance and voice, and has various functions: play, feasting, rites of passage and ritual ceremonies, that are often coupled with hand clapping to call the spirits to solve problems within the community. There are also praises, sung or spoken by men and women to recall events of the past, heroic acts of a deceased or make claims to land, etc. These practices flow seamlessly out of every day life, as does spirit possession, and are passed on to the children from birth as they are present during most of the ritualized moments of life.
See review of the film in American Anthropologist: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1548-1433.2011.01412.x/full

Question 2:  Much of the dance in Ovahimba culture is fused with elements of play, storytelling and touches every part of their life.  As the modern world creeps in more and more, how do you see their culture of dance evolving?  Will dance be what keeps tradition strong and unite the Ovahimba through change or will it slowly be watered down and dissipate in the face of the future?

Rina:  Since the independence of Namibia in  1990, the Ovahimba are in increasing contact with the outside world through the presence of government and development agents (NGOs) and tourists. The young men are more mobile today than in the past and hence more often in contact with cultures outside their own. Some children are sent to school in Opuwo and are hence exposed to television, the Christian religion, modern urban clothing styles, etc. The Ovahimba, still to a large degree living in a subsistence and exchange culture, are increasingly more often expected to pay cash for consumer commodities, school fees and medical services. All of these factors are influencing their culture as a whole, including their dance and music practices. This is normal occurrence and evolution; any cultural contact cross-feeds from one culture to another. Problems such as alcohol abuse, pollution (plastic products, bottles, etc.), and sexually transmitted diseases arise due to the accelerated rhythm of these types of contact, without the necessary accompanying educational processes. The women are more stable in their preservation of cultural practices, since they tend to stay at home and look after their children. The culture is evolving as a whole: young people, especially some young men tend to experiment with cross-dressing, alcohol, tobacco and drugs; people are getting used to consumer goods such as sugar, coffee, tea, salt and sweets that tourists bring along and try to exchange in return for permission to take photographs. More and more NGOs are implementing water points and hence people no longer need to take cattle to distant water points. Overgrazing around water points and then erosion occurs. Over a period of seven years, I observed the culture changing as described above. It is inevitable. Some of the women say that their children and their children’s children will maintain their traditions. It remains to be seen.

Question 3:  During your stay, did you find yourself joining in?  How would they integrate your presence into their dance?  A lot of it seems very intimate on a tribal level.  Were they ever uncomfortable with you being around when they danced?

Rina:  Every now and then I did join in with a few dance steps, but I was mostly present to observe, film or photograph. After the first year or so I became an adopted member of the family, with an outsider status, but a member of the family all the same. I came to be considered as something of a public scribe and people would call on me to film community meetings, court cases and rituals. I learned to speak the language well enough for every day communication and that radically changed my relationship with people in general and my family specifically. Every now and then, someone would complain about me filming, as it happens anywhere else in the world. I would then immediately make it clear that I would not be filming that person. I never really had problems since I always asked for permission prior to filming. At times people would get tired of being filmed or felt they were not well enough dressed and then I would of course not film them. I have the same rapport with any person I film: I ask to film and it is either yes or no. The key of course is spending time with people, getting to know them and developing a relationship of confidence and trust that is not merely based on permission to film or not. With regards to joining in the dancing, despite the fact that I was busy filming and that is a form of dance in itself, I have never anywhere in the world felt that it is necessary to be like others in order to be close to them. Once, one of my Omuhimba woman friends asked me if she should dress like me. My answer was: “If you wish to dress like me, it is your choice, but I do not need you to dress like me.” Once people understand who you are in relation to them, that you accept yourself as you are and them as they are, the relationship becomes really simple. For me, any other person is a possible self, nor more, no less.