The Ovahimba Years: Wiping the Tears
Excerpt of Wiping the Tears:
Wiping the Tears takes us to the heart of the Ovahimba community of Etanga, a small village in the north-west of Namibia. It immerses us in the passion between a woman, her husband and her friend, and the court case that ensues, the consequences of which are dramatic for them, their respective families as well as for the members of their community. Central to this question are the cattle, source of wealth in this cattle farming culture. Through their endearing and sometimes troubling testimonies, the three protagonists deliver with intense emotion their own version of the tragic events that have changed their lives. Then, during the successive customary law trial hearings, they reveal the passionate relationship lived as a threesome for several months. These hearings allow the elders attending the trial to recall the customs of marriage law, women’s rights and the sharing of cattle. And the other younger men openly mock the cuckolded husband, the friend who lost his entire herd for the love of a woman or the wife who will finally have risked losing both husband and friend. Through this story at once tragic, poignant and funny, some of the key notions of Ovahimba culture are revealed.
Rina speaks to us this week about her experience documenting and editing this film.
1) I’m sure by nature of society, there were many similar personal dramas to be found in the Ovuhimba Tribes. Do you remember any other particularly interesting stories?
Rina: Every day of the seven years in the field had its own story, dramatic or not. The difficulty when working with reality is never to forget that it involves the lives of people. From the very moment that one starts filming, photographing, recording or writing, one’s responsibility toward the people one films is fully engaged. The results of recorded reality, be it in moving image, still image, sound or text form, have consequences, and can have serious and even devastating consequences on people’s lives. Working with reality is hence a constant responsibility. I was adopted as a member of the family of the Headman and as such (and living with them) was privy to private and intimate information. The onus was and continues to be on me to decide what I can share or not.
Some of the stories will be published shortly in Tales from the Ongumbati, a collection of my early experiences in the field. Of which the story of the late Tjomi or Tjomihano, one my field assistants, a young Omuhimba man from the area of Etanga and related to the Headman’s wife’s family. As time went by, Tjomi started drinking and eventually it
was no longer possible to continue to work with him. After he left the project, he was at a loose end, with no cattle to farm with and no real reason to be in the vicinity. At one point, I had to return to Paris on a short trip. I had left on the Friday and on the Monday received a fax of a short news bulletin informing me of Tjomi’s death. He had been sitting in circle of people just outside the hut of the Headman. The weather was fine. Suddenly, he was struck by lighting and passed away instantly. Some of the other people in the circle were shocked but nobody else was hurt. Years later, one night I was attending a healing ceremony. Paulus, the healer from Angola looked at me and said, “I’m pleased you’re here, you’re going to help me. For where is Tjomihano?” He was implying that I had strengths implemented in the death of Tjomi. One of the members of the family simply said, “Rina is tired she will go to bed now.” It was a way of ensuring that I did not get involved in the workings of Paulus.
2) What drove you to choose this story to edit into a documentary over others? Will we be seeing more documentaries edited from your Ovahimba footage appear at a later date?
I had agreed to have a film ready as an avant première for the Retrospective that was held a the Quai Branly Museum in 2011, and was working through all the 400 hours of footage I brought back with me when I came upon this sequence of footage shot over a period of three days. Most of it was talking heads and I discovered that I had transcriptions of almost all of it. I started sub-titling the footage to understand what was going on and became completely fascinated by what turned out to be a customary court room drama. I knew the format would be foreign to the ethnographic film genre, but I also realized that a real life account of a customary court case did not exist on film and that it would make a fascinating challenge to make a film about it. The film may not be easy to watch due to its form, but it contains considerable educational information about the Ovahimba cultural heritage; in terms of customary law, but also about marriage and divorce laws and the culture in general.
I will continue to make films from the footage I have, and would like to return to continue to film, especially about some of the aspects of the culture that I did not fully cover. But more important yet, I would like to show the edited films and uncut footage to some of the people I filmed to have them do the interpretation of the images. That is my next step in the research process, to go through a complete process of feedback on the moving and still images.
3) Did you sympathize more with a particular party involved? How immersed were you within the issue or were you more of an outside observer. Were you ever asked for your opinion or advice about the matter?
One day, during the court procedures, the Headman’s wife, Omukurukaze, asked what I thought about the story between Vuaanderua and Kamboo. I said, “Love is such a rare thing in life, they should be left to live it.” Omukurukaze was shocked by my words, and said, “And what about the culture of the Ovahimba, what about the people that are married, how should they feel?” Years later, I realized how far off the mark my response was at the time. Marriage is an institution of reason, an intricate part of the economic organization of the society. A man can have as many wives as he can afford. The more he can afford, the more cattle posts he can “man,” with women and children to look after the livestock. Men inherit cattle from their mother’s eldest brother; the cattle are hence transmitted through the matriarchal family line. That is why cross cousin marriage is the preferred from of marriage; it keeps the cattle in the family. Whom one marries is hence a matter of inheritance, of cattle, especially so for the first marriage.
Even though Vuaanderua had become a close friend over time, and so did Kamboo, I listened to every one’s story but rarely commented on it. I know how fast winds can change, and opinions with it. One day, during the court hearings, Kandanda said, “In former times, when a man stole another man’s wife, he got
killed, now, with this new law, the man whose wife was stolen, is the one who gets killed three times over, first, when his wife is stolen by another man, then here in the court he has to hear it all over again, and then again, if the case gets taken to the police.” And elder leaning against a tree, cleared his throat and whispered to his friend, “Kandanda’s heart is still burning for that woman.” Kandanda was referring to the law and constitution of the newly independent Namibia. Prior to independence, people in these remote areas were mostly left to deal with internal matters by themselves. To a degree, it is still the case, except now, people can go on to the police and national courts if they are not satisfied with the outcome of the customary court cases. Kamboo had announced his intention to do just that if he did not get the cattle Kandanda confiscating from him returned to him.
The elder’s comment about Kandanda’s heart still burning for Vuaanderua was rather endearing, especially since these men rarely show their feelings. It also underlined Kandanda’s reactions; he was perhaps not only reacting in terms of pride and humiliation at having his wife stolen, but also because he really loved her. In fact right at the beginning of the film, during the preambles when the three protagonists each state their case, he says he paid her first husband to get her because he wanted her to be his wife.
Some time after the court case, Vuaanderua one day said to me that she was going back to Kandanda, that she would leave Kamboo, “Before, he helped me; he gave me a cow to milk to feed my children after Kandanda had drunk all our cattle, but now he has no more cattle, he is poor. It is like having another child in the home, I am feeding him.” And when I once suggested to Kakaendona that Kamboo should accompany us on a trip we were planning, she said he was poor now, he could not come with us.