It s All About the Cow

It’s  All  About  the  Cow By Catherine E. McKinley (/people/catherine-e-mckinley), Photography by Thabiso Sekgala (/people/thabiso-sekgala)  38-MIN...
Author: Carmel Patrick
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It’s  All  About  the  Cow By Catherine E. McKinley (/people/catherine-e-mckinley), Photography by Thabiso Sekgala (/people/thabiso-sekgala)


ISSUE: Summer 2013 (/issues/89/3/summer-2013)

Namibian  Women  and  the  Politics  of  Haute  Fashion

Herero and Himba women, cousins distanced by Namibia’s colonial legacy, display easy kinship on the streets of Opuwo. Photo by Catherine E. McKinley.

Windhoek,  Namibia “Okay  ladies,  let  me  see  you  walk  like  a  cow!”  Utji  Muinjangue  cried.

A  dumb  look  passed  between  artist  Simone  Leigh  and  me  as  we  stepped  onto  the runway  of  the  tiled  corridor  leading  from  the  back  of  the  house.  Long-­horned headpieces,  fashioned  from  teal  and  turquoise  animal  print,  and  a  sherbet  pink  and blue  mélange  of  chiffon,  that  matched  our  dresses,  balanced  on  the  front  lobe  of  our heads  so  that  the  rhinestone  brooches  at  their  center  blinked  like  a  third  eye.  I  felt mine  slip  under  my  soft  Afro.   “Don’t  worry!  It  will  never  fall!”  Mushe,  one  of  the  women  who  had  dressed  us, encouraged.  “Walk!”   I  made  cautious  steps,  maneuvering  three  layers  of  white  lace  petticoats  and  a  bright-­ colored  underskirt  beneath  the  wide  hem  of  a  dress  that  fell  at  the  toe  of borrowed  heels. “Like  a  cow  …”   “I  don’t  know,  I  just  feel  like  this  needs  a  little  more—it  needs  to  be  fuller.  And  sit  up  a bit  more  on  my  head,”  Simone  mused.  “I’m  not  feeling  it.” We  were  wearing  traditional  dresses  of  Herero  women,  an  ethnic  group  found  mainly in  Namibia  and  Angola.   Simone  had  gained  a  critical  following  in  the  US  during  a  high-­profile  residency  at  the Studio  Museum  in  Harlem  and  a  show  at  The  Kitchen  partly  for  her  series  of  women’s ceramic  heads,  the  earliest  ones  inspired  by  Herero  aesthetics.  Her  sculptures  were often  crowned  with  askew  headpieces,  reminiscent  of  Afro  puffs  or  coiled  dreadlocks, blooming  with  a  large  accretion  of  tiny  porcelain  roses.  The  faces  seemed  to  turn  or  lift subtly  in  a  way  that  revealed  searching,  with  an  air  of  what  almost  seemed a  disturbance.   I  laughed  at  Simone’s  jest,  knowing  I  inhabited  the  imagination  of  those  installation heads.  We  wore  pillbox-­like  hats  fashioned  from  a  few  yards  of  cloth  and  straight  pins, wound  over  rolls  of  newspaper  sculpted  into  neat,  narrow  horns.  About  the  Herero headgear  that  I  was  wearing,  I  felt  inspired  but,  like  Simone,  also  unsure. As  we  stepped  into  the  living  room,  the  small  crowd  there  clapped  approval. “A  cow,  Utji?”  I  asked.  

“It’s  all  about  the  cow!”  our  host  declared.  Circle  formation  in  the  air.   “Ahhhhhh,  you  look  like  Herero  women!  Beautiful!”  was  the  echo. They  admired  our  girth,  the  way  the  dress  closed  off  the  cleavage  but  set  off  the  bundle of  the  breasts,  substantiated  the  fullness  at  the  empire-­drawn  waist,  marked  by  the  line of  a  thin  cinch  belt  and  a  puffed-­up  shoulder  that  tapered  to  a  skintight  length  of sleeve.  The  borrowed  costume  jewelry  and  the  layers  of  a  wide  shawl  added  to our  largess. “You  move  like  this!”  Utji  instructed.  She  slowly  crossed  the  living  room,  feet  close together,  her  weight  shifting  heavily,  but  sensually,  from  one  rump  side  to  the  next,  her head  ever  so  slightly  moving  as  a  reverb.   Left,  right.  The  insouciance  and  bored  majesty  of  the  cow. We  were  instructed  to  sit  on  the  terrazzo  floor  as  Utji  arranged  the  layers  of  petticoat, the  wide,  heavy  circle  of  our  skirts.  We  wore  only  three  of  up  to  eight  layers  of petticoat.  While  Thabiso  Sekgala,  the  South  African  photographer  who  was  Simone’s collaborator,  maneuvered  his  Hasselblad,  we  sat  under  the  admiring  gaze  of  Utji  and her  friends,  including  Utji’s  children  and  some  from  the  neighborhood.  They  were  all dressed  in  the  latest  jeans  imports  and  modish  tracksuits,  sporting  ubiquitous  gold jewelry,  hair  weaves,  and  the  latest  braid  styles,  up-­to-­the-­minute  sneaker  styles,  cell phones  setting  off  alternately  with  kwaito  music  ringtones  and  electronic  cries  of  “Utji! Utji!  Utji!”  and  “Teleeeephoooone!  Teleeeephooooone!”

I  had  caught  up  with  Simone  in  the  capital  of  Windhoek  before  she  embarked  on research  for  new  sculptural  work.  Our  shared  interest  in  southern  African  social  history had  led  us  to  Utji’s  house,  where  a  mutual  friend,  a  returnee  after  three  decades  of  exile in  America,  promised  that  we  would  get  a  political  history  lesson  over  tea.  Talk  of dresses  turned  easily  to  apartheid  and  genocide;;  Simone  and  I  were  fascinated  by modern  Herero  styles,  which  articulate  much  about  the  nation’s  tragic  colonial  history.

Herero women of the Ovaherero Genocide Committee at a gathering in Windhoek, Namibia.

This  fascination  made  me  suddenly  conscious  of  us  as  twenty-­first-­century  “black-­ eyed  squints”—to  play  on  the  Ghanaian  writer  Ama  Ata  Aidoo’s  notion  from  her celebrated  1977  novel  Our  Sister  Killjoy—two  women  of  African  descent  (Jamaica– Chicago–Black  Boston),  moving  south  from  west,  looking  forward  and  backward through  the  lens  of  our  own  Africa.  

Utji  and  her  friends  had  slipped  easily  out  of  what  might  have  been  a  centuries-­old parody.  We  were  dressed  for  them:  Gone  Herero.  Except  we  looked  like  costume characters  on  an  antebellum-­to-­Afro-­futurist  fantasy  set.   After  our  walk  in  the  dresses,  Simone  and  I  tried  to  explain  to  them  how  foreign  it  was. Not  their  company.  Not  the  intimacy  we’d  quickly  found  sitting  for  hours  at  Utji’s  table talking,  the  intimacy  that  continued  into  her  bedroom  where  she  opened  her  wardrobe and  she  and  three  friends  pinned  and  tied  and  pulled  with  their  teeth  the  thread  and laces  of  the  dresses,  tightened  our  belts,  and  instructed  us  to  push  our  breasts  up  into the  bodice.   Not  Namibia.  It  was  not  foreign. Not  the  dress  itself—like  many  contemporary  African  dress  forms,  it  retained  the bones  of  Victorian  design,  introduced  by  German,  Finnish,  and  English  missionaries who  arrived  in  the  nineteenth  century.   It  was  simply  this  reverence  of  the  cow.   “In  the  US,  calling  a  black  woman  a  cow  is  a  deep  insult,”  we  feebly  explained.  “‘Whole heifer,’  it  is  one  of  the  worst  insults.”   They  looked  at  us  amused,  but  it  was  clear  they  were  not  really  taking  it  in.  Ours  is  a post-­Mammy,  post-­chattel  story  that  is  as  foreign  as  their  heifer  pride.   For  Herero  and  Himba  peoples,  the  cow  is  everything.  Much  more  than  we  then  knew.

Herero woman in up-to-the-minute fashion, Windhoek. Many younger women prefer the bling of imported Asian materials.


The older generation still prefers sheshwe elegance, Windhoek.

Over  local  beer  and  snacks,  we  had  talked  for  a  good  part  of  the  afternoon,  Simone  and I  mostly  listening  as  the  conversation  moved  in  and  out  of  English,  Herero,  and  Nama, against  the  backdrop  of  the  young  girls’  play  and  Olympic  sportscasts  from  the  living room.  An  intimacy  grew  from  the  symmetry  of  our  full  bodies,  middle-­aged  or  nearly so—the  kind  of  easy  sensuality  that  emerges  with  age  and  child-­rearing,  the  return  of several  of  us  to  school  to  ward  off  the  impoverishment  of  divorce  and  single motherhood.  Simone  and  I  reflected  on  the  struggles  of  keeping  families  afloat  as  we advanced  artist  careers  in  New  York  City,  as  our  new  friends’  talk  wandered  from  the

urban  universities  where  they  were  lecturers  and  graduate  students  to  the  rural farmland  where  they  kept  cattle  and  smaller  livestock,  inherited  at  birth,  exchanged  as bride  wealth,  or  purchased  with  professional  salaries.  They  regarded  this  capital,  this tradition-­keeping,  with  enormous  pride;;  but  a  visceral  sense  of  regret,  a  resignation,  a tinge  of  embarrassment  shadowed  their  words.  As  much  as  they  were  keepers  of tradition,  their  lives  had  become  caught  up  in  the  cosmopolitan  trappings  and  differing measures  of  the  world  of  urban  Windhoek  and  beyond. Theirs  were  different  from  our  own  considerable  fractures  and  preoccupations—as different  as  the  aesthetic  of  Afro-­puffs  versus  horns.  The  substance  of  what  could  not be  easily  spoken  of,  and  what  was  shared,  however,  was  there  in  the  material  and  the metaphor  of  the  dress.   Feeling  awkward  and  matronly,  I  had  asked  Mushe,  a  woman  in  her  late  twenties  who was  dressed  in  heels,  tight-­fitting  jeans,  and  a  silky  blouse,  how  she  felt  when  she  puts on  the  dress.   “Ooooooh,  I  feel  like  a  real  woman!”  she  said  passionately,  as  she  struggled  for  the right  words.   There  was  a  palpable  reverence  for  the  dresses  among  them,  not  unlike  American fetishizing  of  the  bridal  dress.  Then,  it  was  not  so  different  from  the  relationship  many urban  African  women  have  to  clothing.  Western  dress  is  beloved;;  it  is  the  trying  on  and wearing  of  a  certain  power,  a  certain  relationship  to  one’s  sexuality,  one’s  body,  that  is born  out  of  wearing  jeans,  T-­shirts,  Lycra  dresses,  up-­to-­the-­minute  ready-­made styles.  Yet  I  don’t  know  so  many  African  women  who  consider  themselves  truly dressed  until  they  wear  “traditional”  clothing,  however  innovative  or  hybrid  the  form. Western  dress  lacks  the  sculptural  aspects  created  with  every  pull  of  thread.  And  it often  lacks  sensuality,  when  the  body  is  so  out  front.  In  Herero  dress,  as  with  the Ghanaian  kaba  and  slit  and  other  contemporary  West  African  dress,  there  is  an emphasis  on  construction;;  the  sensuality  is  powerfully  present  below.  Simone  likened our  borrowed  dresses  to  a  Viktor  and  Rolf  design.  But  unlike  the  kaba  and  slit  and other  dress  rooted  in  the  Edwardian  and  Victorian  periods,  with  added  colonial missionary  discomforts,  the  body  was  muted  by  the  covering.  Even  at  their  most modest,  these  other  dresses  become  sensual,  form-­fitting.  Girth  matters.  Rump matters.  It  is  all  about  the  S-­curve.  Here,  the  curve  is  sublimated.  The  dress  seems oddly  disproportionate  to  the  body  inside.  And  so  I  was  that  much  more  surprised  by the  younger  women’s  embrace  of  it.  

I  asked  Utji  and  the  others  why  this  form  of  dress  has  had  such  a  powerful  appeal,  and for  so  many  generations.  Why  had  it  not  receded  in  fashion,  given  its  staidness  and association  with  colonialism  and  the  violence  of  Christian  missionaries?  I  knew  the answer  was  rooted  in  the  German  Herero  War  of  1904  and  the  legacy  of  genocide. These  horrendous  events  animated  Herero  dress  forms  in  a  way  that  few  non-­ Namibians—attracted  keenly  to  the  visceral  old  world,  costume-­y,  and  sometimes  even fantastical  elements—recognize.  If  our  friends  had  not  explained  in  detail  about  this history,  the  truth  would  have  been  lost  on  me,  or  I  might  have  understood  the admiration  for  these  dresses  as  a  blind  spot  of  consciousness,  or  as  proof  of  the  easily bandied  “internalized  self-­hatred”  of  the  former  colonial  subject.

Utji,  who  holds  a  Ph.D.  in  social  work  and  lectures  at  the  University  of  Namibia,  was the  chairperson  of  the  Ovaherero  Genocide  Committee  (OGC),  a  group  that  had emerged  out  of  the  antiapartheid  struggle  and  later  political  movements.  The  OGC played  a  vital  role  in  Namibia’s  political  determination,  with  the  country’s  first  free, democratic  parliamentary  elections  held  in  1989,  a  year  before  independence.  In 2004,  after  more  than  a  decade  of  efforts  by  OGC  and  other  groups,  Namibia  won acknowledgment  but  never  an  unequivocal  apology  from  the  German  government  on the  occasion  of  the  hundredth  anniversary  of  atrocities  committed  in  the  territory when  it  was  a  colonial  nation  known  as  German  South-­West  Africa.  Lasting  for  three years  (1904–1907),  the  war  was  one  of  the  earliest  genocides  of  the  twentieth  century and  resulted  in  the  loss  of  80  percent  of  Namibia’s  population,  from  80,000  to  15,000. With  2  million  citizens  in  an  area  nearly  three  and  a  half  times  the  size  of  the  UK, Namibia  is  still  one  of  the  most  sparsely  populated  nations  in  the  world. In  the  nineteenth  century,  the  Herero,  who  were  renowned  for  their  handling  and trade  of  cattle,  had  begun  to  develop  a  pastoralist  lifestyle,  slowly  migrating  south  from territories  in  and  closest  to  what  is  now  Angola,  where  they  settled  and  prospered  as ranchers.  Colonial  documents  detail  a  history  of  exchange  over  centuries  between Herero  peoples  and  foreign  settlers,  but  as  Germany,  in  many  ways  a  pawn  of  England in  the  scramble  for  southern  Africa’s  significant  riches,  formalized  their  military presence  there  in  1884,  Herero  resistance  grew.  The  German  military  revealed intentions  to  wipe  Herero  peoples  from  the  land  and  profiteer  from  their  forced  labor. Coinciding  with  the  rise  of  German  nationalist,  racist,  and  social  Darwinist  politicians and  parties  that  later  would  become  emblemized  in  the  Nazi  movement,  the oppression  and  atrocities  in  Namibia  were  also  supported  by  the  increasingly commercialized  European  pseudoscience  of  race.  

Utji  had  spent  years  conducting  research  in  the  National  Archives  in  Windhoek  and shared  photographs  and  documents  chronicling  the  mass  removal  of  children,  sent  by rail  and  boat  to  work  camps  in  Togo  and  Cameroon  in  West  and  Central  Africa;; concentration  and  work  camps  in  Namibia  where  children  and  women  labored  with severely  emaciated  bodies;;  mass  lynchings  where  children  were  lined  up  to  witness events  that  echoed  images  of  the  American  South;;  chained  men  and  women  burying relatives;;  the  poisoning  of  wells  and  driving  of  Herero  peoples  deep  into  the  Kalahari Desert  to  face  starvation  and  death.   This  history  is  also  kept  alive  by  oral  tradition  and  family  recollections.  Many  in  the community  had  grown  up  with  relatives  who  had  survived  the  camps  and  killings;; some  were  returnees  from  work  camps  in  other  colonial  territories.  The  history  was  so prescient,  so  recent,  that  there  could  be  no  claim  of  amnesia.  Utji’s  friends  who  spent the  afternoon  with  us  were  all  active  members  of  the  OGC,  Himba  and  Herero  women who  had  started  lives  in  Windhoek  as  students  and  professionals,  supporting  parents and  extended  families  in  the  farm-­  and  hinterlands  who  lived  with  the  tangible  legacy of  the  genocide  and  the  ensuing  eras  of  apartheid  (as  a  South  African  protectorate)  and revolution  that  defined  the  long  struggle  for  democratic  statehood. Along  with  the  German  government’s  recognition  of  the  genocide,  Namibians  had secured  UNESCO’s  protection  of  the  land  that  had  served  as  battlefields,  as  well  as  the sites  of  five  concentration  camps,  some  of  whose  ruins  will  eventually  be  partially restored,  the  present  markers  replaced  with  official  monuments.   The  history  of  the  genocide  is  little  known,  and  its  foundational  relationship  to  Nazism is  often  dismissed,  but  its  documentation  lives  in  a  1918  tome  called  The  Blue  Book—a name  shared  by  other  official  publications  of  the  British  Government—a  post-­facto study  using  survivor  interviews  and  captured  German  documents  detailing  events and  killings. Most  poignantly,  the  history  lives  in  Herero  women’s  dress. Utji  played  for  us  television  footage  of  a  2011  visit  to  Germany  by  OGC  members  to claim  the  skulls  of  Herero  men  and  women  that  had  been  exported  by  colonialists  as “scientific”  research  material.  During  the  genocide,  skull-­collecting  had  literally become  a  business.  Herero  women  were  forced  to  witness  the  death  of  family  and community  members  and  then  clean  their  skulls.  The  women  were  recorded  ululating as  they  tended  to  the  bodies—part  of  traditions  of  protest  and  mourning  and

communication  to  the  Herero  resistance.  Twisted  into  a  false  narrative  about  their savagery,  this  was  mistaken  for  dancing.  The  skulls  themselves  remained  housed  for  a century  in  German  universities,  research  labs,  and  museums.  Eugen  Fischer,  the infamous  professor  of  medicine  who  devised  a  program  of  eugenics  and  became  an important  agent  of  Hitler,  had  kept  a  large  collection  of  them.  So  widespread  was  the collecting  of  Herero  heads  that  by  the  time  the  repatriation  was  ordered  by  the  German government,  many  skulls  were  kept  in  ordinary  residences.  German  citizens  called  to have  the  skulls  picked  up—not,  I  fear,  as  an  act  of  relinquishing  the  past  or  facing  of one’s  colonial  legacy,  not  as  a  display  of  sympathy  or  solidarity,  but  from  a  sense  that they  didn’t  want  to  be  out  of  step  with  the  times,  caught  with  symbols  that echoed  Nazism.   We  silently  watched  video  footage  of  OGC  members  walking  on  German  streets  in dresses  representing  the  colors  of  the  three  major  Herero  clans.  With  them  walked Herero  men,  some  dressed  in  Western  clothing  draped  with  animal  skins,  others  in German  military  uniforms  adopted  as  symbols  of  their  ancestors’  resistance,  badges  of courage.  Many  of  the  uniforms,  especially  helmets  and  accessories  and  regalia,  are literal  relics,  family  inheritance.  It  had  become  customary  for  Herero  men  to  wear  the clothing  of  their  war  conquests  as  a  symbol  of  triumph,  and  as  a  means  to  inhabit  the power  of  a  terrible  foe.   The  OGC  members  sang  and  ululated  and  cried  as  they  walked  to  the  site  where  the skulls  were  displayed  in  anticipation  of  their  arrival  in  Germany.  The  symmetries between  the  old  dress  and  older  European  architecture—the  cold,  sterile  cement  and the  empty  streets  recalled  some  of  Namibia’s  own  palette  and  the  barrenness  and  neo-­ colonial  scrubbedness  of  its  cities  and  towns  and  surrounding  lands;;  the  contrast  of the  brilliant-­colored  dresses  of  the  OGC  women  and  their  passionate  ceremony  was visceral  and  haunting. “They  are  so  wise,”  Utji  said  quietly,  “they  made  sure  to  plan  this  on  the  Monday  of  a holiday  weekend  so  that  the  public  would  not  witness  us  when  we  made  our  motion  for an  apology  and  war  reparations,  and  so  there  would  be  little  press.”   But  in  the  tiny  international  airport  in  Windhoek,  surrounded  by  those  beautiful, mournful  hills,  the  return  of  the  OGC  with  the  skulls  packed  into  the  plane’s  cargo  hold was  greeted  by  thousands  of  Herero  women,  wearing  what  now  looked  to  me  like  the metaphorical  skull-­washer’s  uniform.

It  is  difficult  to  reconcile  the  vying  narratives  of  the  dress: Haute  Fashion. The  Seduction  of  the  Cow. Garment  of  Defiance,  Strength,  and  Survival.   Skull-­Washer’s  Apron. Missionary  Imposition. The  high,  closed  neck  that  persists  in  Herero  dress  design  is  the  antithesis  of  Himba and  Herero  and  other  Namibian  women’s  historical  bare-­breastedness,  still  de  rigueur among  Himba  today.  (Thimba  women  from  the  north—the  three  groups  are  close relatives—have  largely  adopted  classic  brassieres,  worn  like  halter  tops).  Religious conversion  was  slow  to  take  hold  in  Namibia,  a  land  where  there  has  historically  been  a remarkable  slowness  in  change  and  a  social  conservatism  different  from  even Namibia’s  near  neighbors  who  share  ethnic  and  environmental  and  social  similarities that  might  explain  such  recidivism.  A  few  prominent  Herero  families  seem  to  have  at first  adopted  the  missionary  dress  and  slowly  others  followed.  Cloth  dressing  itself  was adopted  quite  unevenly;;  the  cow  a  powerful  force  against  colonialism. Through  the  nineteenth  century,  most  Herero  were  bare-­breasted  and  wore  front  and back  leather  aprons  made  from  sheep,  goat,  or  other  wild  skins,  much  like  their present-­day  Himba  relatives  in  the  north.  They  were  celebrated  for  their  ostrich-­shell-­ embellished  overskirts  and  metal  beadwork,  the  brass  and  copper  and  carved-­horn cuffs  worn  at  their  wrists  and  ankles.  The  use  of  animal  skins  as  the  basis  for  Herero women’s  clothing  was  not  abandoned  until  the  early  twentieth  century. Again,  I  asked  Utji  and  the  others  why  this  dress  form  survived  rather  than  an  embrace of  pre-­colonial  styles. “There  would  be  no  dress!  Before  the  colonial  era,  we  were  naked,”  they replied  plainly. There  was  no  shame  implied,  if  anyone  was  expecting  it.  

We  sat  quietly  thinking  about  what  had  been  said. “Okay,  not  naked,  but  we  would  look  like  our  Himba  cousins,”  Utji  conceded.  “Bare-­ breasted.  Wearing  skins.”   “But  what  about  the  original  aesthetic,”  which  everyone  acknowledged  is  quite fantastically  haute,  “but  covering  the  breasts?”  I  asked.   Thimba  and  Himba  styles  from  the  hinterlands,  not  to  mention  Herero  dress  itself, could  make  fashion  even  by  designers  like  Alexander  McQueen’s  dresses look  mundane. There  is  quite  a  lot  of  debate  about  it  actually,  Utji  acknowledged.  Younger  generations were  split.  Many  felt  the  dress  styles  were  passé,  that  it  held  onto  a  past  that  people were  too  reluctant  to  move  on  from.  Her  own  son,  deeply  intelligent  and  seeming  to  be nursing  a  twenty-­first-­century  rage,  wanted  nothing  to  do  with  his  mother’s  activism, the  dress,  or  Herero  politics.  As  South  Africa’s  neighbors,  Namibians  were  able  to witness  a  very  different  relationship  to  fashion  and  to  politics  and  the  past  with  its  fast-­ paced  fashion  industry  competing  on  the  world  stage,  constant  style  innovations,  a booming  luxury  market  nodding  to  traditional  designs,  and  easy  hybridization  of various  African,  Asian,  Islamic,  and  Western  forms.  At  the  same  time,  more  and  more young  women  seemed  to  be  embracing  Herero  sartorial  tradition,  and  there  was  a return  of  much  of  the  early  tailoring.  The  horn-­shaped  headgear,  perhaps  an innovation  of  the  1970s,  though  no  one  was  exactly  confident  about  how  it  had  evolved or  could  name  the  precise  era,  was  returning  to  its  roots,  to  a  soft,  not  overly embellished,  vertical  fashioning,  more  like  styles  associated  with  West  Africa,  pulled up  high  on  the  forehead.   The  younger  generations  were  blinging  it  up,  too.  The  volume  of  the  dress  had  grown— not  the  layering  of  petticoats,  but  the  choice  of  wider  dresses,  shinier,  more  luxe  and voluminous  materials,  imports  from  India  and  China  and  Dubai  more  than  the traditional  use  of  European  materials,  South  African  Dutch-­originated  cottons,  and quilt-­like  peicings.  There  was  more  embroidery  work,  appliqué,  and  lace  or  lurex shawls.  The  jewelry  was  flashier.   No  better  place  to  see  it,  Utji  told  us,  than  at  the  fair.

Utji  lived  in  Katutura,  an  area  once  designated  for  coloureds  (people  of  mixed  African and  European  ancestry  as  well  as  other  non-­whites),  that  had  slowly  integrated Herero,  and  then  Nama  and  other  peoples,  to  become  a  middle-­  and  working-­class residential  area  bordered  by  townships.  She  lived  in  a  lovely  house  on  a  main  road, with  a  heavy,  ornate  ironwork  gate  and  a  front  yard  appointed  with  old  palms.  The capital  and  largest  metropolis  in  the  Republic  of  Namibia,  Windhoek  is  a  city  of  nearly pristine  beauty,  with  blanched,  rocky  hills  that  seem  to  be  encircling  you  from  at  any point  at  the  horizon.  The  light  playing  on  their  pale  hues  makes  you  aware  of  how easily  the  natural  and  urban  worlds  coexist  there.  It  is  a  landscape  so  stark  and  so beautiful  that  it  pulls  from  you,  whether  or  not  you  think  you  have  a  reason  to  feel  it,  an incredible  sense  of  awe  and  mournfulness.

A cell phone is an essential fashion item on Opuwo streets.

There  are  few  signs  of  poverty  in  the  midst  of  the  city,  so  as  we  rode  to  the  fairgrounds in  the  neighboring  township,  Soweto,  I  was  expecting  the  cover  to  come  off  of Windhoek’s  constructed  idyll.  Windhoek  resembles  a  hybrid  of  a  small  German  city and  a  somewhat  Africanized  Dayton,  Ohio;;  squeaky  clean,  efficient,  well-­oiled,  with proper  malls,  chain  restaurants,  a  proud  university,  outdoor  cafés,  pristine  public bathrooms,  good  roads—upper-­  and  middle-­class  black  people  and  coloureds  mingled freely  with  many,  many  white  people.  

Soweto  resembled  Los  Angeles’s  neighborhood  of  Watts  in  the  1970s.  There  was  a  kind of  sanitized  poverty.  The  worst  of  it  looked  from  the  surface  like  manageable  living— not  at  all  like  the  outward  abjection  seen  in  other  cities—but  like  a  tight  shiny  scab  that might  be  a  sign  of  healing,  but  more  likely  a  cover  with  much  festering  below.   The  fairgrounds  were  used  mostly  for  trade  and  agricultural  exhibitions,  but  on  this weekend  it  was  more  of  a  Herero  county  fair.  The  headlights  of  the  pickup  we  rode  in revealed  people  of  all  ages  flocking  there,  dressed  mostly  in  the  latest  ready-­to-­wear styles,  bundled  in  sweaters  and  jackets  to  stave  off  the  chilly  winter  air. Inside  the  gates  stood  rows  of  tents,  with  meat  cooking  on  fires  and  smoke  pouring  out into  the  cold  breeze.  The  outlines  of  Herero  women—their  dresses  and  wide  horns— sitting  on  folding  chairs  as  if  at  church  or  club  meetings,  were  illuminated  by  the flames.  Bread  warmed  beside  the  grills.  Beer  bottles  clinked,  rolling  on  the  ground.   Each  tent  felt  like  a  private  club.  I  looked  in  each  one  voyeuristically,  feeling  the  magic of  the  costume,  the  gathering  of  something  inarticulably  enchanting.  And  then  I  could feel  the  slow,  deliberate,  powerful  movement  of  women  crossing  near  to  us,  and  I understood  at  once  the  fierce,  elemental,  sensuality  of  the  cow.  The  women  seemed almost  like  ships.  In  the  sea  of  darkness  and  smoke  you  took  note  of  their  crossing. You  moved  out  of  their  way.   There  were  rows,  too,  of  exhibition  tents,  filled  with  the  usual  agricultural  displays  one finds  at  expos.  In  others,  there  were  tailors’  booths,  featuring  ready-­made  Herero dresses  and  tiny  replica  Herero  dolls.  On  display  were  many  repeating  dress  materials, opulent  and  shiny,  or  in  a  more  traditional  woven  striped  material  in  black  and shocking  shades  of  pink  and  violet.  Groups  of  men  and  women  gathered  at  each  booth. The  shiny  dresses  created  an  intense  show  of  material  and  somehow  gimmicky embellishment  that  resembled  the  most  garish  extreme  of  a  place  like  Lagos  at  the height  of  its  oil  wealth.   In  the  last  booth,  a  camera  was  flashing,  and  a  small  group  had  formed  around  a woman  posing  against  a  picaresque  desert  background.  As  I  drew  closer,  I  saw  her, dressed  in  rhinestone-­studded  jeans,  her  curly  hairweave  standing  like  a  lion’s  mane around  her  face.  Behind  her  was  a  tiny  grass  structure  with  an  animal  skin  at  the  door, and  before  her  was  a  San  man,  with  sharply  filed  incisors,  characteristic  light  yellow-­ brown  skin,  the  figure  of  the  primordial,  standing  not  much  more  than  four-­and-­a-­ half-­feet  tall,  wiry  bodied,  wearing  just  a  skin-­colored  cloth  at  the  loins,  posed  with  his

hand-­fashioned  bow  and  arrow.  The  San  are  an  ancient  people,  early  hunters  and gatherers,  rarely  seen  in  the  city,  choosing  to  stay  in  their  ancestral  lands  deep  in  the Kalahari.  I  was  snapping  a  picture  with  incredulity  over  the  timeworn  “native”  scene written  as  Herero  keepsake,  when  someone  barked  at  me  that  no  pictures  were allowed  unless  taken  by  or  paid  for  with  the  cameraman,  set  up  beside  them  with  a laptop  and  printer  hooked  up  to  a  generator. I  was  not  sure  how  the  scene  read  to  those  around  us,  or  what  sense  was  made  of  what seemed  a  terrible  re-­inscription  of  endless  colonial  iconographies  reproduced  in  cartes des  visites  and  postcards  and  advertisements. “I’m  not  sure  it’s  any  different  than  the  guys  on  42nd  Street  taking  pictures  against those  backdrops  that  say  ‘Shoot  the  Homie,’”  Simone  said  with  the  nonchalance  of someone  oversaturated  by  a  culture  of  exploitative  images.   Soon  the  kwaito  music  in  the  background  was  bumped  up,  and  everyone  was  moving toward  the  stage,  dancing.   I  lingered,  hoping  to  capture  at  least  a  bit  of  the  smoky  atmosphere,  the  women’s powerful  silhouettes,  on  my  iPhone.  I  realized  there  was  something  slightly  militaristic about  the  women’s  headgear,  their  horns.  The  mood  of  the  tents,  the  campground,  had revealed  it. I  searched  for  the  others  in  the  hazy  crowd,  but  their  jeans  and  tracksuits  blended  with the  rest.  Then  I  made  out  Thabiso’s  camera  flash,  and  Simone’s  confident,  fluid  stride in  the  field  of  cows. I  felt  suddenly  anxious  to  leave  the  city  and  journey  to  the  Herero  stronghold  of the  countryside.

The  Land  of  the  Himba Opuwo  marks  a  true  frontier.  It  is  a  small  city,  near  the  Angolan  border,  a  six-­hour drive  north  from  Windhoek  on  flat,  well-­maintained  roads.  It  is  the  first  place  I’ve traveled  in  Africa  where  six  hours  is  six  hours  and  not  twelve  or  fifteen  or  twenty-­four. There  is  little  traffic.  You  can  ride  great  distances  seeing  only  an  occasional  passing truck  or  car.  It  could  be  rural  Nevada,  except  warthogs  and  baboons  punctuate  each

half-­mile.  An  occasional  springbok  or  hyena  and  all  manner  of  large  and  small  deer-­ like  animals  appear  along  the  road.  They  are  your  only  hazard,  and  they  are  your  thrill. On  the  other  side  of  well-­kept  wire  fences  that  come  within  a  hundred  feet  of  the  road, you  get  a  front-­row  seat  for  viewing  giraffes  and  elephants  and  whatever  else  of  the  Big Five  or  smaller  thousands  amble  near. Namibia  is  a  naturalist’s  dream.   And  once  you  pull  into  Opuwo,  you  have  arrived  in  Namibia’s  own  metaphor:  a forgotten,  nearly  untenable,  wasteland.

Our host’s homestead in a Himba settlement a few miles from Opuwo.

I  was  traveling  with  Simone  and  Thabiso.  We  were  each  interested  in  Opuwo,  where  we were  told  Herero  and  Himba  lives  intersected  dramatically  without  the  dominant backdrop  of  expats  and  tourists  and  white  Namibians. Mushe  had  given  us  the  phone  number  of  her  sister  Kurumbu,  who  worked  in  an  office on  the  dusty  main  road  next  to  the  city’s  one  large,  modern  beauty  salon.  She  was  a graduate  student  of  advanced  statistics,  with  a  gentleness  and  intelligence  and  prideful knowledge  of  everything  that  we  asked  her  to  interpret.   We  arrived  in  the  night  and  met  her  on  the  main  road,  and  she  led  us  to  a  guesthouse. Early  the  next  morning  she  guided  us  several  miles  outside  of  town  to  an  area  of permanent  Himba  settlement:  sparse  clusters  of  round  clay  houses  as  large  as  a  freight elevator.  A  squint-­eye  would  mistake  them  for  small  storehouses,  surprisingly connected  to  single  power  lines  where  cell  phones  charged.  There  was  little  traffic  on the  road,  an  occassional  passing  pickup  truck  loaded  with  Himba  and  Thimba

travelers.  Other-­wise,  there  were  just  endless  flat  stretches  of  breathtaking  white-­ blanched  countryside,  little  evidence  of  water,  and  hills  rolling  out  in  the  distance. Near  each  cluster  of  homes  were  enormous  kraals—stick  enclosures  absent  of  the cattle  they  were  built  for—hoary,  dramatic  architecture  that  you  could  imagine  was  an inspiration  to  postmodernist  art.   We  arrived  as  a  conspicuous  group—Kurumbu  in  her  jeans,  her  relaxed  hair  cut  into  a short  modern  style  and  covered  with  a  camouflage-­printed  scarf;;  our  driver,  Cedric,  a Nama  college  student  with  the  look  of  a  Miami  beach  bum  and  facial  piercings  that would  fit  in  at  any  NYC  hipster  lounge  but  were  in  fact  traditional  Nama  body  arts;;  a dreadlocked  Jamaican-­American  Simone  in  vintage  shades  and  a  green  lace  dress;;  a blond-­tipped  Afroed  black-­Jewish-­Choctaw-­American  in  a  Ghana  wax-­print  “skort” dress;;  and  a  black  South  African  in  style-­clashing  Johannesburg-­mod  shorts  and  a  T-­ shirt,  an  artillery  of  cameras  in  hand.  We  elicited  some  laughs  as  we  greeted  several women  sitting  with  small  children  under  a  canopy  built  from  tree  trunks  and  covered with  branches  with  dried  leaves,  sitting  around  a  dampened  cooking  fire.   Beyond  them  was  a  kraal,  flanked  by  a  fancy  tombstone  enclosed  in  expensive  metal fencing.  It  was  the  grave  of  the  patriarch,  and  its  quotidian  familiarity  surprised  me.  It could  be  a  grave  most  anywhere  in  the  West—but  for  the  metal  posts  on  each  side,  with the  six  weathered  skulls  of  cows  stacked  one  on  top  of  the  other  in  towers,  and  several dozen  more  placed  in  the  same  manner  in  the  forks  of  nearby  tree  branches.  The curved  horns  intertwined,  and  a  moss-­like  plant  covered  them,  knitting  together  the skulls  to  the  tree  branches  so  that  they  appeared  like  ancient  totems.

Himba  women  are  legendary:  bare,  taut-­breasted  beauties  with  soft,  rounded  faces, covered  with  luminous,  exotic  red  ochre  that  is  rubbed  into  everything  from  head  to  toe and  binds  their  long,  dread-­like  locks.  Himba  women,  in  spite  of  how  remote  their lives,  are  a  prevailing  muse  on  African  tourist  art  continent-­wide.  Now  we  were  sitting among  them,  and  it  was  hard  not  to  feel  voyeuristic,  implicated  in  some  way  in  that economy.  They  were  not  just  the  most  beautiful,  self-­possessed  women  I’ve  ever  seen, the  power  of  their  beauty  seemed  interplanetary.  It  was  a  place  of  aural  riot,  of  sand and  unusual  light  and  gentle  waves  of  sound.  The  most  stunningly  colored  birds  I  had ever  seen  flit  everywhere.  Green  was  green,  blue  was  blue,  the  red  of  the  ochre  was  red, but  it  was  as  if  I  was  seeing  the  colors  for  the  first  time.

That  is  how  it  is  to  be  among  them.  And  then  someone  moves  or  brushes  against  you or  a  baby  comes  closer,  and  the  touch  and  smell  of  the  clay  and  cow  fat,  the  whisper and  crackling  of  soft-­skin  clothing,  force  you  to  reconcile  the  fact  that  this  world  is  so material,  they  are  so  much  of  that  very  earth,  the  fat  and  the  skin  of  the  cow  that  lives off  of  it,  that  you,  in  fact,  are  the  untethered,  temporal,  floating  one. Himba  women  traditionally  possessed  only  what  was  taken  from  the  cow  and  other animals  and  the  earth  and  waters  around  them.  Ochre  representing  blood.  Cow  fat. Ekori,  the  headdresses  cut  from  dried  animal  skins.  Aproning  made  of  antelope,  goat, and  wild-­animal  skins.  Cow-­horn  belts  and  bracelets,  carved  with  patterning  informed by  the  natural  world.   The  hair  of  one’s  mother  or  grandmother  is  used  with  plant  fibers  to  lengthen  a  Himba girl’s  hair,  securing  one’s  bond  with  maternal  ancestors,  rubbed  with  ash  and  shaped into  tresses,  then  covered  with  ochre  and  cow  fat.  The  ochre  is  taken  from  ancestral lands  far  in  the  interior,  obtained  over  months  of  mining.  It  is  applied  each  day  and cherished  for  the  aesthetic,  but  also  for  its  protective  elements—from  sun,  insects, heat,  and  the  desert  cold  at  night.   I  closed  my  nose  to  the  rancid  smell  of  the  combining  of  fat  with  mixtures  of  pulp  and wood,  sometimes  burnt,  animal  and  vegetal  fats,  berries  and  seeds  to  scent  and augment.  Their  smells,  like  the  adornments  themselves,  are  meant  to  balance  and affect  spiritual  and  physical  health,  to  proclaim  clan  identities,  to  signal  as  you  pass through  life  stages.   Kurumbu  explained  later  that  during  some  marriages,  a  web  of  fat  from  around  the intestines  of  a  cow  offered  as  part  of  the  bride  wealth,  would  be  worn  over  the  head  like a  veil.  It  was  considered  protective  and  a  high  status  to  be  afforded  the  intestines.  So what  was  to  be  disliked  about  the  smell  of  it?  she  asked,  laughing.   Utji’s  words  echoed  with  a  finger  snap  in  circle  formation.  It’s  all  about  the  cow. But  there  are  reminders,  too,  of  a  world  beyond  and  Himba’s  engagement  with  it.  The jewelry  that  every  married  woman  wears  is  made  from  conch  shells,  obtained  from  the great  distance  of  the  sea,  once  as  valuable  as  a  goat.  Ostrich  egg  and  iron  beads  from the  south  and  the  Kalahari.  Metal  buttons,  rifle  cartridges,  safety  pins,  factory-­made clips  and  chains  and  rings,  fashioned  as  jewelry,  are  also  only  reminders  of  the  colonial trade  and  of  a  society  touched  gravely  by  militarism.

That  morning,  we  stayed  at  the  compound,  watching  the  women  grind  ochre  between stone,  prepare  and  mix  fat  and  herbs  with  it,  as  we  fingered  the  objects  touched  by  the clay,  played  with  the  children,  each  lost  in  our  own.  We  were  taken  into  a  chamber  by  a young  woman,  a  new  mother,  who  was  nearly  six  feet  tall,  lanky,  and  as  elegant  as  a body  can  be.  She  rubbed  her  whole  body  with  it,  patiently  allowing  us  to  develop  our own  narratives  from  her  fiction  of  adorning  while  our  cameras  flashed,  Thabiso  filmed, and  Simone  and  I  wrote  in  notebooks.   As  with  Utji  and  the  others,  the  intimacy  between  us  was  true,  and  our  discomforts,  our awareness  of  ourselves,  the  dynamics  we  assumed  as  Western  seekers  was  easily slipped.  We  could  have  been  Joburg  cousins;;  there  were  rarely  any  Black  travelers  in Opuwo  who  were  not  kin  to  someone.  And  we  knew  the  customs—to  return  their hospitality  with  bags  of  rice,  sugar,  other  staples  from  town  and  not  just  a  careless  gift of  money.   They  playfully  joked  that  Simone  walked  more  like  “a  kind  of  goat”  than  a  cow, admired  her  tactileness  with  the  clay,  and  in  each  of  our  photos  of  each  other,  we appear  as  specimens  of  a  kind,  hands  held  over  the  women’s  mouths,  shyly  giggling;; children  staring  intently  inches  from  our  faces  as  if  at  a  moving  picture.  

The  Opuwo  center  brags  a  modern  grocery,  one  good  restaurant,  a  few  banks, hardware  and  dry-­goods  stores,  and  some  small  industry.  More  than  anything  it  felt like  a  bulking  station,  resembling  many  towns  in  Africa  that  had  grown  up  along  war frontiers.  For  the  first  time,  we  encountered  waste  in  the  streets,  especially  the ubiquitous  scourge  of  plastic  bags.  But  like  Windhoek’s  Soweto,  Opuwo’s  poverty  had electrical  breakers.  And  water  and  electricity  ran  in  every  home;;  even  in  the  one-­room mud  houses  miles  beyond  town  you  could  charge  your  cell  phone. The  parking  lot  that  the  bank  and  restaurant  and  grocery  shared  was  filled  by  waves with  tour  buses  and  SUVs  transporting  white  European  tourists,  stocking  up  before heading  on  off-­road  adventures  or  back  down  to  the  game  parks  or  the  infamous  dunes and  ocean  at  Swakopmund  and  Walvis  Bay.  You  could  pick  out  the  usual  suspects  in the  crowd—the  hustlers  and  mercenary  types,  the  sex  tourists,  young  Himba  and Thimba  girls  and  even  a  few  children  being  paraded  for  them  by  family  patriarchs,  the German  exiles,  the  retiring  Afrikaner  presence,  middle-­class  Herero  landowners,  and coloured  middlemen.  Himba  women  and  men  entered  the  grocery  store  and  were

gawked  at  by  visitors,  amazed  by  the  contrast  of  shopping  carts  and  bare-­breasted nonchalance.  The  store  staff  followed  them  with  contempt  and  frisked  and  checked their  bags  as  they  exited.  

A Himba woman wears ekori, a married woman’s headpiece fashioned from cowhide, but the puffed ends of her Remy hair extensions are from China and a plastic cowrie shell dangles like a third eye.

Our host at the settlement plays with subjectivity for “Black-eyed squint” diaspora artists.

Namibia  was  short  on  black  foreign  travelers.  South  Africa,  even  Botswana  and Zambia,  were  the  more  traveled  locales.  But  we  claimed  our  space  on  the  main  road, watching  and  interacting.   On  the  road  there  was  the  coffin-­maker’s  shop,  behind  a  low  wall  of  corrugated  tin emblazoned  with  the  hand-­painted  figure  of  a  coffin  bearing  a  cross.  Behind  it,  a  small, one-­room  barbershop,  made  from  fresh  concrete,  featured  bright  imported  curtains hung  in  the  door.  A  large  bar  room  nearby.  A  row  of  shuttered,  never  occupied,

expensive  new  stores.  And  the  secondhand  clothing  seller,  ubiquitous  in  every  African town.  Piles  of  clothing  spread  out  on  the  ground  and  hung  from  the  eaves  of  a tarpaulin-­covered  shed.  Across  the  street  was  the  office  where  Kurumbu  worked  and the  hair  salon  where  the  deaf  proprietress  would  later  sit  with  me  with  newspaper  and small  sticks,  sheshwe  cloth,  a  small  costume-­jeweled  brooch,  and  a  box  of  pins  before her,  fashioning  headgear.  Dressmaking  seemed  to  be  the  work  of  male  tailors,  and  the head  was  left  to  women.  On  the  roadside,  under  a  cluster  of  trees,  Himba  women  sold cosmetic  herbs  and  ochre,  ground  and  in  lumps,  the  shells  and  materials,  including metal  scraps,  for  making  jewelry.   Thabiso  had  set  up  his  Hasselblad  near  to  the  coffin  maker,  and  fashioned  an ambulant  studio.  For  hours  he  shot  whoever  passed  and  agreed  to  be  photographed, sometimes  demanding  a  few  rand.  As  we  worked  and  watched  each  other  and  the  road, we  were  all  silently  questioning  what  we  were  doing,  the  legacy  of  travelers  in  Africa, photography’s  fictions  and  its  violence,  and  where  we  enter,  as  part  of  a  new generation  of  black  artists  engaged  with  Africa,  coming  from  our  own  particular corners  of  the  world,  trying  to  establish  some  symmetry,  or  a  harmony,  even  just between  the  three  of  us.  

In  Windhoek,  Herero  women’s  dress  was  mostly  reserved  for  special  outings.  It  still stood  out  in  relief—like  something  of  a  spectacle—on  the  street  in  the  commercial center  of  the  city.  In  Opuwo,  you  rarely  saw  women  in  jeans  or  other  Western  wear, and  those  women  were  mostly  coloureds,  store  clerks,  or  part  of  a  tiny  cadre  of professionals  such  as  Kurumbu.  Instead,  the  streets  were  filled  with  more  staid  cousins of  the  women  at  the  Soweto  fairgrounds,  sewn  from  bright  solid  or  simple  floral cottons,  plaids,  and  sheshwe,  the  “African”  patterned  southern  African  cloths  that  the Dutch  introduced  first  in  indigos.  It  was  quotidian  wear;;  none  of  it  really  fancy  or  even well  maintained.  But  it  was  grand  at  the  same  time. Herero  women  walked  in  small  groups,  carrying  bright  umbrellas  and  large  knockoff designer  handbags,  wigs  or  relaxed  tresses  under  headgear  pulled  down  on  the forehead  so  that  the  horns  almost  appeared  to  point  toward  the  ground.  Their  necks were  tied  with  scout-­like  neckerchiefs,  adding  that  subtle  militaristic  air.  There  was  a gentleness  in  their  movement,  their  exchanges,  but  you  were  never  unaware  of  their presence  and  the  rhythm  in  that  walk.

Himba  women  will  always  be  Himba  women.  Even  for  a  journey  to  modern Windhoek,  they  carry  themselves  wherever  they  go.  What  you  begin  to  notice  in  the town  girls  is  only  the  most  inevitable,  the  more  orthodox  of  alterations:  Synthetic  hair from  China  is  added  to  the  extensions  traditionally  made  from  ancestor’s  locks, creating  thick  dramatic  puffs  at  the  end  of  each  coil.  The  unifying  of  their  beauty,  the idea  of  the  whole—Himba  peoples,  Herero  peoples—makes  sense  within  the  context  of tradition,  but  also  in  the  way  it  was  necessary,  in  the  face  of  genocide,  to  unite individual,  family,  tribe.   It  was  then  that  I  truly  understood  that  the  Herero  and  Himba  are  the  same  peoples. As  much  as  Himba  largely  maintain  a  nomadic  life,  and  the  Herero  split  from  them and  became  pastoralists  and  early  Christians,  as  much  as  the  twentieth-­century  Herero women  had  largely  adopted  missionary  dress  and  abandoned  the  use  of  skins,  family ties  between  them  were  still  strong.  I  watched  them  walk  together,  obviously  clan members,  often  quite  intimate. Later,  I  would  ask  Kurumbu  about  the  ubiquitous  brightly  colored  nylon  tents  at  every house  and  market.  They  looked  so  modern  and  costly  and  stood  in  such  relief  against the  square,  dull  cement  architecture.  I  assumed  they  were  left  by  tourists,  many  who come  north  to  camp. “We  buy  the  tents  so  when  our  Himba  relatives  visit  they  won’t  dirty  our  houses,” Kurumbu  told  me.  “When  the  weather  is  very  harsh,  you  will  not  deny  them  shelter inside.  But  otherwise,  they  sleep  outside.”   “Hey,  Kurumbu,  you  are  the  one  defending  the  cow-­intestine  wedding  veil,”  I  quipped. “Yes,  but  when  you  work  to  buy  a  couch  and  good  things  for  your  home,  you  don’t  want them  left  dirty  and  smelling,”  she  said,  laughing. Knowing  that  I  might  feel  the  same  way,  still  I  wondered  about  this  slow  but  inevitable turning  away  from  things,  the  abandoning  of  the  land—in  it  is  the  echo  of  the  genocide, a  campaign  of  freakish  German  cleansing  embodied  in  things  as  mundane  as  colonial advertisements  of  soaps;;  a  bid  to  rid  the  land  of  all  that  is  native,  not  of  modern  use, and  discomfiting.  

In  Opuwo  I  said  goodbye  to  Simone  and  Thabiso.  I  wanted  to  visit  the  coastal  Herero towns,  including  Swakopmund,  the  site  of  UNESCO-­protected  battlefields  and  the planned  monuments.  Always  there  is  the  problem  of  the  traveler  and  the  squint-­eyed gaze,  the  desire  to  get  below  the  surface  of  things  that  looking  into  history  through fashion  both  wonderfully  enables  and  holds  at  an  excruciating  distance. And  there  is  the  uncomfortable  prescience  of  the  past.   I  was  the  only  non-­white  person  on  the  combi  from  Swakopmund  back  to  Windheok, filled  with  middle-­aged  South  African  tourists  and  European  students  volunteering  on Afrikaner  homesteads.   Along  the  way  an  Afrikaner  woman  stole  my  Samsonite  on  the  sixty-­mile  ride  by combi  from  Swakopmund  to  the  capital.  She  left  behind  her  bedraggled  suitcase  filled with  an  odd  mixture  of  clothing,  yarn,  tampons,  and  geriatric  medicine. What  attracted  her  to  my  luggage  I  do  not  know,  beyond  perhaps  the  shiny dark  exterior. She  had  unwittingly  exchanged  her  things  for  clay  and  remnants  of  the  cow—the beaded  leather  jewelry  and  belts,  the  skull-­washer’s  hat,  and  sheshwe  aproning.  My note-­taking.  Everything  was  covered  in  cow  fat  and  ochre;;  the  clay,  quite  ephemeral, and  its  smell,  still  permeated  everything.  The  cow  and  I  were  becoming  harmonized. I  was  leaving  at  4  a.m.  for  Johannesburg. Close  to  midnight,  I  was  summoned.  The  bag  had  been  miraculously  collected  by our  driver.   I  was  going  home  with  everything  intact—and  with  the  hope  of  making  some  meaning of  what  I  had  learned.   “Things  are  working  out  towards  their  dazzling  conclusions,”  Ama  Ata  Aidoo  wrote  of her  heroine’s  journey.   For  Namibia,  things  were  working  out,  however  you  calibrate  the  meaning.  The  skulls, squeaky  clean,  bright,  were  restored  to  their  ancestral  home.  There  was  the  shiny optimism  in  the  dresses  of  the  new  generation,  the  return  to  the  old  headgear,  no  loss

of  the  dazzling  third  eye.  The  archive  had  been  opened  for  all  of  us  to  look  at  now  with apartheid’s  end.  There  was  a  healthy  debate  about  Herero-­ness  and  Himba-­ness  being played  out  sartorially  and  in  ways  that  far  transcend  fashion.   Things  were  working  out,  too,  in  the  realm  of  the  aural.   From  the  hotel  courtyard,  I  heard  a  kwaito  version  of  a  vintage  British  hip-­hop  cover  of a  familiar  song.  “Four  Buffalo  gals,  go  around  the  outside,  around  the  outside,  around the  outside  …  Buffalo  gals  go  around  the  outside  and  do-­si-­do  your  partner!”—a  tribute to  big  African-­American  girls  and  our  own  social  walk.   We  may  not  love  the  cow,  but  once  the  buffalo,  yeah,  maybe. 

Catherine E. McKinley (/people/catherine-e-mckinley) Catherine  E.  McKinley,  a  former  Fulbright  Scholar  in  Ghana,  West Africa,  is  the  author  of  The  African  Lookbook:  A  Social  and  Design History  in  1,000  Moments  in  Style  (Bloomsbury,  forthcoming  2015), Indigo:  In  Search  of  the  Color  that  Seduced  the  World  (Bloomsbury, 2011),  The  Book  of  Sarahs:  A  Family  in  Parts  (Counterpoint,  2002),  and the  editor  of  the  anthology  Afrekete  (Doubleday,  1995).  Her  articles  on African  fashion  have  appeared  in  Hand/Eye  and  Sarah  Lawrence Magazine.  She  is  an  M.A.  candidate  at  New  York  University,  where  she studies  costume  and  fashion  history  and  twentieth-­century  photography.

Thabiso Sekgala (/people/thabiso-sekgala) Thabiso  Sekgala  is  a  photographer  in  Johannesburg,  South  Africa.  A  2010  Tierney Fellow  in  photography,  he  is  the  recipient  of  a  nomination  for  the  Paul  Huff  Award and  an  honorable  mention  in  the  Ernest  Cole  Award.  His  work  has  been  on  display  in South  Africa,  France,  Belgium,  and  New  York.

ISSUE:  Summer  2013   Volume  89   #  3  (/issues/89/3/summer-­2013) PUBLISHED:  December  16,  2013 UPDATED:  December  16,  2013 TOPICS:  Namibia  (/tags/namibia),  fashion  (/tags/fashion),  Africa  (/tags/africa)