‘Beautiful People’ is a postmillennial undertaking in the form of a picture essay and compiled by photographer Greg du Toit. The piece depicts two of Africa’s remaining traditional cultures and the portfolio is unique in that the author spent two years living and working alongside many of his subjects, gaining their trust and invitation. The Himba of Namibia and the Maasai of Kenya, are the focus of the essay and although geographically far apart, and of differing origins, each share a similarly fascinating pastoral culture. Despite living in close proximity to western civilizations, both exhibit a refreshing pride in their customary roots and carry out a largely traditional existence in Africa’s drier, more arid and harsher environments. This authentic collection of portraits illustrates both the beauty and diversity of these cultures, offering viewers a poignant reminder that it is not too late for the traditional cultures of Africa…
Maasai Mamma: ‘The Loodokilani clan of the Maasai tribe carry out a remote and traditional existence on the southern tip of Kenya’s Nguruman escarpment. They adorn almost pure white beads and the colour red is not as prominent as in other clans. This beautiful mamma gave me permission to photograph her and in reality she was barely 4ft tall and completely unsure of her age. I find our western world to be so time bound while the Maasai hold little regard for time. How refreshing this is! In this part of Maasai-land one finds Maasai that only speak their mother tongue of Maa. Not even Swahili features prominently, and English is largely foreign.’
Himba Siblings: ‘Arriving at the village by dawn, we were invited into a hut to photograph the morning dressing ritual of a mother and her two young children. After ochre, butterfat and ash had been liberally smeared over their tiny bodies, they were free to play. It was winter in Himba-land and at 68 degrees F; the children were cold and stood outside their mud hut, sunning themselves in the warm winter sun. The shadow on the hut wall is created by calabashes placed on a stick outside the hut, and contain fermenting milk.’
These two children are not attending the local English school but are being raised to follow a more traditional Himba lifestyle. It is inevitable that in this new millennium, the Himba will have increasing contact with the western world through tourism, modern educators, NGO’s, missionaries and yes, photographers! As it currently stands, they seemingly have only two choices; one of clinging to their culture and remaining uneducated or one of abandoning their culture as they become educated and seek employment. These two worlds needn’t be so polarized! Outside influences must carefully consider the Himba’s culture, only imposing the beneficial elements of our western ways as agreed upon in conjunction with the village elders. There are aspects of the western world that can benefit traditional cultures and these should not be withheld in their entirety. Education is one such example. However, such influences need not be introduced in such a way that they decimate the community’s traditional existence! For example, why must school children where uniforms as apposed to their inherent traditional dress? Children can be taught valuable life skills such as arithmetic and reading without having to forsake their traditional culture altogether! Communities must rather be empowered, so that each individual can one day decide whether to adopt a western lifestyle and seek employment or whether to continue in their traditional way of living. The reality is that many school leavers do not find suitable employment and without their traditional livelihood to fall back on, they are left helplessly impoverished. There are indeed many such communities scattered broadly across the continent.
3 & 4 Himba Feet: ‘The Himba are a relaxed people with a good sense of humour and every time I went in close for an abstract shot, I could hear giggling and indeed sniggering behind my back. The beauty of many of the remaining traditional cultures left in Africa, is indeed their cultural pride and amusement at the seeming folly of westerners.’
Maasai Nomad: ‘Sitting on a hill just below Ol Donyo Sampu in southern Kenya, I watched as a loan warrior traversed the vast and inhospitable lakebed. The warrior had been to a village market on the Kenya side of the border and was now returning home to Tanzania. The border means nothing to the Maasai, and a passport even less! This is after all Maasai-land and a Maasai’s identity lies not embedded in his passport, but in every aspect of his life, from the way he dresses to the way he dances.’
Both the Himba and Maasai have enjoyed a semi-nomadic livelihood but this seems to be eroding fast as more permanent villages are being established close to tourist centers or towns. The resultant implications are significant, as many pastoral cultures hold cattle as their esteemed sign of wealth. Never before in history have such cultures owned as many cattle as they do now and this is due to increased wealth and veterinary services, and all as a result of contact with western influences. Subsequently, thousands of head of cattle are no longer being rotated between traditional grazing lands and ecosystems are fast being denuded. In the Rift Valley of Kenya, one can see the very real effects of desertification, as large tracts of land convert to dust, choke rain clouds and induce drought.
Blood: ‘We had been trekking with donkeys for four days when we encountered a small village in Kenya’s remote Loita Hills. Although we were thirsty, we declined the generous offer of blood.’
Calabash & Hand: ‘Traditionally the Maasai once only ate blood, water and meat. Once the calabash is full, a stick is used to stir and coagulate the blood. The brilliantly red and highly oxygenated fluid cascades over the edges, staining the calabash and making for a graphic close-up shot.’
In this more modern era, the Maasai now also eat maize products, amongst other foodstuffs. Amazingly they still refrain from eating any form of wild meat! This factor combined with a huge inherent respect for nature, make the Maasai the original conservationists of East Africa. Famous ecosystems like Amboseli and the Masai Mara after all, lie at the heart of their territory! With two thirds of Kenya’s wildlife existing outside parks and reserves, Maasai-land plays an incredibly important role in conservation. The possibility of subdividing this communal land for the planting of monocultural crops such as wheat, would not only devastate the pastoral existence of the Maasai, but also decimate wildlife resulting in a gross loss of biodiversity. Tourism can aid such cultures and ecosystems greatly, by partnering with these communities in both the establishment and management of eco-lodges. By empowering such communities, they are then better able to sustain their pastoral livelihoods and as a result conservation too will benefit. When visiting Africa, safari goers must carefully choose their camp or lodge and in so doing, we all can play a pivotal role in preserving biodiversity. The word biodiversity is used all too often to only pertain to nature when, in reality, community and cultural identity plays as large a part in biodiversity as any.
Himba Elegance: ‘Here a young Himba girl is photographed standing outside her mud hut. A mixture of butterfat and ash is smeared around her neck. Note the cowry shells in her necklace, which are much prized by the Himba. This young girl never posed for the camera, yet was extremely photogenic.’
Photographing her starring into the distance, I began to wonder what the future held for the Himba? Unlike parts of Maasai-land, the Himba’s saving grace is that their land is both remote and inhospitable. The prospect of crop farming infiltrating the area, resulting in the Himba abandoning their semi-nomadic lifestyle, is therefore less of a threat. The threat to this culture is more likely to come in the form of rampant tourism and this need not be the case. Tour operators and safari companies alike can draft business models pertaining to their community involvement and the impact thereof, with stringent rules and protocol put in place. These policies should be on their websites and traveling tourists need to choose the lodges where they stay and the safari operators that they use wisely! Governments are all too quiet in this regard and need to step in with legislation protecting traditional communities from unnecessary exposure and exploitation.
Warrior: ‘After living amongst the Maasai for over a year, I enquired as to whether the tradition of lion killing was still at play in their culture? I was told that it only occurs if a lion preys on livestock and I then asked if they knew of anyone close by who had speared a lion? They did and I was eager to meet him. We drove onto the Natron salt flats and I loaded slide film into the back of my camera, to add a degree of authenticity to the already surreal scene. Admiring his lion main headdress, I asked him how one goes about spearing a lion? He answered through an interpreter, “It is simple, and all one needs is a spear and a shield”. I then asked where he gets a shield and his response: “You first spear a buffalo, only a buffalo’s hide is strong enough”.
Warrior Dance: ‘It was a rare privilege, a group of warriors agreed to perform their traditional war dance exclusively for me. Upon arriving, the men were a little apprehensive, but once their dance got under way, they could not help but ooze supreme confidence, taking turns to leap forward and torment the camera. Chanting war songs of old, this warrior spirit lingers from a yesteryear.’
The Maasai once held a large territory stretching north of Nairobi all the way to southern Tanzania. The tiny piece of land that they now occupy straddles the border between these two countries. The small chunk of Africa that they have left, they must be empowered to keep or at the very least, be empowered to negotiate its use from a strong vantage point.
Traversing the Rift: ‘The Loodokilani Maasai live in one of the hottest parts of Kenya, just two degrees south of the equator. It is hot both day and night, and all year round! This is inconsequential to the Maasai who in the past walked vast distances to visit neighbouring villages. Modern communication in the form of mobile phones means that news is now no longer carried on foot. It makes logical sense that the Maasai now have far more idle time on their hands, as a simple message that is now beamed via SMS, would once have taken two day’s to deliver! One wonders how such wonders of modern technology will impact rural communities? Community Conservation Projects can be constructively used to teach new skills or to harness current skills, such as bead making, to help fill these newly acquired time voids.’
Maasai Morans: ‘The rhythmic singing and dancing is almost hypnotic, raw and ageless. It is hard to explain and even harder to try and capture on film. I used a slow shutter speed and rear-curtain flash to attempt to illustrate the ethereal mystery of the warrior.’
One of the major threats to traditional cultures comes in the form of religious missionaries who instead of sharing Spiritual life with these communities, then also impose western lifestyles and denominational rituals. For example, the planting of a church could mean that a semi-nomadic culture no longer travels, resulting in the slow degradation of both the ecosystem and the culture. A culture whose livelihood once was solely dependent on livestock and the associated journeying between traditional grazing pastures. These communities then turn to western ways to provide their physical needs but often the support is inadequate. Missionaries are urged to take into account the long-term physical implications to the community and not just their perceived spiritual needs. Church leaders need to ask difficult questions such as are church buildings and modern clothing essential to salvation?
Mother & Child: ‘This Himba mother carries her child on her back in a hard, rocky and semi-desert environment. The red tone to her skin is created by an earthy pigment called ochre, typically found in clay and smeared all over their bodies. Her hair is individually braided and covered in ochre while the goatskin on top of her head signifies her married status.’
Young Himba: ‘A mixture of ash and butterfat can be seen smeared around this young girl’s neck. The Himba are a beautiful people, long and slender with well-defined features that remind me of Nilotic tribes I have photographed further north. They are however believed to be of Bantu descent.’
It is unrealistic to hope that such communities will be left in total isolation, to carry out their traditional livelihoods unhindered. The world is undeniably shrinking and exposure to western influences is therefore inevitable. Rather, let all the role players including safari outfits, governments, mining companies, NGO’s, missionaries and photographers work towards empowering these communities to retain the essence of their cultures. If variety is the spice to life then we should all be routing for the remaining traditional cultures of Africa, and indeed the world, to survive long into the new millennium!
Village Life: ‘It is dusk in the tiny village that my young Himba friend has invited me into. The children have been called back from the hills where they were attending goats, and dinner is being served, consisting of nothing more than a small communal container of soured milk. The Himba lady in the portrait has her young children sleeping at her feet, as she churns a calabash of milk by rocking it back and forth. In the distance, one can see a Himba mud hut. It is serendipitously hard to believe that I find myself in such a place and in such modern times. Before I allow my mind to continue along an all-to -familiar whimsical note of romance, I remind myself that the scene before me, although special, is in no way easy. Life for traditional pastoralists is tough! However, at least this is a world and an existence that they both know and understand. To impose strong western influence can result in such cultures being thrown into a state of disarray. This often impacts both the physical and emotional elements of a community, as poverty thrives and cultural identity is lost.
Simply Himba: ‘The Himba woman are greatly concerned about their outward appearance and adorn themselves in various beautiful ways. Perhaps most striking and characteristic is their long braided hair, each plait being individually and elaborately wrapped in ochre. The leather headpiece is a symbol of marriage and appropriately only worn by married woman.’
Himba Waking Moments: ‘I was privileged to be able to enter a hut and witness the ritual of mother smearing her children’s tiny bodies in butter fat and ochre. The face is also covered – eyelids included’
Millennial Dilemma: ‘I purposefully framed this image to bisect my subject’s face in half. I wanted to illustrate the tension that exists in all traditional cultures left on the continent, as encroaching westernization offers a veneer of relief but threatens to destroy cultural identities. Parents are faced with numerous dilemmas but none more so than whether to send their child to school or not? The conundrum is that by sending one’s child to school, you are aiding that child to cope in what is becoming an increasingly western environment, while at the same time that very same education will most likely lead him or her away from their traditional roots. I am not convinced that a rural education leaves these children in a more advantageous position, as many do not find work and often land up caught in the middle, somewhere between western influence and their own culture. This ‘no man’s land’ is a sad place where identities have been lost and sad poverty exists. I wish I could better sugar coat this point, but the continent bears sad testimony to hundreds and thousands of such impoverished communities.’
Himba Legs: ‘During the taking of this sequence there was much giggling and laughter. Note the ash on the feet and the large beads, which are actually palm fruits from the trees growing along the Kunene River on the border of Namibia and Angola.’
Young Himba Girl: ‘This beautiful young girl wears her hair plaited forward as a sign of her not yet reaching puberty. The black rubbings of ash and butter fat can be seen on her neck and in her hair.’
Maasai Enigma: ‘I had been living in a remote corner of Maasai-land for over a year, when I decided to try and capture the grace and elegance of a Maasai moran (warrior). The scene took place on the dusty floor of the Rift Valley with me lying on the ground while three warriors leapt above me. I could only photograph in short bursts, as there were regular, spontaneous and hysterical bouts of laughter. I was laughing at the ridiculous athleticism and the soaring heights of each jump. The warriors however, were laughing at the crazy mzungu (white person) rolling in the dust.
Primordial Silhouette:‘This young Himba man wears his hair uncovered to symbolize his unmarried status. I was fortunate to find such a subject, as Himba-land was in the grips of a dry winter, and most of the men had left the villages with their cattle in search of grazing pastures. ‘
This ancient culture has survived for hundreds of years and we must not let it become extinct. Tourists visiting Africa must think beyond their‘once in a lifetime’ safari, and make sure that their actions are not changing cultures and ruining similar wonderful cultural experiences for future generations of travelers. Likewise, all role players must carefully consider their actions, if not for the traditional cultures or the general preservation of biodiversity, then for the sake of future western generations who might never know that their way of life was once not the only way of life.
All images © Greg du Toit