A Major Dam Project Threatens a Way of Life

Dam threat to elephants - Himba

A Major Dam Project Threatens a Way of Life

“There, out there, the aliens were building a dam across the holiest spot on Earth. They were going to flood the sacred gorge of Kariba and drown the ancient graves of the Holy Ones under many feet of water. The whole thing was a sacrilege that must not be allowed to pass unpunished. It was a deliberate challenge to a war of extermination hurled in the teeth of every Black Man by those who lived in Salisbury.”–Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa

The Last Stand of the Himba

PUBLISHED: THE HILL: Changing America by Cyril Christo, Opinion Contributor June 8, 2020

Over the last generation, the World Bank has slated $75 billion dollars for 500 dams in almost 100 countries. Like the Three Gorges Dam in China that displaced several million people, the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington state and the Grand Inga in the Congo are behemoths of environmental degradation. As is the dam that just broke sending catastrophic flooding of toxic waters over Midland, Mich. They are also disasters for local peoples who once thought of rural electrification and localized energy as the answer, and whose lives have now been completely subverted by the giantism of dams.

Years ago, we visited northern Namibia near the Kunene River on the border with Angola. Twenty years ago, we heard of plans to build a megadam 535 feet tall at a cost of $500 million. It was put on hold in 2015.

Recently, a new project at Epupa, and at Baynes on the lower Kunene River, threatens the Ova-Himba, one of the most isolated semi-nomadic tribes in all of Africa who are very vocal in their opposition to the dam and who have, of course, not been consulted.

International Rivers, a group in California, believes there are legal measures that can protect the river and keep the people from having to be resettled.

Ova-Himba Mother & Child-Christo & Wilkinson Photography

Ova-Himba Tribe Mother & Child ©Christo & Wilkinson Photography


A generation ago, we flew over massive dry river beds, a fantastic swarm of veins encrusted in a sandy landscape extending in every direction in a vast desert, which is the world’s oldest. An extraordinary Dantesque landscape unfolds as sporadic wooden huts spot the dry, almost purgatorial landscape. The sands are a haunting orange and yellow, and the mountains are encased in hundred-kilometer valleys that appear shorn of life except for hardy xeric plants that can withstand the heat.

We were met by a guide, Koos, a former soldier from South Africa who has seen many battles all over southern Africa. He who was doing all he could so the Himba, the Red People — so called because of the red ochre with which they cover their bodies — could maintain their way of life. His dream was to see the once plentiful gazelle and zebra and springbok herds return. Watching a mother from a village in the Marienfluss Valley churning milk in her gourd, which she does for hours on end, was to witness a millennia-old pact with the Earth. Cows graze in the morning and return at sunset. The tempo of the land is slow, the human equivalent of geologic time. The language resonates with the expression of a people bound to the song of the land. In Himba, “watwarajinja” means a person who takes a story from one to another. Maenjinijeko means, if you are alone anybody can come talk to you.

The potential ravages of a dam would wash away the irreplaceable roots to the Earth the Himba are struggling to hold on to, as are tribes all over the planet.

In Himba, the word for year also means rain, which when it falls is god given. In counter-distinction to the rains, is the holy fire which is an embodiment of the ancestors. Some tend to the fire and if people leave the community and the practice of tending to it, they may become ill. When they return to the holy fire, they get healthy again. There is something inexplicable about the flame which quells the fear of darkness and the cold. 


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