"Pour survivre, les Himbas doivent avoir les pieds enracinés dans leurs traditions et les voix qui portent jusqu’aux grands pays au-delà de la grande mer..."

Kovahimba, l'association ayant pour but d'aider les Himbas, peuple nomade de Namibie


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The Himbas and the Epupa dam

Epupa.jpgThe Epupa dam

The Epupa dam project, on the Kunene River between Namibia and Angola, dates back to the 20s. It was re-examined after the independence as Namibia regarded energetic autonomy as one step towards the economic independence from South Africa.

Beside having disastrous consequences on the environment (destruction of a water environment, of birds, of an endemic terrestrial fauna and vegetation) and flooding the splendid Epupa falls, building the dam would be a tragedy for the Himba society.

Depending on which project could be selected, the dam would flood between 200 Km2 and 380 Km2 of the best grazing lands and would also destroy the vegetation around on 60 km downstream. This vegetation includes several plants necessary to feed the cattle as well as some palm trees, the fruits of which are appreciated by the Himbas. 700 Himbas live in the region that would be flooded but more than two thousand are directly affected by the disappearance of natural resources. Nearly 160 Himba graves, including those of some of the most prominent ancestors, would be inundated. The Himbas insist on the negative consequences of the dam mainly arguing that they would lose their lands and the graves. As the Himbas’ beliefs are based on the ancestors’ cult, they visit the graves several times a year. They soon realised that Westerners could understand the emotion caused by the possible disappearance of the graves.

Non-governmental organisations provided different arguments the Himbas have more difficulty understanding: Diseases such as malaria could possibly spread because of the emergence of the lake. The presence of nearly ten thousand workers from other areas, accompanied by their families, during at least six years – for the dam to be built – could also give rise to new diseases including STD. The creation of infrastructures and amenities subsequent to such an influx would impact the natural equilibrium and the local economic structure, leading to changes to which the Himba society is not in a capacity to adapt so soon.

The protests against the dam were all the more violent as studies demonstrated that alternative projects to produce energy would prove to be less expensive and less damaging for the environment. Despite numerous NGOs’ outcry, the Epupa dam project was voted in 1997. The works were expected to start before the year 2000. However, the World Bank’s withdrawal, the resumption of war in Angola –which tended to spill over onto the Namibian territory- and Namibia’s involvement in the Great Lakes conflict gave the country other priorities.

In January 2007, the Epupa dam was still officially on the agenda even though other options were examined. The fight the Himbas and their supporters waged against the dam had positive effects. During the first meetings, they would constantly argue on who was a Himba and who wasn’t. Those discussions gave rise to an increasingly-aware minority that cannot remain isolated any longer.

Separately, in 2005, the government launched a major project to improve access to the Kunene region, including a road network, the development of the regional capital Opuwo and compulsory education for the Himbas. Additionally, AIDS started spreading amongst the Himbas. Alcohol, the arrival of foreign workers, the development of tourism and all the mirages of the consumption society disrupt the traditional structures and attract young Himbas away from their forefathers, so that a number of elders now do not regard any longer the Epupa dam as a cause for concern because the regional development will have previously produced damageable effect.

Katjambia Tjambiru, the first Himba woman to become chief of a large territory, along with other people rejects such a possibility and is prepared to fight hard for their identity and their culture.

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