As I said in my previous post (Raising my Hat to the OvaKuvale Tribe), Kunene (Cunene) and Namibe provinces in Southern Angola are home to many ethnic groups. One of the most prominent groups in the area, the OvaHimbas (or Himbas), is also found further South in Namibia. I had spent a fair amount of time with Himbas in Namibia almost ten years ago (Seeing Red in Namibia), so visiting with the beautiful “red women” while in Angola was not an entirely new experience, but what was surprising was how little has changed for them. They retain the same beautiful red skin, the result of applying “otjize” (a mixture of butter fat, ground red ochre, and fragrant local resin) all over their body, the same hairdo for young girls (two braids on their foreheads) and unmarried men (one braid behind their head) and the same hard life for everyone.
I also had a chance to spend a little time in an OvaTwa (Tua) village and learn a bit about them. The OvaTwa are believed to be related to the San people (The Gods must still be Crazy) and have been in the area for much longer than other groups. However, I was surprised to see that the women have adopted the sartorial style of the Himbas, the dominant tribe in the area. And one can quickly see that their life is even more of a struggle than other ethnic groups as they do not own cattle, the equivalent of currency in the area. The OvaTwa survive primarily as hunter-gatherers, though some men are great blacksmiths and earn money making arrowheads, farming tools, and bracelets for other tribes. OvaTwa women also make dolls for playing and exchanging with other tribes or selling to visitors if they are lucky.
Another ethnic group that bears some similarities with the Himbas is the OvaHakaona tribe, often called Black Himbas. The women also cover their bodies in a mixture of ash, ochre, and fat, giving their skin a unique black-copper color. OvaHakaona women style their hair quite differently from the Himbas, using cow dung, fat and herb to shape it. While young girls wear long dreadlocks, married women often wear “Kapapo,” a headdress made of leather that looks like a toupee. The Kapapo is decorated with colored beads and small metal pieces, often from waste material like soda cans (the red Coca-Cola can is popular). Women and girls like to ornate themselves with ankle bracelets which they skillfully decorate with geometric patterns or animal shapes. Traditionally these bracelets were made of cow horns, but these days, white or blue plastic pipes are often used instead. OvaHakaona women also produce dolls. The Hakaona women and girls enjoy singing and dancing, which is a joy to watch. They encourage the younger ones to perform and are proud of them for doing so.
Further north in Huila province, near Lubango, is where the colorful OvaMwila (Mwila, Muila) tribe resides. The OvaMwila is one of the few ethnic groups that did not disperse outside Angola due to wars, drought, or invasions. There is no doubt that the style of the Mwila women is striking. Their hair is coated with a red paste made of crushed red stone called “oncula” and a mix of oil, tree bark, cow dung, and herbs. Styled with braids, not unlike the Himbas, their hair is also decorated with beads and shells. Unlike the Himbas, however, the number of braids, called “nontombi” -usually between four and six – denotes whether they have reached maturity, whereas three braids indicate death in their family. The women are also famous for their necklaces, which are central and meaningful as each period of their life corresponds to a specific type of necklace. And as we visited a Mwila village early morning, I can attest that women do not take their necklaces off when they sleep.
And finally, during a random visit to a local market, we met with two OvaHanda women, who can be distinguished from their Mwila neighbors because of their white beaded collars. It is harder to see Handa women in traditional style these days as many have adopted a more modern style of dressing.
Meeting these colorful women sure made me realize how boring I look. Maybe I should look for some otjize and beads!