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dam-l Epupa Dam article/LS
This is from the Dallas Morning News (US):
Flood of changes
Proposed dam threatens to wash out African
way of life
By Todd Bensman / The Dallas Morning News
EPUPA FALLS, Namibia - Sacred fires still hold
powerful spiritual sway here, and ancestral
graves of stacked bull horns are worshiped. Lean,
tough men wearing animal hides and
sheathed knives measure their worth in cattle,
paper money all but meaningless. The sun and
seasons tell time.
Just as they have for centuries, the Himba tribe
of northwestern Namibia, a proud nation of
perhaps 5,000 nomadic cattle herders, scratch life
from this sun-seared wilderness in
northwest Namibia - one of Africa's last
successful subsistence societies, anthropologists
But if the government of Namibia gets its way, a
huge hydroelectric dam will be built in their
heartland, submerging the Cunene River's dramatic
Epupa Falls and 100 square miles under
a sea in the desert.
The Himbas' rare way of life would be destroyed as
they would be forced to resettle, trade
their cattle for paper money and suffer thousands
of foreign construction workers.
"When you are being killed you have no say, and
that is what is happening," said
72-year-old Katjira Muniombara, a respected Himba
elder. Wearing only a groin cloth, he
squats on cattle hides in the cool darkness of his
cow dung hut, stoking a cow bone pipe.
"It's going to be the end of the world. It will be
the total destruction of the Himba nation."
The push to build the billion-dollar dam has set
off a clash between forces loyal to building a
modern Africa and those who would protect what is
old and works well.
U.S. and European activists who want the Himba
left alone are intervening, turning this rock
and scrub brush into an ideological war zone - a
dispute that is little known outside Namibia.
The Namibian government says it needs the dam for
electricity to start building a modern
economy for its 1.6 million people, and the only
Namibian river capable of generating it is
"The hydroelectric potential is there, and this
country must grow," said John Langford,
projects manager for NamPower, the state energy
company in the modern capital of
Windhoek, 600 miles south of the Himbas' home.
Government officials express little concern about
a people they regard as impoverished
primitives in need of proper jobs and clothing.
"What is so good about being in a primitive state
anyway? You don't think properly. Your
mental capacity is not developed. You're in a bad
state physically," said Jesaya Nyamu,
Namibia's deputy minister of energy. "We are
saying, frankly speaking, these people need to
develop like the rest of the country, and
development will come. They cannot escape it."
Such talk deeply offends the Himba, who view
themselves as wealthy and independent.
"The government says we're not able to make up our
own minds, but we're not stupid," said
Chief Hikumuine Kapika, leader of the Epupa
Falls-area Himba, wearing thick bands of
necklaces around his ocher-greased neck. "If we're
so poor, why does the government want
to take our land?"
Path to poverty?
Their American friends say disease, discrimination
and economic deprivation will surely
follow the loss of Himba land and tradition. They
would join a long list of subsistence
groups destroyed by sudden, large-scale change,
human-rights advocates say.
"This dam would destroy the Himba people's culture
and their thriving economy against their
will," said Lori Pottinger, southern Africa
director of the International Rivers Network. The
group, based in Berkeley, Calif., has waged an
Internet campaign against the project.
Economics is a modern term inconceivable to a
people who till small plots of maize, grind
millet daily, cook over open fires, make jewelry
and weave baskets.
In a place early explorers once called "The Land
of the Red Women," Himba tribeswomen
still smear their bare bodies with a pungent red
butter of animal fat and ground ocher rock.
Wearing pleated goatskin skirts, they heavily
bejewel themselves with bark and copper
bangles, seashells and strips of embroidered leather.
The Himba live in scattered encampments of 20 to
30 people, their conical huts encircled by
thick brush corrals. They drift with the seasons
to new ones in search of water and grazing
Complex social codes govern personal conduct,
grazing and leadership. Crime is almost
unheard of. Traditional medicine women heal.
Elaborately sculpted hairstyles show a person's
age - two forward-hanging plaits for
adolescent girls, a mohawk braid for boys.
Role of the Falls
Thundering Epupa Falls marks a significant
constant in Himba society; its palm nuts and
steady water provide relief from frequent drought.
More than 160 sacred graves mark the
valley behind them, potent cultural totems that
indicate clan power and grazing rights.
A 100-foot-high dam would wipe out those vital
graves, "drown Epupa Falls and do
irreparable harm to the river's ecosystem," Ms.
Pottinger said. Rare fish species found
nowhere else would be wiped out.
The idea to build here dates back 60 years. The
democratic government headed by President
Sam Nujoma aggressively resurrected it after
Namibia gained independence from South
Africa in 1990. His government was eager to wean
Namibia from costly imported South
African electricity and make jobs for voters.
Completion of a dam feasibility study in December
has cleared the way for Mr. Nujoma to
approve the project and seek foreign investment.
The $7 million, 3-year study, funded by
Scandinavian aid agencies, concluded that an Epupa
Falls dam was the most economically feasible,
while acknowledging social and
Tensions with the government have been on the rise
since Chief Kapika toured European
capitals in 1997 to urge investors and political
leaders not to back the project. The trip
angered Namibian officials.
Police have forcibly broken up meetings between
Himba leaders and their legal advocates. In
a speech last summer, Mr. Nujoma angrily
threatened to deport the "white foreigners" who
have come to fight the dam.
"We are warning you for the last time - don't
disturb the peace in Namibia!" the president
Extravagant government gifts offered to Chief
Kapika - a speed boat for the Cunene and a
new red pickup truck - have complicated matters.
The chief, who accepted the gifts, insists,
"Nobody is telling me what to say" because of them.
Mr. Nyamu, the deputy energy minister, denied
trying to quiet the chief with gifts but
conceded he "would certainly not cry" if they
softened Chief Kapika's hard line.
But obstacles beyond Chief Kapika threaten the dam.
Construction is unlikely without the cooperation
of a peaceful neighboring Angola, on whose
territory half the project would sit. But the
country has been at civil war again in recent
months, a 4-year-old peace accord with rebels in
Even if U.N. diplomats restore the accord - and
investor confidence - it remains unclear
whether Angola would OK the dam project. Several
Angolan officials involved in the dam
study said they oppose it on humanitarian grounds.
"When you talk to the Namibians, they only think
of money and economics," said Joao
Serodio de Almeida, Angola's environment minister.
"The Himba people aren't important
because they're so few. Well, these people are
happy. What right do we have to evict them?"
But Mario Gomes da Silva, an Angolan power company
executive who co-chaired the study
committee, said such objections may not count.
"The final decision will be a political one."
Meanwhile, a sword of Damocles hangs over the
Himba people. There are signs that even
the prospect of a dam is changing them, as contact
with foreigners and their material
Tribespeople near dirt roads now swamp visitors
with outstretched hands, begging for
processed foods. Alcohol traders have done a
thriving business in the Himba outback.
Empty beer bottles pile up amid staggering men in
some villages. T-shirts are appearing.
A Norwegian aid worker won government permission
to import mobile tent schools that
follow Himba camps with Western ideas.
"I will quit this life for good and go away," said
Ripuruavi Mgombe, 22, a shepherd
attending one such school recently. "I want to
live like white people. It is very interesting."
Margaret Jacobsohn, an anthropologist who wrote a
book about the Himba, acknowledged
that the tribe is changing. But they should have
the right to make choices, one of those being
the traditional ways that have served them so well
through the centuries, she said.
"The Himba will change, no doubt, but if they are
allowed to change, it should be at their
own pace," she said. "Let's not destroy this
system. Let's learn from it."
Older Himba say they'll hold the line, angered by
government suggestions that they need a
"We are rich. We have everything," said Chief
Kapika, sitting regally on a metal lawn chair
under a tree, his subchiefs seated on the ground
around him. "The livestock you see are fat,
the land around Epupa Falls green. No! If they
want to kill us, they have to drive over all of
us with their bulldozers!"
Staff writer Todd Bensman researched this report
as part of a Pew Fellowship in
Lori Pottinger, Director, Southern Africa Program,
and Editor, World Rivers Review
International Rivers Network
1847 Berkeley Way, Berkeley, California 94703, USA
Tel. (510) 848 1155 Fax (510) 848 1008