Originally published in The Namibian, 16 March, 2018, Written by: Andrea Ferguson.
British photographer Christopher Rimmer spent two years documenting some of Africa’s last remaining tribes where age-old traditions are still maintained – despite the unrelenting advance of modernity.
The Kunene River begins its journey from deep within the highlands of central Angola and meanders south for nearly 1 000 kilometres, forming a natural border between the arid eden of Namibia in the south and the vast savannah of Angola in the north, before emptying out into the vast expanses of Atlantic Ocean.
For millennia, the life-giving waters of the Kunene have nurtured a diverse range of tribal groups, each with their own unique customs and history. The most conspicuous of these are the semi-nomadic pastorals, the Ovahimba.
The Ovahimba’s accessibility and unique appearance has ensured their place as a must-see fixture on the tourist trails of Namibia, but their frequent contact with western tourists has also produced mixed and rapidly evolving outcomes, both positive and negative for the people of this region.
Further north and less visited are the Mwila, Ovahakaona and Macubal tribes who, whilst being less exposed to westerners, are equally fascinating and whose traditional ways are also subject to similar pressures as those of their Ovahimba cousins in the south.
Rimmer is no stranger to this region of Africa and has frequently used Namibia and Angola as a backdrop to his work which has been shown to critical acclaim in galleries all around the world. His latest project attempts to explore the visual representations of tradition and modernity and also the curious hybrid created by the amalgamation of these two forces.
“Though some of these areas are among the most remote on earth, it is easy to see the slow but certain encroachment of modernity everywhere to varying degrees,” says Rimmer.
“Of course its effects are more concentrated and conspicuous in the towns, but even deep in the bush you can see the way contact with the west is changing the traditional ways of the people who live there. I have no doubt that the subjects I am photographing will be completely unrecognisable within 50 years.”
Rimmer believes the west is very contradictory in its attitudes towards the tribes of this region.
“On one hand, visitors are charmed by the obvious happiness and kinship of these people in their elaborate traditional dress and their lives lived in small villages of mud huts,” he says. “On the other hand, though, they also tend to adopt the idea that these people must be helped, that their lives must be improved and their children educated and so on.”
Rimmer claims that visitors from the west have noble intentions in most cases but they also view what they see through what he describes as a ‘patronising prism’ which has more in common with the ‘industry of aid’ encouraged by people like Bono and Bob Geldof than anything equating with the reality on the ground.
Rimmer’s guide and assistant, Owen Kataparo, is an Ovahimba man whose childhood was spent in a traditional village in the remote Omuhoro region. Kataparo speaks fluent English and wears western style clothes but he supports Rimmer’s view.
“Many of our children here receive their schooling because western Christian church organisations have given their time and their money to get things going. Some people in my village think this is a good thing and some think it is bad. When a child from the village goes to school, they mix with children from the town who are westernised and they soon feel ashamed of how they are dressed and as they grow up, they lose their pride in our traditional ways and this leads to the destruction of our communities.”
Kataparo claims his advocacy on behalf of his people is more effective by his adopting western style dress and speaking in English.
“Government people in Windhoek take me more seriously.”
An hour or so down the dusty road that leads south through the dense bush is the administrative outpost of Opuwo, a dusty, ramshackle mini metropolis of breeze brick buildings and shipping containers which house saloons and shops with a petrol station and a supermarket.
Opuwo represents the bright lights of modernity to some of Kataparo’s folk to the North, and many are drawn to the profoundly alternative life on offer.
“Many of my people want to wear western clothes and have cell phones like the white people they see,” explains Kataparo. “They leave the village and come to Opuwo to try to do paid jobs but they are also attracted to the shebeens (informal bars) and spend their time fighting and getting drunk. Some of the women sell their bodies to get money to buy alcohol. This is no good for my people.”
Rimmer’s large scale photographic portraits reveal his deep understanding of both of these worlds and also the space that exists between with a clarity that is borne of his intense interest in his subjects.
Visible is the pride and the strength of the people he photographs but also conspicuous is their fragile vulnerability in the face of forces they don’t completely understand.
Despite this, Rimmer’s work is insightful and sympathetic without being overtly romantic. However, the viewer cannot shake the uneasy feeling that much of what has been documented will cease to exist in the near future.
“We shouldn’t expect these people to remain static simply for our entertainment,” he says. “Or to act as a tangible representation of what we have lost but what we still harbour a confused yearning for. The social culture among the tribes of the Kunene River has never been static, despite what we may assume, and the current changes are all part of the process. I simply seek to create a visual representation of that shift right at this present moment through the medium of photography.”
Rimmer’s exhibit ‘Confluence – Modernity and the Last Tribes of the Kunene River’ will be staged at the Art Expo in New York in April.