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African Tribe Ignores AIDS at Own Peril
Namibia's semi-nomadic Himba claim they are unaffected
Rodrick Mukumbira (mukumbira)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2006-04-12 16:30 (KST)   
WINDHOEK -- "Faithfulness to one partner is unheard of to the Himba," said Kakarandua Mutambo, the Namibia Red Cross Society regional manager for the Kunene region in northern Namibia, as she explained the difficulties workers face accessing the isolated pastoral Himba with AIDS prevention messages.

"You say that to them and they will think that you are trying to crack a joke," she said of the Namibian tribe, one of eleven in the country, that has over the years jealously guarded customs and traditions that now threaten to wipe out its tribesmen.

With globalization changing the traditional values of most indigenous communities, the Himba, numbering 48,000 in the last census and dominated in the north by former President Sam Nujoma's Owambo people, have largely managed to retain their traditional pastoral hunter/gatherer ways.

The Himba also remain out of the mainstream in terms of education, health-care and equipment. According to Kunene's Regional AIDS Coordinating Committee, the region has the lowest HIV rate at 13 percent, but this rose from six percent in 1998, indicating a sharp increase.

The region also has the lowest literacy rate - 57 percent - which affects campaigns to raise awareness of the disease.

Customs such as polygamy and over dependence on cattle as a pillar around which all economic activity revolves are making the Himba particularly vulnerable to HIV/AIDS.

The Himba culture encourages older men who are rich in cattle to monopolize the women - many of the men marry several young girls whose offspring help in the important task of raising cattle.

Sexual activity starts early, soon after the first menstrual period, Mutambo said, and women are wed through pre-arranged marriages to cousins or other relatives with most becoming pregnant very young.

While adultery is not socially condoned, with any man caught liable to a fine of over 12 head of cattle, it is not uncommon to find married Himba women having up to three boyfriends on the side.

"A woman who sticks to her man is a subject of ridicule and is often considered to be useless. You also find that some men openly share their wives, especially uncles with their favorite nephews," said Mutambo.

According to Mutambo, the Himba, whose women daub themselves with ochre and wear skins, shells and iron jewelry with bared breasts "tell you that AIDS is not a disease of their tribe," though they do acknowledge it exists outside their world.

"The Himba will tell you that while they have heard of the disease, they have never seen anyone succumbing to it in their villages but at the hospital in Oshakati (the northern capital)," she said. "In the past it was unheard of in their communities of someone in their twenties dying. Its happening now but the Himba cannot make the connection between AIDS and the frequent deaths, hospitalization and AIDS related tuberculosis."

Mutambo said AIDS is considered the disease of those that have been in contact with the Ovambo, the young who go off to the towns, or those that intermarry with other tribes.

As a result, the Himba tend to keep their daughters at home after primary school rather than sending them away to secondary schools.

Mutambo's organization has been teaching the Himba about pre- and post-natal care, contraception, family planning as well as sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS since 2001 with funding from the American Red Cross in response to the high maternal death rate amongst the tribe's women, the highest in the country.

Its daunting task is to convince the Himba to change a way of life they have stubbornly held onto for so long.

Mutambo said volunteers from her organization are viewed with suspicion when they approach the Himba and, of late, the Namibia Red Cross Society has devised a strategy whereby it trains volunteers from the community.

"Foreigners are considered to be out to gather information that they will sell back in the cities," she said. "We have managed to win the Himba's confidence because we also give them fresh water to drink."

But AIDS messages without drama activities are not effective, said Mutambo. "They really understand plays and at the end you hear some saying they will never share their wives or husbands. Some listen, but others will not. Some will even ask you how they will have children when using condoms."

Children, like cattle, are the backbone of the Himba culture. Children help in the important task of raising cattle and ensure that parents will be cared for in their old age.

Whom a child belongs to has more to do with family structure than biology. Any child born is the husband's whether he fathered it or not. A child born to an unmarried woman is considered to be her brother or sister and remains the responsibility of her parents.

But the Himba are far from grasping the catastrophic implications of HIV/AIDS in their community, and a disease that kills them after many years is not of concern to them, said Charles Varije, Namibia Red Cross Society's regional HIV/AIDS coordinator for Kunene region.

What worries the Himba more is the state of their cattle, which is the reason why men prefer to live with cattle at distant cattle posts, which given them opportunities to have extramarital relationships, Varije said.

Officials at the main hospital in Oshakati, the main urban area in the north, also speak of the Himba shunning conventional healthcare in preference of traditional medicine.

"They will drop taking medicine after being advised by traditional healers that that is what is causing the deaths. The problem is they have seen people dying after being hospitalised, but most come to hospital when it is already too late," said Panduleni Muupwe, a health worker at Oshakati State Hospital.

She however said antiretroviral drugs were made available to the region in 2004 and STIs are going down in the region.

Deisewaar Yasita of the youth HIV/AIDS awareness organization, Ombetja Yehinga, which has been targeting schools in the Kunene region, speaks of the difficulties in having the Himba youths attend its meetings.

"It not easy when you have to call them to the meetings. Discussing sex is taboo to them especially when it's one of their own who is leading the discussions," said Yasita.

Nature is also leaving its mark on the Himba's way of life. Their grazing lands have been drought stricken for several years now resulting in them being forced to adopt a new way of life of tilling the land and growing maize and millet.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Rodrick Mukumbira

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