The Damara are one of the oldest tribes in Namibia. We had the honor of visiting them easily at the the Damara Living Museum near Twyfelfontein. The experience was much different than the Himba, as it was more of a structured sharing of the culture, but was still a very valuable visit. We interacted directly with one of the tribe members, witnessed traditional song and dance, and were shown many of the traditions still held today by the tribe members. If you are traveling through this part of Namibia, the Damara are worth visiting.
Damara Living Museum
The Damara Living Museum is just that, a living museum. We had no idea what to expect when we arrived. Upon pulling into the parking lot, it felt like more of a tourist attraction. Walking to the entryway we were greeted and then paid the entry fee of N$90 ($6 USD) for the “Traditional Life in the Village” program. There were several other options, but this seemed to cover what we wanted to see for a reasonable price. We then walked through the gift shop to meet our guide who was dressed in the traditional Damara way.
Included in the Program
Our guide was named “equip” with a click at the beginning. It was a sound that we had a very difficult time trying to pronounce. So much so that he had us repeat it numerous times, knowing we couldn’t duplicate the sound. It must have been fun for him to do this with all the tourists. He was very personable and was responsible for showing us around the camp and describing all aspects of the life of the Damara. He showed us how they made weapons, tools, clothing, and herbal medicines.
We had a conversation with him that was very unexpected. When he asked us why only the women wear makeup, he answered confidently that it was because men are naturally handsome and don’t need makeup to attract women. If men wore makeup, they would be ridiculed, laughed at, and strapped to a donkey for days until he changed his ways, “manned up,” and found a wife.
After this he asked us what we do with “those people” in the U.S. We said that many of us accept them as they are. He was so surprised that people would choose alternate means for having children, or choose to not have any at all. The thought of people willingly sterilizing themselves was appalling, and even more shocking that men would do that instead of the women. Then we mentioned gender reassignment surgery and his eyes opened wide in disbelief. This was the last thing we thought we would talk about while interacting with a native tribe.
The Damara are resourceful and use many plants for treatments of common ailments. With such an arid landscape, there are usually multiple purposes for the more common plants. For example, Mopane trees are used for not only making the houses of the Damara, but the leaves can be used to treat diarrhea when boiled into a tea. They also remove the bark from the branches and chew on the stems to brush their teeth.
Our guide handed us what looked like a rock and made us guess what it was. We suspected poop (otherwise he wouldn’t have made us hold it), and he then asked from which animal. We guessed springbok, elephant, and several other incorrect animals. Then he told us it was petrified poop from a sengi (a vole-like critter) after saying “you don’t think it is my poop?” Later he did show us that day-old elephant dung is used to treat arthritis when it is rubbed on the affected joints. It is dropped in fresh water and then put on the skin. He had trouble pronouncing arthritis so we made him try several times just like he did with his name.
A traditional game played by the Damara is called llgus. The game is made in the dirt with multiple rows full of rocks. The goal of the game is to collect all of the rocks from your opponent, and it sometimes takes days or weeks to complete the game. The chiefs of various tribes would do this with a winner-takes-all approach, which could involve the women and children being taken to the other chief’s tribe. We played a couple rounds to get a feel for it and learned the basic rules, but luckily no spouses were transferred.
We watched a fire-making ceremony using the branch of a mopane tree, some sand for friction, donkey dung for combustion, grass for fuel, and a wooden tool with many indentations for spinning the branch to ignite the fire. Knowing how to make fire is an important part of their culture. If a man is not able to make a fire and hunt, they are deemed unworthy to wed.
It was funny that it took three men to make this fire. So how many wives do they get? The show was entertaining as they got some of the tourists to make donkey sounds. All of us thought that the German donkey was the best out of the bunch. Some of the other sounds were horrible, but it was all in good fun.
Singing & Dancing
Watching the tribes singing and dancing was one of the highlights of our program. The men and women had separate roles in the song and dance. Men held their sticks and a small drum and danced in a circle. The women moved around in more of a formation. They clapped their hands, danced somewhat similarly to the men, and sung much louder than the men. The kids kind of ran around nonsensically attempting to be a part of the show. The show ended the program well.
Traditional Life of the Village (Daily routine in a traditional village) – N$90 ($6 USD)
Buswalk (A bushwalk to demonstrate hunting and gathering) – N$70 ($5 USD)
Traditional Life & Bushwalk (Combined) N$50 ($10 USD)
Our Modern Village (Visit to the modern village) N$70 ($5 USD)
The Gift Shop
As with many touristy activities, the gift shop is where we were led after the tour. We don’t have much bag space on a yearlong trip so acquiring physical items isn’t practical. They offered an array of bracelets, beads, jewelry, animal shaped trinkets carved from wood, and various other cultural goodies for purchase. It was enjoyable to just browse all of the different creations, but we did end up buying a small lion ornament. They are very talented in their art.
What would you be most interested in learning about a native tribe? Tell us why in the comments.
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