It’s hard to escape the rush of modern day. We receive constant reminders that things are rapidly changing and desperately scramble to keep up with new information, concepts and technology just to stay in the loop.

But when these expectations of adaptation are thrust upon society, what becomes of the communities who either choose to uphold ancient traditions or who simply don’t have the means to adapt?

Tribal heritage remains a hugely significant part of African culture, despite centuries of political and social change across the continent. The lives of those within these communities vary greatly depending on each tribe in question. Even if you narrow it down to just the southern countries, the range of effects are rather distinct and noticeable.

Even most people residing in the hustle and bustle of the cities (who consequently do not live the stereotypical tribal existence) have an understanding of their tribal background. Modern governments work to unite citizens and overcome tensions between rivalling tribes, creating what appears to be a community dynamic which is more akin to what a Western tourist might regard as normal.

Customs include bathing only using smoke as opposed to water.

Yet there remains a diverse set of select communities who still uphold and live by the traditions set long before outside interference. The Himba Tribe are a prime example of this with their etiquette, dress, language and settlement structures still largely intact. Their customs include bathing only using smoke as opposed to water and females applying a red paste known as ‘red ochre’ which is made from crushed stone mixed with butter or fat.

This does not mean that the lives of the Himba people (or other southern tribes for that matter) have been left unaffected. The vast reaches of modern influence has changed their day to day lives. Although many of the traditions remain intact, it appears that the effects of tourism have led to the greatest change in lifestyle for many tribes. Craft markets have become a part of the ventures of the communities, particularly in Namibia.

The route leading from Etosha National Park to the coastal town of Swakopmund has tribal markets dotted along it, offering tourists the opportunity to meet the people of these various communities and purchase handmade souvenirs; making this otherwise near deserted route a tourist attraction in itself. The road was built more for convenience, in order to connect the popular destinations,leading to the tribe building stands there in order to profit from the passing traffic. As it stands, a steady flow of buses now stop at various points along the road.

Products range from handmade dolls in tribal dress, wooden animal carvings, bags, bowls and bracelets. Some of the crafts include bottle caps and corn husks, whereas others are finely carved from a single piece of wood or made from brightly coloured materials.

The benefit of buying directly from these markets means that the money goes back to those who made the product as opposed to a larger corporation. It also often empowers the women in these communities because they are often the creators and sellers of the products. Although some of the Tribes are matriarchal by default, the economic freedom Tribes Women have gained from selling their wares has influenced the individual communities as a whole.

In some cases, the outlooks of tribes people have been changed due to outside influence. One example would be the Chief of a Matabele settlement in Zimbabwe, who is known to be fascinated by the different cultures of the people that come to visit him, regaling tourists with tales of New Zealand men performing the Haka (he found it wonderfully bizarre watching white men perform a war dance). He has even met and danced for the Queen.

In some cases, such as with the Herero Tribe, the traditional dress has changed. In the Herero case because of European influence around 1915 after the end of the German rule of the area when the Herero people adopted the uniforms of their former oppressors. Some believe that this was done as a form of protest and a way of showing the lack of power the uniforms now held over them. Others argue that the people simply enjoyed the stylistic choices of the uniforms and chose to copy them for themselves. To this day the women can be found wearing dresses similar to that of the European women of the past, but with a African adaptations, such as using traditional beautiful bright, patterned material.

Although many people of tribal descent are now more accustomed to the life in a city, there are some communities whose culture and heritage remains relatively unchanged by the modern world. It would be naïve and ultimately false to claim that they remain uninfluenced by a variety of global affairs, but their foundation and core beliefs still remain a strong and proud part of the overall culture in Southern Africa.

Words by Kate Marron
Image credit: Kate Marron

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