graves of the ancestors

Graves of the ancestors

KUNENE RIVER

From the crest of the rise, the jade-green waters of the Kunene River uncoil through smouldering hills as they are sucked toward Epupa seventy kilometers downstream. In places it is broad and placid with steep banks and tall riparian forest, but here at Swartbooisdrift where the Dorsland trekkers crossed into Angola, it is narrower, quicker, reed-fringed and broken by riffles, braided between alluvial bars of graded silts, gravels and cobbles.

The Kunene gathers its waters from the summer rains that fall on Angola’s Huila Plateau and carries them south to the Ruacana Falls on the Namibian border where it strikes abruptly west and writhes like an angry snake through the arid wastes northern Koakoland. When it reaches Epupa, it fans out across a front almost a kilometer wide, runs briefly smooth and then plunges between giant baobabs clinging to the bare fingers of rock that break the flow into a multitude of thunderous cataracts.

In the late afternoon, a dry wind blows off the desert and a thin stream of water from a tributary trickles over hot gravel on the Namibian bank. A young Himba girl holds her child beneath the shade of a mopane tree. Her skin glows with freshly applied otjize, gold chains and crimson seed pods thread through her red braids. Around her neck she wears chokers woven from palm fronds and strings of ostrich-eggshell beads are draped across her calfskin skirt.

Centuries ago, Ovambo cattle-raiders drove her ancestors from their homeland near Ruacana – a place they knew as Okarundu KaMbeti – ‘the hill of Mbeti that throws its behind into the deep water of the crocodile of Muakapumba‘ (1). During the mid-eighteenth century, the Himba were forced to flee once again, this time into Angola following attacks by Oorlams commandos – warlike Nama tribes on the run from European colonists in the Cape. Now, the graves of their ancestors are still protected by the cow-horn death totems and the older Himba still bear the deep soul-scars of famine and exile.

At Enyandi, halfway between Swartbooisdrift and Epupa, a giant fig tree stands hard against the river so that its branches almost strain the waters, its roots reaching deep into the bed itself. As darkness descends over the valley, a crocodile moon touches the fringe of palms lining the Angolan banks and stars swarm like fireflies through the inky waters as they rush between the black hills. By morning, a golden light like magma pours from the Zebra Mountains in the east. It flickers between the leaves of the fig and glances across the waters lapping over the shallows.

In 1911 Maudslay Baynes, an English explorer, followed the course of the Kunene River from Ruacana Falls to the edge of the Namib Desert on foot.  It took him three months.  What began “in a spirit of picnic” soon became “a struggle for bare existence”(1).  He came across hills on which rows of ironstone boulders separated by bands of vegetation gave them a “zebra-like appearance”. Later, after the border war, geologists discovered that these hills were made of anorthosite – a mineral found more commonly on the moon.

On the last leg of its journey, downstream of Epupa, the Kunene carves a narrow passage through the remote Baynes mountains, siphons through the dunes of the Namib and finally decants into the Atlantic at Foz du Kunene, a lonely outpost of the old Portuguese province of Moçâmedes – now Namibe.

At Epupa Falls , a spectral mist hangs over a deep gash in the amphitheatre of rock and the vibration of falling water sends faint tremors through the ground at your feet. Baynes later described the river and the land it flowed through as “a sanctuary of the mighty pachyderms, of moon shadows on falling water, and silent mountains under a field of stars”.

Now, at this hour, with the sun sinking into the west beyond the Baynes ranges, the falls still embody the power of an older Africa – a rare place of moonlight and midnight rainbows, of crocodile eyes shining like sapphires in shadowed glades and of red Himba glistening among sage-green hyphaene palms.

(1) Giorgio Miescher and Dag Henrichsen. 2000. New Notes on Kaoko: The Northern Kunene Region (Namibia) in Texts and Photographs. Basler Afrika Bibliographien. 300 pp.

(2) Baynes, M. 1923. Notes on the Okovango and Kunene Rivers. The Geographical Journal, 62: 370-377.