What are Namibia's Living Museums, and how can you visit responsibly?

We speak to Kathrin Dürrschmidt, project coordinator of the Living Culture Foundation, and Rimunikavi Tjipurua, known as John, who manages the Ovahimba Living Museum, where travellers can learn about Himba culture through workshops and re-enactments.

By Emma Gregg
photographs by Jan Milligan
Published 4 Feb 2021, 08:26 GMT
A traditional Himba perfume ritual.

A traditional Himba perfume ritual.

Photograph by Jan Milligan

Does Namibia deserve more recognition as a sustainable cultural tourism destination?

Kathrin: Yes, definitely. It has a diverse population with strong cultural roots. Namibia’s peoples differ substantially in their traditions and languages, making each Living Museum unique. 

Beyond income, what other benefits do the Living Museums bring?

John: They help us keep our traditions alive and enable us to send our children to school. We want to encourage our children to be flexible, so they can live alongside other societies, balancing traditional and modern ways of life.
Kathrin: Earning a living through their work improves the performers’ self-esteem. For me, this is very rewarding to see.

What can visitors expect to learn?

John: At our museum, we show visitors how to make things like ochre body paint and spears, how we use natural perfume to keep us smelling fresh, what we sleep on and how we survive in such a hot, dry area. Traditional Himba lifestyles are nothing like modern, urban life.

A Himba woman creates otjize, a butter-and-ochre sun cream.

Photograph by Jan Milligan

Some cultural experiences over-simplify traditions and can even feel voyeuristic. How do the Living Museums avoid these pitfalls?

Kathrin: The museums can only offer limited cultural insights, but what makes them special is the authenticity and enthusiasm of the actors, and the fact that guests are encouraged to take part. We’re also planning to assemble a cultural travel guide with more in-depth information, for the museums to sell.

What advice would you give for visiting a traditional community respectfully?

John: We’re very friendly, but we don’t want our traditions to be exploited. Always ask before taking pictures or videos — and don’t come too close or stare at people who are unclothed. If there’s agreement between both parties, everybody’s happy. Tourists should also try to be open-minded. Ask questions, but be careful not to make people feel their culture is somehow inferior. 

More info: As well as Himba, there are so far Damara, Ju/’Hoansi, Mafwe and Kavango Living Museums across the country’s north.

Published in the March 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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