Wednesday, July 12, 2006


The Himba tribe is a nomadic tribe in northern Namibia. Himbas are known for their traditional lifestyles. Because of the harsh and desolate environment in which they live, Himbas have been fairly secluded from life outside their own people and have therefore been relatively uninfluenced by advancements in society and societal trends.

Many of my good friends here are Himba or part Himba. Though they don't live traditional lifestyles anymore, the way in which they were raised from childbirth has equipped them with some unique skills. For example, Himbas can kill livestock with their bare hands. My learners shared this bit of knowledge with me when they were trying to explain to me just how serious these people are. My learners are known for their incredible imaginations and exaggeration skills (a.k.a. lying capabilities), so I of course did not believe this. I recently shared my disbelief with my Himba friends and in turn quickly learned why my learners also told me to never challenge a Himba. This morning they insisted on taking me to our office farm where, I kid you not, they tied a rope around a cow's neck and proceeded to strangle it with their bare hands.

I first heard about Himba wrestling a few months ago. Some friends were over for dinner and we were sharing stories from our childhood, all of us silently trying to figure out how we possibly could have lived such unbelievably different lives yet have ended up at the same place all together eating boerwurst and mashed potatoes. One friend began talking about the traditional Himba games he and his family partake in when everyone is together. Among the more interesting games was this Himba wrestling. Himba wrestling usually takes place between two Himbas who haven't seen one another in awhile-- it's almost a form of greeting that all Himbas are aware of and prepared for when they reunite. It's a bit like our American style of wrestling, though besides the "no kicking or punching" rule, there really aren't any restrictions on what you can and cannot do to your opponent. The whole objective of the wrestling is to toss your opponent onto his back in any way, shape or form. The more serious and skilled wrestlers are able to toss their opponent up and over their shoulder and onto his back, while those just wrestling for fun do more of a hip check and flip their opponent onto his back. All of my friends who were explaining this had at one point or another been seriously injured during a wrestling match, either breaking an arm or hurting their back or neck. In fact, usually wrestling continues until one party is too hurt to wrestle any longer.

They told us that such wrestling usually takes place deep in the bush where only tribes are present, but that occasionally some fool in town or at a shebeen will challenge a Himba and get tossed in front of a large crowd of people. When we asked if they'd ever wrestled a white person they laughed and said no, that Himbas are too skilled at wrestling to be seriously challenged by a non-Himba. PC always talks about the importance of crossing cultures-- of how in order to have a fulfilling service, it is essential that all PCVs try their best to immerse themselves in the culture and experience as many traditional aspects as possible. Most of us have done the funerals and the weddings and the traditional dinners, but this wrestling was a new possibility for us. My PCV friends were planning to come back to Omaruru in about a month anyway so we decided it would be fun to organize a Himba vs. PCV wrestling tournament. The Himbas were amused to say the least.

My friends and I were quite interested in this wrestling business but were having a hard time visualizing how it was possible. For one, most my Himba friends (along with many of my Namibian friends) are quite small. Most of them are less than 5'10'' and can't possibly weigh more than 60 or 70 kilos. Though Africa has taken its toll on my PCV friends, most of those planning to take part in the wrestling had a good 20 to 30 pounds on each Himba. How in the world they would be able to toss these healthy Americans was beyond me.

The weeks leading up to the event sparked much commotion throughout Omaruru. Random people would stop into my office to talk about it, one saying, "Your friends are not actually serious about this wrestling, are they? They will break their necks!" My learners were overly concerned about our safety as well, coming to me with these crazy and seemingly impossible stories about Himbas and their strength (the cow strangling being one of the stories). Over confident townspeople began randomly approaching the Himbas on the street to challenge them (a move that resulted in one non-Himba having to go to the hospital). So many people became interested and wanted to participate that at the last moment we allowed two late registrants from the Himba side: Omaruru's traffic cop as well as the Chief of Police.

The PCV wrestlers trained for about a month leading up to the main event. One PCV found small Himba children to train him (one of my Himba friends had told us that a Himba child would probably be the best competition for us PCVs); another began running with learners on his back and installed a pull-up bar in his house; while yet another, perhaps the most serious, resigned himself to a month-long diet of cheese alone, hoping to bulk up.

Alas, their efforts were to no avail. This past weekend marked the first ever "Ruru-palooza." Open to all interested parties and offering events such as beer pong, soccer, night clubbing, volleyball and all-day bootlegged DVD marathons and cake eating contests, Ruru-palooza's main event, Himba wrestling, drew competitors and spectators from far and wide to the Omaruru riverbed. We had hoped that holding the event late enough in the afternoon would allow the Himbas a sufficient amount of time to spend at the shebeen, ideally weakening their Himba strength, but our strategies proved fruitless and in the end the Peace Corps name was shamed. Some volunteers performed decently, tossing a few Himbas, but there is no question that had the Himbas been really fighting back, as opposed to trying to teach their opponents the correct moves in order to provide at least a bit of a challenge, all volunteers would have ended up with broken bones by the end of the day. The few moments when the Himbas were really trying their hardest left the volunteers flying through the air like rag dolls.

All in all, the weekend proved to be an enjoyable experience. Though all the volunteers departed feeling quite bruised and battered, fun was indeed had by all and I can see this becoming a semi-annual thing.

And if it makes anyone feel better, I did see the Himbas on Monday-- it could have been my imagination but few of them appeared to be limping… :)


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