A little while ago I attended the screening of a documentary made by the Himba people.
The Himbas, so the blurb claimed, “had enough” of outsiders making movies about them, and decided it was time to make their own film. They wanted to tell their own story.
There is no doubt that the world today is one of voyeurism – one in which outsiders love to peak into the lives of others, especially if the other lives in a way that is very different from their own.
Next time you switch on your television, just flip through the channels and take note of the number of shows that offer a view into the lives of others: polygamists, hillbilly fishermen, over-eaters, firefighters, policemen and women, sports stars, plastic surgeons, toddler beauty queens – the list of people who are willing and prepared to offer us the intimate details of their daily lives just goes on and on.
In her book On Photography Susan Sontag writes: “The camera is a kind of passport that annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibitions, freeing the photographer from any responsibility toward the people photographed. The whole point of photographing people is that you are not intervening in their lives, only visiting them. The photographer is the super-tourist, an extension of the anthropologist, visiting natives and bringing back news of their exotic doings and strange gear”.
It is the Himbas’ obvious resistance to the paraphernalia of modernity that draws the crowds. Their clothes are made from hide rather than plant or synthetic fabric. The women go bare-chested and cover their bodies with a mixture of ochre and fat. They have intricate and artful hairdos, and so do the children. They are pastoral nomads in a world used to fences. Thus, if they do not bring out the happy-snappy-amateur-anthropologist in you, few others would.
Often unannounced and uninvited, strangers arrive at their kraals to take a peek and a pic.
In the documentary, the Himbas depict a tourist (in this case a Himba actor painted white and wearing a Western outfit) shoving a piece of candy into the mouth of a toddler causing the child to choke. In another scene, a tourist starts touching a Himba women breastfeeding her baby, presumably to direct her into a pose for a photograph.
The point was well made. Unlike the Hillbilly fishermen, wives of mobsters, the Kardashians or Hugh Hefner, the Himbas have little desire to share the intimate details of their daily lives with strangers. Yet, they want the world to see and understand their perspective of the world they live in.
What struck me most from the documentary is just how different the Himbas’ social construction of nature is from the one that has become dominant in modern times.
In their view, nature and the country-side have inherently positive emotive and moral content. It is a world of harmony – between man and his environment, the living and the dead, man and animal and man and his life-giving resources. Sure, it is a world deprived of cash, but in that world a person’s worth is not reduced to cash.
Their world is not a world unaffected by modern social ills, but it is a world that is not exposed to these ills with the same intensity and frequency as the urbanized world.
It is this social construction of nature-as-moral, that brings them in direct conflict with the dominant, modernist view that nature only has utilitarian value and that ultimately the countryside’s only value lies in what the urbanized world can extract from it. In the modernist view, it is the cities that reign supreme. The urbanized world is perceived as social spheres of progress and development, driven by technology, service and manufacturing.
By their very nature, urban economies are fully commodified and monetized. Cash is king and without it no-one can make a dignified living, own a home or pay the bills. Social costs are high – crime, pollution, homelessness, inadequate sanitation – but much more so for the poor than for the rich.
Yet these spheres of sophistication, wealth and power – economic and political – produce very little to sustain themselves. Instead, much of their wealth is built on resources extracted from nature and the country-side: water, minerals, labour and raw materials.
The process of extraction is disruptive at best but usually destructive, violent and brutal – just consider the effects of blasting, fracking, culling, and drilling.
Yet, the damage done to nature and the countryside with all that live in it, are seen as collateral – just a small price to pay for progress and development.
So when the Himba people in the movie once again made it clear that they remain opposed to the proposal to build a massive dam and hydro-electric plant in their area, they were not being ‘backward’, ‘traditional’, ‘tribalistic’ or ‘anti-development’.
No, they presented an alternative social construction of nature and the land they live on. One in which nature has moral rather than mere utility value. They are not innocent or ill informed. They have witnessed the man-made squalor that characterizes our urban areas and fear that the proposed dam and hydro-electrical plant will bring it to their area. And all along they firmly and positively choose not to be part of it.
But the Himba are not alone, nor isolated in their choice to protect rather than dominate nature. Global movements have emerged around the very same worldview in fields as diverse as housing, recreation and food. And, I suspect, the Himbas decision to make their own movie was a rather shrewd move to integrate themselves into one or more of these global movements and to add their voice to the many that are challenging the social construction of nature as utility.
This week’s dish originated in the Middle East. I have chosen it for this column because it proves that with only a few ingredients, one can produce a lot of flavour. Its power is thus in restraint, not greed. The ingredients for this dish could be produced anywhere and you do not have to mess with nature to produce it. Serve it as a starter with some bread, or as a salad to your favourite lamb chops. Sit back and whisper its name in your most seductive voice: Baba Ghannouj.