Mbunza Living Culture – Namibia

As the van came to halt on the sandy track, beyond the grass partitions we saw employees move into position.  Unlike Victoria Falls four hundred miles to the east, Botswana’s Okavango Delta 260 miles to the southeast, or Namibia’s own Etosha National Park to the southwest, the Kavango region of northern Namibia doesn’t experience droves of foreign visitors and tourists.  We might have been the only visitors that day to the Mbunza Living Museum, a few kilometers west of Rundu at the edge of the Kavango (aka Caprivi) Strip, shouting distance from the Angolan border.  We felt like honored guests as the head docent greeted us, explained how the tour works and led us through the outdoor museum, graciously answering questions from inquiring little minds and adults alike.

Though clothed in attire one is most likely to see in vintage National Geographic magazines, when their work at the museum is done, the employees throw on their non-traditional attire, send a text message and head home.  At work, they are playing the part, preserving the culture and traditional skills.  Oceans away, it is not unlike visiting Colonial Williamsburg and watching a cooper make a bucket.  Or Old Town San Diego, where heat radiates from the furnace escorting the blacksmiths through their traditional methods to create a horseshoe.  Or conversing with a Gullah woman weaving a basket in Charleston.  All these we have done, marveling as heritage is preserved and passed on.

As a sign reminded us in Namibia, living museums “reanimate the original culture, to prevent the complete loss of tradition.  It is an interesting and authentic way of presenting traditional culture. . . [The aim] is to help communities establishing projects that allow them to profit from the traditional skills by earning money.”  They practice ancient skills that are disappearing and pass them on to younger generations.

This type of tourism excites me, particularly when kids are in the mix – interactive, educational, outdoors, inspiring.  They left with new ideas on how to catch fish and weave grass.  Six years old at the time, I didn’t realize Lil’ P was absorbing everything the docent said. Last week I went through photos of our 2016 Africa trip and Lil’ P narrated facts I had long forgotten, reminiscing about the Mbunza people.  This is how they dry grass, carve a bow and arrow, pound the grain.  This is where they hide the blacksmith work so the rival tribes don’t discover the secrets to forging their weapons.  This song is about a man who was the best fisherman in the village.  

We had the privilege of visiting family in Namibia and I am aware most travelers won’t make it to this region of Africa.  Living museums abound in many other regions of the world, however, preserving heritage and culture.  Visit one near you and tell us how it went!

[Hover over photos for captions or click for slideshow.]

In the video clip, they sing about a family that went to collect manketti nuts (used for oil).  When the basket was barely half full, the children got sick, so they had to return to the village.  They told everyone what happened and villagers came out with their drums to sing about the ordeal.

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