Volltext: Anthropos, 92.1997,1/3

Anthropos 92.1997: 35-50 
Contested Places 
Graves and Graveyards in Himba Culture 
Michael Bollig 
Abstract. - Nowadays the significance of ancestral Himba 
graves has become controversial among a wider public, as they 
seem to represent major impediments to a huge hydroelectric 
dam project. Himba graves, however, are contested places in 
various senses: while their symbolic and religious meaning 
is being evaluated between local society and Namibian and 
Angolan government agencies, the graves have been an arena 
for the expression of power structures within Himba society. 
The repressive South African government kept Himba pastoral- 
ists away from larger markets by force and prevented pastoral 
elites from displaying wealth and status by means of Western 
commodities. Internal competition for prestige led to various 
changes in mortuary display over the last century. Through 
their relation to ancestral graves, individuals and groups express 
relationship to land in a context where pastoral actors are 
competing for communally-owned resources. [Namibia, Him 
ba, graves and land tenure system, burial and commemoration 
ritual ] 
Michael Bollig, Ph.D. (1991), Lecturer at the Institut für 
Völkerkunde, University of Cologne. Field research in north 
ern Kenya and northern Namibia on conflict management and 
risk-minimizing strategies of pastoral peoples. - Publications: 
Die Krieger der gelben Gewehre. Intra- und interethnische 
Konfliktaustragung bei den Pokot Nordwestkenias (Münster 
1992); see also References Cited. 
1 Introduction 
The graves and graveyards of the pastoral Himba 
living in Namibia’s remote northwestern mopane 
savannah have recently become central to the de 
bate about the disputed Epupa hydroelectric dam 
site. 1 Whilst they had been the subject of tour 
ists’ photographs for some decades, they suddenly 
became a topic subject to political debate. Whilst 
Himba leaders maintain that their culture is at risk 
if their ancestral graveyards along the Kunene are 
to be inundated by the dam waters, proponents of 
the dam maintain that these graves could easily be 
relocated without violating Himba custom. They 
refer to the fact that, for example, the remains 
of Samuel Maharero, the paramount Herero chief 
at the turn of the century, were shifted from Bo 
tswana to Okahandja in 1923 and that the grave 
of the popular Kaokoland folk hero, Vita Tom, 
who died and was buried in Ondangwa in 1937, 
was shifted to Opuwo in the 1980s. The Himba 
have voiced their opinion that such exhumations, 
technical problems set aside, are virtually impossi 
ble and will destroy the significance of the graves 
as much as the inundation will do. An analysis 
of the discourse between proponents of the dam 
and those who oppose it reveals that both sides 
have very different concepts of what constitutes a 
grave. Whilst for the one side the grave is merely 
the locality in which the physical remains of a 
deceased person rest, for the other side the con 
cept (and the place) is much more comprehensive: 
the ancestral grave is a focal point for defining 
identity, for expressing relationships with the land 
and for practising religious beliefs and rituals. 
From an anthropological point of view several 
interesting topics arise from this debate concerning 
the meaning and style of the graves. What do these 
graveyards mean to the inhabitants of northern 
Kaokoland? In order to answer this question we 
have to dig deep into Himba ethnography. The 
graveyards which are found along the Kunene con 
front us with at least some 150 years of history. A 
first glance at grave sites shows that very different 
styles of mortuary display are presented in grave 
yards. Questioning senior informants reveals that 
there are both synchronic and diachronic differen 
tiations. Whilst Himba graves differ at any given 
point in time according to wealth, sex, and ethnic 
affiliation of the deceased person, they also show 
variation through time. We may ask why people 
decide to bury their relatives in different ways and 
why they changed the styles of mortuary display 
several times within one century. The changes in 
1 The governments of Namibia and Angola plan to build a 
huge dam at the Kunene in order to produce electricity. 
The local pastoral population is strictly against the dam. At 
the moment the gigantic project is scrutinized by a group of 
consultants. The “Epupa Debate” has found a wide concern 
in the Namibian public.


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