I thought it was going to be an ordinary day in Windhoek. Hannah and I are navigating the bureaucracy of getting her registered for school (my daughter is attending university here for the next three years. It is complex and foreign.) There hasn’t been time for touring… we’re here on business. Secure housing, get a phone, learn where the good supermarket is, learn the safe routes around town on foot. It’s daunting to move across the globe when you are 18.
As we walk from place to place (then back again to retrieve a forgotten passport — OY!) we see street vendors selling their wares. Tourists are few and the vendors are aggressive. They have bills to pay.
I have spent a lot of time over the years doing exactly the same thing, hoping the next browser will pick up a piece, love it and hand over the money.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed. Most vendors have the same things for sale. Most will admit they did not make the item. Most have been imported from outside Namibia.
I want authentic. Baskets, wooden bowls, trinkets, carved animals — all the same.
Hannah and I finished lunch and walked several blocks to a spot when vendors set up shop. More of the same. I can resist until I decide. Or walk away. In India and China I got pretty good at bargaining. China was easy. I knew they were trying to overcharge me by 90 percent, and many were brusque and rude. I can be that, too.
In Namibia there is a difference. There is a desperation in their eyes, not just their voices. They need this sale.
As we walked and I looked and waved off vendors, we came to four Himba women. They pounced on us with warm smiles. Within seconds I had a dozen beaded and corded bracelets on each arm. Necklaces rounded my neck without my knowing how they got there. If I took off a bracelet, three more appeared in its place. How much? No, too much. We bargained, we talked. Then the most remarkable thing happened. We started talking to each other as women. The six of us. Four bare-breasted, two western dress. Women. Some of us mothers. All of us daughters. Sisters.
I noticed the ochre that is all over their bodies, making their skin an exquisite deep red, was covering my neck and arms. We exchanged names, we shook hands warmly, again and again. We agreed on prices. I bargained a little, but I knew I was paying too much. And I was buying more than I wanted.
They had made these treasures. And customers were few.
“Here’s a free one,” one of the four said. Hannah started to say no, thank you. No, never refuse a gift.
I asked if I could return tomorrow to take portraits. I’m not walking around with my camera on days when we are trying to get administrative tasks done. It’s too heavy and it makes me look like more of a mark than already I am!
So I will return tomorrow, they will pose for me. We are no longer strangers. We are sister artists and we know how to talk to each other.