The people of Namibia possess a hard-to-grasp reverence for their landscape. No matter how little rain falls on the southern African country, or how strongly an unforgiving sun bakes the earth, or how swirly dust devils get when they whip across dry river beds, Namibians still respect the natural assets that surround them.
I didn’t have an emotional understanding of this until I spent time exploring some of the remotest and driest nooks of the Namibian desert. I was in the country to visit joint venture lodges where rural Namibians develop skills for the hospitality and tourism industry and gain job opportunities. They, too, have a strong reverence for the wildlife, in part because it draws adventurous tourists, and the tourists bring much-needed money to pump into local communities that otherwise have few opportunities to earn it.
That correlation is clear. But what explains how a Kunene Region farmer, living in a shed-sized mud hut barely tall enough for him to stand upright, can still respect cheetahs after one killed 35 of his goats in one night? Goats and cattle are like currency in Namibia, so that killing spree would be equivalent to half your bank account being wiped out—and with little hope of ever getting your money back. Yet that farmer remained protective of cheetahs, leopards, hyenas and other desert predators.
This veneration for the landscape and wildlife stretches across multiple walks of life. Herero women wear traditional dress including a hat whose shape represents waterbuck horns. Remote Himba tribeswomen slather their bodies from hair to toe in a mixture of animal fat and ochre; they literally cover themselves in the landscape.
And after a few weeks in Namibia, I, too, was covered in the landscape.
Dust coated my skin, desiccating it like baked clay. Every hair on my head was sheathed in dirt – my hair could stand up straight on its own, without the addition of gel. Sand filled my shoes, making me a half-inch taller after an hour-long walk. Thorny bushes slashed my face if I sat too close to the window in our vehicle. Rock-strewn elephant trails became our roads, jostling our vehicle so violently sometimes that my upper arms were polka-dotted with bruises. My skin looked medium-rare despite using sun block, and my fingernails were striped with little latitudes of dirt.
In Namibia, you cannot avoid becoming part of the landscape, because the landscape takes you over. It pulls you into its dusty arms, envelopes you in sand, tints you red, makes your eyes squint. And once you stop resisting, with your ever-dirty sunglasses and hiking shoe treads filled with the scat of who-knows-how-many species of animal, you, too, become part of the land.
You are no different than the hardy animals, plants and people that have surrendered to the desolate landscape. And suddenly it makes sense why Namibians are so connected to their surroundings. They are as entrenched in the land as every other being that ekes out a living in the harshest of environments. They are all survivors together.