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Where Fire Speaks: A Visit with the Himba

by Sandra Shields, David Campion, photog.

In 1995, the Himba people of northwest Namibia were under threat from a proposed hydroelectric dam project. With the help of a grant from the International Center for Human Rights and Democratic Development, photographer David Campion and writer Sandra Shields decided to visit the Himba

What they found was dispiriting. The Himba, like many aboriginal peoples around the world, are caught between a vanishing traditional culture and the internal and external pressures to enter the modern world. The photos document the Himba outside the PowerSave Cash & Carry, in front of Coca-Cola signs, wearing Western clothing and tribal dress. The text describes a people who find it more lucrative to charge visitors for photos than to herd their goats. They trade their livestock for liquor, and ask tourists for candy, coffee, and tobacco.

But this portrait of the Himba’s complicated lives is impressionistic and offers little context. When the couple meets some anthropologists on their travels, the story receives some needed depth, but the book soon returns to a format of snapshots and anecdotes. Neither the text nor the photos seriously tackle the issue of the hydroelectric dam. Indeed, the postscript mentions that plans for the dam stalled in 1999. In the seven-year interim from the couple’s trip to publication, 20% of the adult population has become infected with HIV.

Where Fire Speaks opens with an account of a man who believes he has been cursed, a diagnosis confirmed by studying the entrails of a goat. Shields contrasts this with an airplane flying high overhead. This juxtaposition is precious and a little obvious. Contrasting the traditional Himba healing ceremony with the effects of HIV would have been more telling. The disease is what threatens the Himba – and much of Africa – today.