Isolated by civil war for nearly three decades, Angola remains something of a mystery destination. Today, a few intrepid travellers are making their way to this huge country, to discover its Portuguese colonial towns, expanses of wilderness and ancient rock art. Perhaps Angola’s biggest treasure, though, is its people; more specifically the numerous ethnic groups living in the south, following traditional lifestyles little changed in centuries. Origins Safaris explores this rarely visited country.
For most people, Angola is one of Africa’s last great travel mysteries. Despite its elemental landscapes and boom-bust oil-dependent economy, the country remains closed off to all but the most adventurous travellers thanks to stringent visa policies, high prices and a history that’s been more about war than peace.
It’s a shame. Angola has the potential to be one of Africa’s dazzling highlights. Lurking within its wild borders lies the continent’s second-largest waterfall, scattered remnants of Portuguese colonial history, a handful of emerging national parks, beaches galore and a diverse and unbelievably stoic cross-section of people.
Vast, unexplored and kept off the tourist map by years of civil conflict, Angola is a hidden world; an utterly wild part of Southern Africa that is only just opening up to tourism. Not many travellers make it here and those that do don’t come for the wildlife; instead, they come for the people. There are some 90 ethnic groups in Angola, many following traditional lifestyles barely changed in centuries, and living in remote landscapes, defined by desert and mountain.
Our specialist, organised trips to Angola – and there aren’t many – tend to focus on the culturally rich south of the country. The war that lasted from 1975 until 2002 didn’t impact this region, a land devoid of the oil and mineral resources that were so furiously battled over. This prolonged the isolated existence of the tribes living here, preventing any contact with the wider world, and inadvertently preserving their lifestyles and ancient traditions. A safari here will take you to meet these tribes – in their villages, at markets – and you will often camp outside villages that rarely receive visitors.
Tribal Groups In Angola
The Handa live mainly in the provinces of Huila and Namibe, and older Handa women are famous for their intricate hairstyles and necklaces. They wear huge white beaded necklaces and beaded headdresses, and often weave white beads into their long hair, too.
This ethnic group has a large territory and is something of an icon of Southern Africa. In Angola, the Himba live in the culturally rich region around Oncocua and lead a life even less ‘modernised’ than their counterparts in neighbouring Namibia. In common with lots of Angola’s tribes, it is the women who maintain traditional dress to a greater degree than men, and look utterly unique. They wear skirts made from animal skins, with long chains and beads hanging down, and treat their hair and bodies with a mix of butter fat and ochre, giving them a rich red tone and protecting their skin from the dry climate and from insect bites. Hairstyles denote a woman’s age and whether she’s married or not, and tend to feature thick dreadlocks coated in fat and ochre, ending in a frizzy pompom of hair. When girls reach puberty they are given a Himba crown, the erembe, made of cow or goat leather.
Few have heard of or visited this fascinating ethnic group. The lives of the Mucubal are based on cattle and agriculture and they preserve many interesting traditions, including teeth sharpening. Girls have their upper teeth sharpened and lower teeth removed. Elders persuade the girls to do this by convincing them that their teeth leave their mouth each night to visit a hole where people defecate and return to their mouths covered in excrement. Women also wear large headdresses, known as ompota. These are made of a wicker framework, covered in fabric and containing tied cow tails. It’s decorated with beads, buttons and shells. They wear an oyonduthi string around their breasts, too, which is used as a bra, and numerous iron anklets and armlets.
The Mucubal believe in a god called Huku and also worship the spirits of their ancestors. Divination is also important and they use amulets and talismans for various purposes, including protecting their cattle or preventing adultery.
The Mucuroca are a sub group of the Mucubal, and were probably one of the first Bantu groups to arrive in the desert of southern Angola in the 18th century. They met the Mucuis people here – another tribal group – and intermarried.
The Muila (also Mwela, Mumuila or Mumuhuila) are semi nomadic tribe, living on the Huila Plateau. The women are famous for their ornate hairstyles, featuring thick nontombi mud-coated dreadlocks. They use a red stone call oncula to make a paste, mixed with oil, butter, tree bark and herbs; some even use dung. This is then embellished with shells, beads and even dried foods. The number of nontombi that a woman has is significant. Girls have four or six, but three denotes someone has died in the family. Muila women also wear mud necklaces, made in various styles, each one corresponding to a life stage. Young girls wear heavy red necklaces encrusted with beads; older girls wear yellow necklaces made of wicker covered with earth, called vikeka; and women who are married wear a set of stacked up necklaces encased in hard mud, called vilanda. They never take this off and have to sleep in it.
Another tribal group living in the remote lands near Oncocua, the Mutua live in small settlements and rather than owning livestock, rely on honey and fruit gathering. They are considered lower caste by other neighbouring tribes and, while resembling the Himba, generally have less elaborate hairstyles and dress.
The colourful Mucawana people inhabit the remote regions near Oncocua. They are subsistence farmers with a lively culture of partying, music and clapping. Women dress their hair with a mix of cow dung, fat and herbs for fragrance, with beads, shells and coloured bands woven through. Women also wear bright fabrics, and beaded necklaces and bracelets, which sometimes feature Teutonic looking crosses.
Travelling sensitively in Angola
When visiting remote tribal groups like those in Angola, a huge amount of sensitivity is required. The delicate balancing act that any travel here must strike is between learning about these isolated and unusual cultures, but in a way that is fair and non-exploitative. Many of the tribespeople here have had little contact with western travellers – or indeed anyone much beyond their tribe or neighbouring tribes – and exist in a land barely touched by the modern world. Responsible tourism is crucial.
Best Time To Visit Angola
Broadly speaking, Angola has two distinct season – rainy and dry. As it’s so huge, there are variations, with the southern coast around Namibe cooler, for instance, averaging 17 degrees C in July. The best time to visit the south is June, July, August & September. This is the coolest and driest season, with highs of around 23 degrees C in July.
a fascinating, unexplored chunk of southern Africa and an anthropologist’s dream.
an easy option. There’s barely any tourism or infrastructure.
ABOUT ORIGINS SAFARIS
At Origins Safaris we are passionate about wildlife, cultural heritage, adventure and exploration. We customize each and every safari to your personal requirements and expectations, ensuring an exclusive, unique and authentic experience every time.
Origins Safaris is a family business, founded in 1963 by Don and Margaret Turner. It is managed today by two subsequent generations of the family, and predominantly by Don’s son, Steve. We are so much more than just a travel broker – our years of experience, professionalism and reliability means that we go the all-important extra mile, to make sure your dream safari is safe, memorable, educational and most of all great fun. We are renowned for our meticulous safari planning from start to finish, and the highest standards of natural history interpretation.
Contact us on www.originsafaris.com for more information and pertinent itinerary advice.
Origins Safaris – Authentic African Experiences Since 1963.