Namibia’s dynamic culture may be modernizing but the country still has one foot in its ancient past.
Through its strong sense of filial piety and respect for tradition, practices such as palm wine collecting have endured. Though the process has been illegal for years, the country’s indigenous Himba people flagrantly ignore the law, in favor of holding on to a cherished culture. For photographer Kyle Weeks, it’s this paradox that makes the country such a visually arresting place.
Weeks began documenting the Himba tribe, who reside in the northwestern Kunene region, four years ago. But for him, these portraits are as much about giving subjects ownership of their narrative, as they are about custom. The affecting images are a study of the complex relationship between the men and their surroundings. “The practice of collecting the wine from these palms directly contributes to the men’s personal and cultural identity,” Weeks tells TIME. “They were very excited to be represented performing this ancient cultural practice.”
Palm wine is gathered using an ancient technique, first used by the Himba people in the mid-16th century when their ancestors migrated from northern Angola to northern Namibia. To obtain the sap, the men first pierce a well-aged male palm trunk with stakes, then use the stakes to scale the tree, which can tower up to 100 feet. Once at the top, they hack the crown away from the stem. This sacrificial beheading causes the tree to die and is where the white sap, which has risen up the hollowed trunk, is collected. The naturally occurring yeasts cause the sap to turn alcoholic.
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