This experiment in graphic anthropology is based on my ongoing research in Kaoko, in what now is the northern Kunene Region, northwest Namibia. From 1995 to 1998 I worked mainly in the villages in and around Omirora, a place some 125 kilometers west of Opuwo, the region’s principal town that after 2002 became my main research focus.

Kaoko itself is a patchwork of different yet (historically, culturally, politically, and linguistically) related groups, as is evident in the streets of the bristling melting pot that is Opuwo. In Omirora, though, most people self-identify as Himba and eke out a living herding and trading cattle and small stock (for more on the region’s history and inhabitants, see Bollig 1997, 1998; Friedman 2011; Gewald 2011; Rizzo 2012).

It is also there that I met with Hyamakuma, the author of the six gawky circles that sparked my interest in drawing anthropology. He was a tall and often moody man in his sixties, in whose village or cattle post we often stayed. Hyamakuma was a central node in my network, and soon also became a principal interlocutor. Much of the dialogue in the lead story, for instance, is compiled from interviews and informal conversations we had over the years, as he was very knowledgeable about history and about all things researchers are interested in.

Six Circles was never set up around a central argument, or never intended to analyse. I ‘just’ wanted to tell a story, one that obviously drew on factual elements, such as interview fragments or photographs, but still: a story. Fiction.

What was clear from the beginning, though, was that I saw the six circles of the original novella as the sketchy contours of a moral universe, and that I wanted to paint a more nuanced –realist– picture of daily life in Kaoko. I wanted to move beyond the hollow antagonism of ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’, and illustrate how Hyamakuma’s sketch also implied a particular understanding of, for instance, gender, or of the body. Or of ancestors and the future, not as an idealized essence but as a moral horizon against which old and new –the effects of pervasive social, economic and ecological change– are weighed and acted upon.  If there is one message that underlies this experiment it is that, paraphrasing Bruno Latour  “Himba have never been traditional.”

steven van wolputte