Life Apps | Once a Nomad: Namibia

You can’t be more isolated than Namibia’s Himba people. They wear few clothes, jewellery… and cell-phones! They’re dubious Life Apps can help, but Windhoek-based apps designer Dalton is wondering how illiterate wives can text their husbands? He’s determined to help.

So can software developer Dalton, from Windhoek, Namibia’s capital way down in the South of the country, persuade the Himba that he can help them with a mobile phone app that will help them market their goods more effectively?

A young Himba woman explains: “We want to learn many things. Such as how to use this phone, to read messages and the health passports of our children. You see now the world is open, you can go wherever you choose. There are signposts that indicates direction, we want to be able to read them too so we know where we are going!”

Their local guide Mbendura explains the lack of schooling: “There is a school that offers literacy. But some parents do not want literacy, they stop their children becoming literate. Because they don’t want the school, they only want their children to look after the cattle.”

Otjomitjira lies amidst a breathtaking landscape. Its sparse vegetation interlaced by oases of freshwater – drinking spots for cattle, wildlife and humans. The Himba population here is less than seventy people. Another of Namibia’s tribes, the Herero, also live alongside the fresh water, making a living off the land with their own cattle.

women.jpgThe team is shown around the homestead. It’s soon clear the burden of virtually all activities…. lies on the women. They tend to the animals, care for the children, cook for the family and even build the houses. But mobile technology is already in use, as a Herero man tells the. “We have wild animals, the dangerous ones like lions and some elephants. And if something happens with them here, we need mobile phones and a network everywhere to call for help.”

Elephant warning systems, tracking cattle – there are plenty of potential applications. Poor signal strength is one problem. Another is that many phones are only 2G. And although the women can’t read, they use icons to recognise numbers. But When they get text messages, the women have been known to wait for three days till they can find somebody who can read and interpret the messages…

Cattle tracking can’t be done on 2G phones, because they haven’t got GPS. Dalton and Lameck have to come up with something simpler. “Two things that we were playing around from the data collection from the Himba people were either developing a tracking app for the cattle and the other one was the aspect of an educational app. But we narrowed it down to some sort of a mathematical app were they can learn to count. As we developed that we realised that they can learn how to count on this app but then we realised half of them can’t read. So we came up with something that translates the digits to voice. ”

Lameck explains: “The life app that we managed to come up with is ‘I love my voice’. That converts text into speech. It’s actually a simple app with an edit text and two buttons. One is the exit button and one is the voice button. When you press on the voice button, it converts whatever you have written to the edit field into speech. I think the app can really help the people, although the accent is not African. If somebody get an SMS, basically they press a little button and then the application reads the SMS for them.”

womantxting1.jpgDalton and Lameck still want to perfect the app – perhaps a few more tricks like translating Himba voices back into text. And finding the champion they need. But their time with the Himba is proof that technology in the right hands – and with the right intentions – can enhance the most traditional way of life.


Kaokoland in north-western Namibia is one of the last remaining wilderness areas in Southern Africa. Opuwo is the commercial capital of the region.

Kaokoland is home to the Ovahimba and Herero peoples. Part of the film was shot in the Ehi-Rovipuka Conservancy.

Apps for Good is the award-winning programme by CDI Europe where young people learn to create apps that change their world.

To look back on the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, see the UN pages on that conference.

And here is the website of this year’s Rio Earth Summit 2012

TAGS: climate change development people & communities science & technology

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