Worldwide Photographic Journeys

The Muhimba of Angola and how they deal with livestock theft

10th August 2019

by Inger Vandyke

Sunset in the wilds of Yona in southern Angola (Image by Inger Vandyke)

During the Wild Images reconnaissance trip to southern Angola, Inger Vandyke found herself inadvertently caught up in a livestock theft situation involving tribal Mucubal and Muhimba people.  Here is what transpired…..

“Out here there are no laws, only traditions. Our traditions take precedent. If we cannot resolve a situation with the elders, then Angolan law applies” – Carmilo, the ‘soba’ or headman of a remote Muhimba community in southern Angola.

Yona. It is a region of vast and sparsely populated land stretching across southern Angola. Flanked by the wind and seas of the Atlantic in the west and the town of Oncocua further east, Yona is an area dotted with granite outcrops and thorny gated tribal villages. Yona’s veins are the ephemeral rivers that have pulsed underground for centuries, providing only the most knowledgeable with the valuable water that sustains all life.

Muhimba women return from a well that has been dug in to the bed of one of Yona’s ephemeral riverbeds (Drone image by Inger Vandyke)

I arrived in Yona during one of the worst droughts the region had experienced in decades. People were starving, animals were dying and anything that lived was on the move in search of food and water.

One day into Yona and the road finished. Replaced by simple animal tracks my guides navigated our way through the harsh yet beautiful national park of Yona in search of any communities who had decided to stick out the worst of the dry. On the way we gave lifts to nomadic people, hoping to save them a walk in the relentless conditions.

A drone’s eye view of the Muhimba village where the theft took place. Note the lack of any vehicle roads. They were left behind the previous day. This village was only accessible by foot tracks (Drone image by Inger Vandyke)

Our car was filled with water, fuel and enough food to survive for a week in countryside that has no roads, no shops, no fuel and no water unless you know how to find it.   Aside from the supplies we had to sustain ourselves, we took as many supplies for the local people as we could.

Portrait of Ngwafyapo and her baby in the village (Image by Inger Vandyke)

Elsewhere in Africa driving a goods laden vehicle through areas afflicted by such a severe drought is a tricky and dangerous endeavour.   Cars like mine have been hijacked and people who are desperate for food and water have killed people like me for the bounty they carry.

Muhimba women are strikingly beautiful (Image by Inger Vandyke)

Southern Angola is different. These people have endured periods like this before. They stoically do their best to hold on to their lives, the lives of their livestock and their homes. Most will only pick up and move if the conditions really force them to.

Nomadic Mucubal men on their way across Yona (Image by Inger Vandyke)

We arrived in a remote community of Muhimba people around mid-afternoon.We were so far away from any civilisation that Carmilo invited us to camp in his village. The atmosphere was tense. Earlier in the day a young Mucubal boy decided to rustle, or steal, around 30 sheeps and goats owned by the Muhimba. We were two days’ drive from the nearest town.

Unfamiliar with the language of Angolan Muhimbas, and speaking through translators, I hadn’t understood fully what was going on until the early evening.

The children of the Muhimba village round up what is left of their herd before sunset (Image by Inger Vandyke)

I spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the company of my hosts, taking photos and flying a drone up over their village which everyone was astounded by.

As the sun lowered we made dinner and the families I stayed with did so also. It was only just after dark that I realised the gravity of the situation my hosts were facing.

Silhouette of a beautiful Muhimba woman shortly before the celebrations began. Their men had saved half of their stolen livestock (Image by Inger Vandyke)

I was resting in my tent under the stars when the air was pierced with the shrill ululations of the Muhimba girls in my camp. The men of the village had not only located the offending Mucubal livestock thief, they had brought him back to the village with just under half of the stolen animals.

What followed was a great celebration by the women who expressed their joy to their men for bringing the thief to justice and their much loved animals home.

Marikondjo, one of the Muhimba boys who worked to keep the Mucubal boy captive until his parents arrived (Image by Inger Vandyke)

A dialogue between the Mucubal boy and Carmilo ensued. Earlier in the day, when the sheep and goats went missing, the Angolan police were called. The fastest they could get there was two days.

We discovered that the boy’s parents, his father an elder of his Mucubal community were at least one day’s walk away.

Portrait of Tchikacha, one of the young Muhimba girls in the village (Image by Inger Vandyke)

It was decided. Carmilo would wait for the boy’s parents first. On arrival he would discuss the theft with them, determine a suitable punishment and the return of the remaining animals to resolve the situation. If nothing could be resolved, then the Angolan police would arrive a day later to enforce regular law to fix the issue.

I was astounded. Had I been in somewhere like the Ilemi Triangle or Omo Valley in Ethiopia, such a situation could have easily resulted in intertribal conflict involving guns and death. Yet here I was, surrounded by tribal people diplomatically trying to diplomatically deal with a situation that was borne by extreme conditions.

At the same time I was fascinated. What on earth were the Muhimbas going to do with this Mucubal boy while they waited for his parents? What might happen to him when they arrive? What if we really needed to wait for the police?

Proud of a job well done, Tchihukumutue stands with his arms crossed the morning before Inger left (Image by Inger Vandyke)

The Muhimbas were surprisingly level-headed, exacting punishment in non-physical ways. The first thing they did was slaughter a goat to celebrate the return of half their stock. Preparing it in front of the Mucubal boy must have felt like a torture to him in his hungry state. The Muhimba boys lit a fire, cleaned the carcass of the goat and made a hot stew of goat’s meat for dinner, eating it in front of the Mucubal boy, who sat at the side with his head between his knees in shame. As guests to this event, the much prized liver was reserved for us. Despite our initial protestations, they insisted we ate it and I have to admit, it was delicious.

Cooking and eating a celebratory goat was already punishment for the Mucubal boy who stole the livestock. In his hunger he had to simply watch the Muhimba boys eat (Image by Inger Vandyke)

I was curious. “What are they going to do with this boy? How will they detain him until his parents arrive?” I asked . “Oh there’s enough Muhimba boys here to keep him. He will sleep surrounded by them. If he tries to escape, he will wake one of them up and he won’t be able to run away from them.”

Marikondjo is one of the Muhimbas that is not to be messed with (Image by Inger Vandyke)

And so it transpired. I never really found out if the Mucubal boy was punished for his wrongdoing, or if the Muhimbas ever got their stock back. I had to leave their village before we found out the outcome. Perhaps watching others eat a great meal while the perpetrator was hungry was enough to force him in to returning the rest of the stock to their rightful owners.

Author, photographer and Wild Images General Manager Inger Vandyke in the remote Muhimba village where the theft took place (Image by Joao, her guide)

Inger is leading the 2021 Wild Images tour to southern Angola, the most comprehensive photography tour offered in this remote part of Africa.  To join her please see the details here:

Inger Vandyke

Australian professional wildlife photojournalist and expedition leader Inger Vandyke now lives in the Forest of Bowland in northern England with her partner and fellow Wild Images photographer Mark Beaman. Inger has a long-established photographic career publishing images and stories in over 30 publications worldwide.