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Art of Basketry and Headdresses

Namibia is purported to have some of the most beautiful postage stamps in the world. But what’s more fascinating are the stories behind the artful images they depict—plant and animal life, traditional cultures, history, and landmark events. Many people are unfamiliar with Namibia—until they visit on our motorcycle safaris and fall in love with her.

These stamps honor weaving traditions from peoples living in northern Namibia and southern Angola and their ancient art of basketry and cultural practice of constructing elaborate headdresses.  

Winnowing Baskets

art of basketryWinnowing is a method used by ancient cultures to separate grain from chaff and other impurities such as weevils by exposing grain to a current of air. The baskets used for winnowing have evolved into a distinct art form.

The VaNyemba people who migrated from the Central Okavango River in Angola, to the southern side of the lower Okavango brought their exquisite winnowing baskets, called lualo, with them.

The round baskets are between 35 and 55 cm in diameter with a flat body woven from split sand camwood saplings and dark bark of the miombo Brachystegia. Mulalatungu twigs wrapped with the roots of bushwillows form the rim. Their roots are also used to lash the rim to the body of the basket. An intricate weaving pattern produces a symmetrical design on the bottom.

The VaNyemba also use uniquely designed sifting baskets between 35 and 50 cm high with a long slender body, narrowing at the neck and then projecting out in a wide rim around the opening.

Each raw material has distinct properties used for different reasons, applied appropriately to different basket parts. The base is usually twilled (woven to produce a pattern of diagonal parallel ribs). The rim must be rigid and solid while the long body needs to be flexible and penetrable for sifting. The neck and upper part of the sifter are twilled or twined (two or more strands twisted together to make one strong string).

What started as a functional need evolved into an art form over the centuries. They’re now extremely rare, viewed most commonly in museum collections.


Tribal Headdresses

stamp-mbalantu-mj-volkmann-2002-webThe Mblantu live in northern Namibia, with part of their tribal land extending north into southern Angola. Traditionally, young girls started preparing their hair for headdresses necessary when they reached age 12. A thick layer of finely ground omutyuula tree bark mixed with fat was applied to their head to stimulate hair growth. After a few years, the mixture was loosened to allow the hair to become visible. Bird plum pips (seeds) were attached to hair ends with sinews.

At age 16, this headdress was discarded and up to 80 strings of long sinew strands, some reaching the ground, were attached to the hair.

Just before their initiation ceremonies, these long strands were woven into two or four thick plaits, sometimes adorned with small ornaments and white porcelain beads. Once initiated, they became brides and another thick layer of bark and fat was applied, again adorned with ornaments. Plaits were arranged in a specific position on the sides and back of the head and tied together.

Often, a rope had to be fastened around the forehead to redistribute the headdress’s weight. A band of large white beads across the front and a leather strip decorated with cowrie shells at the back completed the structure.

Young girls were now regarded as married and the new coiffure worn for many more years.



Stamps and Stories, Vol. 1, 50 Stories on Namibia’s Postal Stamps, Gondwana Collection Namibia, & NamPost, 2012.