Monday, June 11, 2007

The Beautiful People

Two Baster girls. Note the cheekbones and skintones.

The Most Beautiful People on Earth?

It's been a long drive across Namibia. I've trekked from the coastal mist of Swakopmund, through the great deserts and mountains, into the vast tablelands of the interior. I'm seeking a lost tribe before they disappear for good.

On the way I've encountered plenty of other Namibian racial groups. I've met Lhosi, Ovango, Herero, and Himba; I've seen stolid German burghers in Walvis Bay, rugby mad Boers in Windhoek, and the bare-breasted women of the north. But according to reports the group of people I'm about to encounter are the most extraordinary of all. The Basters of Rehoboth.

If the name "Basters" sounds a little pejorative, that's no coincidence. The term actually means "bastards" in Dutch. Yet the Basters wear this term proudly, because it speaks to them of their heritage: they are the offspring of 18th century crossbreeding, between Dutch Afrikaaners and Khoisan Bushmen.

Such interbreeding created an awkward situation for the colonial psyche of the time. The Basters were deemed "superior" to normal black people, by the Dutch and English, but the Basters were still too black to be accepted as proper Europeans. Black people in turn regarded the halfbreeds as somehow traitorous.

The Basters understandably found this situation insulting - and uncomfortable. Consequently in 1868 they quit the Cape Colony, and headed for the empty farmland of central Namibia, where they established the so-called Free Republic of Rehoboth. And there they remain to this day.

As I walk around the dusty market town of Rehoboth, I can see one result of the Basters' unusual lineage: those tall blonde Dutch genes, married to petite Khoisan physiques and high cheekbones, makes for great beauty. Some think that the Basters are the most beautiful people on earth.

The Basters are also notably old-fashioned. They speak pure 18th century Dutch, and they practise a fierce Calvinist faith; they also, according to anecdotes, like a drink. Perhaps this helps them get over their famous shyness.

So what's the problem? The Basters themselves worry that their culture is going to dissolve into the ethnic melting pot that is Namibia: there are only 30,000 of them compared to, say, a million Ovambo. So this week they are taking their case for autonomy to the United Nations. They hope that the UN will help them preserve their precious if peculiar heritage.

In a Rehoboth bar I stop for a refreshing lemonade. The decorously polite girl behind the bar has one of the sweetest faces I have ever seen in my life. I hope the Basters of Rehoboth survive.

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