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Nestled in a grassy valley of north-western Namibia, Opuwo may seem like a crumbling relic of colonial history. With a population of just 12,000, the town is so small that it would take less than a minute to drive from the road sign on one side of town to the shanty villages on other. Along the way, you would see a hotchpotch collection of administrative offices, a couple of schools, a hospital and a handful of supermarkets and petrol stations.
For many of the people living in the surrounding valley, however, this small town is also the first taste of modern life. The capital of the Kunene region, Opuwo lies in the heartland of the Himba people, a semi-nomadic people who spend their days herding cattle. Long after many of the world’s other indigenous populations had begun to migrate to cities, the Himba had mostly avoided contact with modern culture, quietly continuing their traditional life. But that is slowly changing, with younger generations feeling the draw of Opuwo, where they will encounter cars, brick buildings, and writing for the first time.
How does the human mind cope with all those novelties and new sensations? By studying people like the Himba, at the start of their journey into modernity, scientists are now hoping to understand the ways that modern life may have altered all of our minds. The results so far are fascinating, documenting a striking change in our visual focus and attention. The Himba people, it seems, don’t see the world like the rest of us.
In many ways, the Himba are the absolute counterpoint to our modern, urban lifestyles. The herders live in small groups of wooden huts surrounding a sacred fire – thought to be the spiritual link to their ancestors – and a day’s work revolves around the rearing of cattle, sheep and goats, which they keep in an enclosure known as the “kraal”. The villages are semi-nomadic, and will move with the seasons to find new pastures for the livestock. To many Westerners, the Himba are most famous for their striking appearance, thanks to the rich red ochre that they spread over their skin and hair.
[I]t could also be that modern life itself makes us more easily distracted by our surroundings. And it is for this reason that Opuwo is so interesting, as younger generations slowly migrate to the shanty villages on the edge of the small town. As the anthropologist David P Crandall put it in his book The Place of Stunted Ironwood Trees: “The fascination and attraction of city lights, even the dimmed and often fractured ones of Opuwo, proffer an allure and mystique, a cosmopolitan novelty to be found nowhere else in their world.” It is, he says, “the vanguard of change for the entire region… a crossroads of several worlds.”
The psychologist Richard Nisbett at the University of Michigan, for instance, has strong evidence that our vision can be influenced by our social lives: people who live in more interdependent, collectivist societies like Japan and China tend to focus more on the context of a social situation – and they also tend to pay more attention to the backgrounds of pictures; they are more ‘holistic’ and less ‘analytical’.
“If you are paying attention to the social world, you incidentally pay attention to the physical world too, so you end up noticing things that wouldn’t be noticed by someone with an analytical mindset,” says Nisbett.