Somewhere early 2013 I took a picture of this woman in the Hoarusib riverbed, Namibia. A few months later I decided (together with designers Tiemen Harder and Karina Brouwer de Koning) she would be on the cover of my book Empty. And so it happened. I still think it's a great cover and I am very proud of the book.
Her name I did not know - I actually knew nothing about her. Probably she was a Herero woman but the distinctive headgear symbolizing the horns of a cow was missing (I actually liked the scarf she was wearing). Since then I have been back 3 times in Namibia. And every time I had a copy of the book for her in the car. But I could not find her. The secluded spot where she was living with a few children and some goats is now deserted. The basic huts are in decline. And in the nearest village nobody recognized her picture.
But that changed this year. In Puros I spoke to a local who immediately reacted: I know her! According to him, she works in Schoeman's Camp, a remote lodge on the border of Skeleton Coast. I know the place because I crash it every once in a while for a cup of Nescafé. And I have sneaked on a few 4WD tracks that are actually exclusive to their guests on a few occasions.
When we arrived at the lodge we met a woman who knew my covergirl. But she referred us to 'the location' - a local euphemism for the living quarters used to separate black workers from the upper class. On a piece of paper she wrote the name of the woman I was looking for: Karirii-he. In the location, only 500 meters away, a bunch of very poor people was visibly surprised when two whites drove into their camp. The children did not look healthy.
I did not recognize her immediately, but my guest at the time Ingrid de Groen did: there she stood. Much smaller than I remembered, and more than three years older it seemed (but people do get old faster than time overhere). Again wearing such a beautiful dress, made out of countless scraps with love and patience. To me these dresses breathe beauty and attention - but I believe that for local people poverty is more what comes to their mind when looking at these dresses.
When I showed her the book, she was beaten dumb. She could not even remember that I took that picture, she said. But she simply loved it. She did not stop touching the cover with her hands, looked at it again and again. She clapped her hands and kept yelling: dankie-dankie-dankie! It was so nice to see what was happening. I think we were looking at somebody who - for the first time in her life - was really seen by others. That is at least what I think happened.
We stayed for about fifteen minutes and left some stuff, like Ingrid's lare towel - because the nights were getting cold we were told. The Ralph Lauren shirt I bought 15 years ago in the US was gratefully accepted as well (I heard the new owner proudly tell the children that this shirt had been all over the world. But when I asked him about a 4WD track that starts 10km away he said: sorry, I've never been there). We also gave them a pair of scissors, for one of the older girls had scabies or something else under her messy and unorganized hair - and the only solution they could think of was a bald cut.
Just when we wanted to leave, Karirii-he re-appeared. She had dressed up quickly and this time she was wearing the headdress typical of the Herero. The intention was clear: she wanted another portrait. So there she is! Meet Karirii-he.