A Group of Namibians from the Zemba tribe were thrown off a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines’ aircraft in the Netherlands over the weekend “because of the way they smell”.

The seven-member group, comprising four Zembas and three translators, were told to leave the plane minutes before it was scheduled to take off. This came after other passengers allegedly complained about the smell of these semi-nomadic Namibians.

The group were in the Netherlands for close to three weeks for the filming of a reality show, ‘Greetings from the Jungle’.

After they were told to disembark – apparently without being informed why – they were taken to a hotel and could only fly to Namibia the next day.

The Legal Assistance Centre (LAC) has lashed out at the incident, saying that KLM undermined the people’s human and cultural rights.

Willem Odendaal of the LAC said: “That is unacceptable behaviour. They [KLM] are fairly ignorant about cultural diversity, specifically in the Netherlands where it is claimed that everything goes. It is a violation of their cultural and human rights.”

He wanted to know whether the Zemba people were “seen as primitive and therefore exploited”.

Like the Himbas, Tjimbas and the Twas, the Zembas live in northwestern Namibia where they mainly herd cattle.

They apply a traditional red, fatty skin lotion which has a particularly pungent smell.

Although the LAC has no jurisdiction in the Netherlands, Odendaal said KLM will have egg on its face once the story is published internationally.

Ellen van Ginkel, KLM’s spokesperson, said some passengers on the Saturday flight had complained of “discomfort, in this case the odour of the people”. As a result, they were refused to stay on the plane.

Van Ginkel said this is in accordance with KLM’s policy of ensuring “all passengers to have a comfortable flight”.

Asked what exactly the discomfort entailed, she said: “There is nothing wrong with the odour, but it is a strong smell and creates discomfort.”

She said she did not experience the smell herself. “I can only say what the other passengers said.”

She refused to comment on whether the action was discriminatory, saying: “I don’t answer personal questions, so I won’t respond to that.”


Further Reading

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Engaging seriously with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s life could help us understand how South Africa got where it is and where it’s going.