Cultural Spotlight: The Himba of Namibia
Many visitors like to travel in Namibia’s Himba as they have long for their tribal appearance and odd customs. They can be recognised at best as the ‘red’ people – with their naked upper bodies tinted with a mix of animal fat and ochre powder. One of the last remaining tribes who still practice their traditional way of life, despite modern influences; they are truly remarkable in their ways.
Modern influences are on the people in Namibia and they choose to remain living in small hamlets in the isolated areas of northern Namibia and southern Angola. They practice a semi-nomadic pastoral way of life, and build their village with huts made from a framework of sapling branches and walls plastered with mud and dung. The village has a central ‘kraal’ where cattle and goats are herded for safety overnight. During the day, the young men are tasked with taking the livestock out to forage for food in the surrounding wilderness. The tent has a central ‘fire making area’, where herbs will be placed on coals to infuse the air with incense like aroma that assists in hygiene and cleanliness. Each morning, family members will cleanse with this smoke which opens the pores and allows them to scrape dirt from their bodies using flat surfaced sticks. They then reapply the Otjiz mixture, made from ochre powder and animal fat, to finish the morning hygiene routine.
The Himba language is descended off Bantu with a similarity to the Namibian Herero tribe using a few of the click sounds similar to that of the San in neighbouring Botswana. The women are striking with their red hued skin. The purpose is mostly cosmetic as the Himba believe red to be the colour of beauty but it does also provide moisture to their skin which protects it from the dry air and harsh African sun. In addition, the minerals in the mixture keep the skin supple and healthy giving them the smooth, red hued look they’ve become famous for.
Beauty is further enhanced in both men and women by adorning jewellery made out of metals, animal hide and shells gathered along the coast. They commonly use the old brass shell casings, remnant of the border war, which are fashioned into bracelets and other jewellery items. Ostrich shells are carved down into round beads and the cowrie shells from the coast are highly prized and used as focal points in accessories depicting status.
Clothing is limited to a skirt-like covering made from animal hides and a kaross (shawl) for warmth in winter. Age plays a large role in their appearance with different hairstyles and accessories applicable to children, teenagers and those who are married. Young boys commonly have their hair shaved with a plait in the centre of the head growing to the back; girls will have two plaits growing forward toward the face that are later bent back over the head as their hair lengthens. Once married, young men will wear a ‘cap’ with their unbraided hair underneath. Married women and those who have borne a child, wear an ‘Erembe’ – this is an ornate head piece made of sheepskin through which their coloured braids are woven. Wood ash may be used by some to cleanse their hair due to water scarcity.
Tribal structure is based on the uncommon bilateral descent system found in areas around the world where harsh living conditions have made it beneficial to rely on two sets of households dispersed over a wider area. Each member belongs to two clans (one on the side of their mother, and the other on their father). Girls leave their home village when they marry and join the village of their husband where sons will remain in the father’s village. Himba are polygamous with an average of two wives per man and young women are commonly paired with a suitable family by arrangement of the parents. Both boys and girls take part in a rite of passage before they are allowed to marry and both will be circumcised before puberty. On marrying, a boy will be considered a man; girls will however only be considered a woman and be allowed to wear the Erembe once they have borne their first child.
Everyday life is a mix of looking after family, the livestock and the village and each member of the tribe will have a responsibility to fulfil. Older siblings look after the young while the married women cook or prepare meals. Boys assist with the livestock by looking after them out in the wilderness. Traditionally the men would go out to hunt, but as wildlife reserves and conservation efforts increase, they now rely more heavily on their own livestock for meat. Women will gather herbs and other edible foods. Milk is also relied on heavily and a soured milk drink is enjoyed throughout the day by all.
Life may seem difficult for the Himba, but they are content in their way of life and continue to prosper in their unique way. While some youngsters are educated and choose to move to the more western lifestyle, this is rare and most will remain in their traditional roles.
To see the Himba, travellers need to explore the northern Namibian territories or southern Angola – both of which are not easily accessible. Lodges are found on the Kunene River and Damaraland region and due to the rough terrain and lack of infrastructure, they are largely isolated. This allows visitors the opportunity to truly experience the solitude of the African wilderness alongside this fascinating culture.