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The Himba people of Namibia

Slender and proud the Himba people stand tall

The friendly Himba people of Namibia are renowned for their sculptural beauty, their intricately decorated hair styles and the women’s red ochre daubed skins. They live a life of almost extreme isolation in Namibia’s Kaokoland.

The Himba people originally shared ethnicity with the Herero group, dating back to when they lived within the main group on the border between Botswana and Namibia. The Himba people headed west looking for more available land – they found the Kunene region (formerly Kaokoland) – an area which is very arid and mountainous with little vegetation but it’s here that they settled with their cattle in the more remote far flung areas. Today there are around 50,000 Himba people living in northern Namibia (accounting for less than 1% of the country’s population.)

The indigenous, semi-nomadic Himba people are hunter gatherers. Traditionally working with skin and leather to make aprons, girdles and headdresses. They craft jewellery making bracelets and neckbands out of copper-wire as well as making baskets, pottery and musical instruments.

Himba women with child crossing a dunefield neare Serra Cafema in the for north west of Nambia's Kunene region. Photo by Dana Allen, courtesy Wilderness Safaris.

OvaHimba are predominantly cattle farmers but also breed goats, fat tailed sheep and concentrate on maize and millet crops. Such farming provides their milk, meat for the mainstay of their diet with supplement of cornmeal, maize, chicken, eggs, honey and wild herbs. Only a small proportion of their livelihood is made up of a non-farming business and achieved through their conservancy work, pensions and relief aid from the Namibian Government.

Extended family members live in an onganda or homestead. This is typically a circle of huts and working shelters around a sacred ancestral fire or okuruwo. The sacred livestock live within a central closure or Kraal and represents ”proper relations between ancestor and human” and the sacred fire represents ancestral protection.

A woman’s work… labour intensive day to day tasks are carried out by the Himba women and girls. These include carrying water, plastering the mopane wooden homes with red clay soil bound by cow manure, looking after the calabash vines, making their clothing and jewellery. They’re also responsible for milking the goats and cows and looking after the children… a task which is shared among the women.

Himba-women-of-Kunene_DA-001[1]

A man’s work… is tending to the livestock. During herding the men can be away from the village for long periods of time. They’re also responsible for the slaughtering of animals and construction.

OvaHimba live in a polygamous society. A Himba man can have two wives. Arranged marriages are common with the father of the young girl choosing his daughter’s partner – usually around the age of 13 years or during puberty. The boys are circumcised prior to puberty – this is considered a rite of passage to man hood. A Himba boy becomes a man once he is married but a Himba girl is not considered a woman until she has gone through child-birth.

In a nutshell…

  • The Himba population stands at between 20-50,000
  • women perform labour-intensive tasks
  • men look after the livestock, legal trials and political tasks
  • semi-nomadic group who breed goats and cattle
  • they live in simple homes: cone-shaped buildings constructed out of saplings, palm leaves, dung and mud
  • Himba culture states a sign of wealth is signified by the horns on your grave (referring to the number of cattle owned)
  • Himba have suffered severe droughts and guerrilla warfare during the Angola civil war and Namibian independence. Despite this they have persevered and the traditions and culture of the Himba people remains
  • Himba women rub their bodies with otjize which is a mix of ochre and butter fat, this give protection to their skin from the harsh climate. The rich red of the earth and blood symbolizes life.

Beliefs and religion…

  • Himba worship their god Mukuru and their ancestors (who act as Mukuru’s representatives should he be busy in another realm)
  • homes are around an ancestral fire or okuruwo and their livestock are tied to their worship. Fire signifies ancestral protection, the livestock permits relations between ancestor and human

Himba man by Dana Allen for Wilderness Safaris

Himba – their hairstyles and jewellery… Jewellery and hairstyles are significant to the lives of the OvaHimba indicating age and social status within their community. Hairstyles…

  • Hairstyles are an indication of age and social status among the Himba people
  • children generally have shaved heads apart from a small portion of on the crown, often braided into a plait to the back for young boys, girls have two plaits extended forward at the front. Young girls who are one of a pair of twins may also have one braided hair plait extended to the front
  • post pubescent boys have one braided plait, girls tend to have many textured hair plaits or otjize, often forming a veil to the face although as a matter of course these plaits are tied together away from the girl’s face
  • once a woman has been married for a year or if she has a child she will wear an Erembe – a sheepskin headpiece which is very ornate with braided coloured hair shaped with otjize paste
  • single men wear one braided plait at the back of the head. Married men wear a head wrap or cap with unbraided hair below. If a man is widowed he wears his hair unbraided and without a cap
  • water is scarce to the Himba cleanse their hair using wood ash.

Herero and Himba ladies selling wares en route to Doro!Nawas courtesy Trish Berry

Jewellery…

  • The Himba today adorn themselves with traditional jewellery according to ancient customs. Both men and women wear large numbers of necklaces, arm bracelets, sometimes almost like sleeves, made from ostrich eggshell beads, grass, cloth and copper and weighing as much as 40 kg, as well as bracelets around the legs. Iron oxide powder with its shiny effect is worn as a cosmetic like western glitter. Adult women wear beaded anklets, apparently to protect their legs from venomous animal bites the large white shell worn on the breast by Himba (as well as Owambo and Herero women) is called the ohumba
  • Himba men and women wear many necklaces and arm bracelets, arm sleeves and leg bracelets. These are weighty items often weighing in at 40kg! Such items of jewellery are made from grass, cloth, copper and ostrich eggshells. Women on reaching adulthood wear anklets which are made from beads, thought to protect them from venomous bites. Powdered iron oxide is used as a cosmetic – when applied to the skin it has the appearance of glitter

Clothing… Himba men and women wear traditional clothing suitable for the hot semi-arid climate of the Kaokoland: Generally consists of a simple calfskin skirt type of clothing (although modern fabrics are increasingly used. Their sandals have soles which are often made from old car tyres.

 

Pick up the Kaokoveld and full details of our Namib Desert Encounters Safari here

 


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