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My Wanderings with the Himba

Of all of my images from Africa, it is perhaps my photographs of the Himba people that spark the most admiration, comments and questions when I share them.
I will never forget the first time I saw Himba people.  I met a small group of Himba women engaged in selling souvenirs in the tourist market at Swakopmund.  Their appearance was mesmerising and I thought to myself “Now I really feel like I am in Africa”.
That was back in 2012 and the Himba people have continued to beguile me ever since.
I recently returned from my third visit to Namibia where I met the Himba, only on this most recent trip, I was thrillled to take my parents to meet them.
In the short time I have been privileged to ‘know’ the Himba people, I have learned so much from them.  Before you read my replies to these questions, please bear in mind that I am still learning so much about Himba people.  In fact I learn something new every time I meet them!  I can only answer in the best of my knowledge.

Why do Himba women colour their skin red?

In Himba culture, when girls grow into women, their custom is to paint their skin with red ochre.  They seek out stones of haematite, grind them down to a powder and then they mix it with animal fats before they smear it on their skin.  This is largely thought to help protect them from the sun but some people also believe that it retards hair growth.  It is a custom only practiced by Himba women.

What do Himba women do with their hair?

Young Himba girls have shaved heads and they wear two plaits that often drape over their faces.
When Himba girls grow into women, they morph their appearance from their bare skinned childhood into long, braided red hair extensions that are covered in a mixture of mud, red ochre and animal fat, a similar mix to the red ochre they paint their skin with.
A few other things change during the time they grow into women.  Himba girls wear an arrow-shaped metal plate called an “Eha” when they are little and when they become women this changes to a larger necklace that features an “Ohumba” or cone shell.

Do Himba women ever take a shower?

With the exception of the first few days after they give birth, Himba women never take a shower using water.  Instead they have a ‘sweat’ bath each day to maintain their personal hygiene.  This involves collecting native bark and herbs (usually from a Commiphora bush), which they add to burning coals in a clay bowl.  When they do this they will lean over the bowl and the heat of this will make them sweat.  For a full bath, they will cover themselves in a blanket to completely sweat and perfume themselves with the smoke of these herbs.  The combination of herbs is called Otjize.

If Himba women never shower, do they smell?

No!  Himba women smell similar to tanned animal hide or leather actually.  It is a very earthy, lovely smell.  Not what most people think!

What do the Himba people eat?

Unlike many tribes around the world, the Himba don’t make bread.  Instead they use maize meal to make a porridge which forms a part of their staple diet.  Aside from this, they eat the meat of their livestock (goats and cattle) and use the milk from both as well.
On my most recent trip we visited Himba villages that were located more than seventy kilometres from the nearest shop where the people can buy food that supplements what they eat from their animals.  To get there, the men of the village undertake a three day/two night journey on foot, in each direction, once a month to buy groceries.  They often take donkeys with them to carry loads.

What do the Himba people drink?

Although the Himba don’t use water to bathe, they do need water to drink and also to water their animals.
Wells, some of them up to three metres deep, are dug by hand from dry river beds when water is needed.  These wells can take up to three months to dig and the final location for them is often determined after a number of trial holes have been dug.
These wells are attended by all members of Himba families who will visit them throughout the day with their herds of goats or cattle.
Sometimes children are sent to fetch water for their family from these wells in large jerry cans.  I’ve seen children walking barefoot a distance of six kilometres each way to get water for their family. The lengths the Himba have to go to get food and water really do put my own life into perspective!
The Himba also brew their own beer from honey and bark which has been mixed with grass seeds collected from the nests of harvester ants.

Do Himba children go to school?

Traditionally only Himba boys were ever allowed to go to school and even then, not all of them could go.  The eldest boy was usually selected to be the child who went to school.  Girls had to stay home to learn how to perpetuate traditions.
These days a number of well considered ‘mobile schools’ have been established across Kaokoland and both boys and girls attend these from the age of six through to the age of eighteen.  Designed to be moved with the Himba families living near them, the mobile schools mean that Himba children can still keep learning when their families have moved on to find better grazing land for their livestock.

What do the Himba people believe in?

The Himba are animists and they have their own god called Mukuru, who they speak to via a holy fire that burns in their village.  Between that fire and the hut of the head man of the village, there is an imaginary line which should never be crossed by visitors.  The fire is maintained by one designated person in the village only.
It is my understanding that only adult Himba can speak with Mukuru, and even then it is most likely the head man who communicates any concerns to Mukuru.  Children are not allowed to speak with Mukuru directly although I think they may do so via their parents.

What do the Himba people live in?

Himba families live inside an Ozondjuwo, a basic hut with an earth floor, walls made of tree branches strung together by the fronds of a Makalani palm and then coated by a mixture of mud and dung.  The men collect the materials for Ozondjuwo to be made but it is the women who actually construct them.

What is the skin that Himba women use in their dress?

Traditionally Himba women would have worn the skin of an antelope in their extremely elaborate dress.  These days it is most likely to be the hide of a goat.
The two main items of dress that are made of skin include an “Erembe” which almost looks like a crown and it is worn by women who are married.  All women, regardless of their marital status, wear many tiered skirts that are also made of leather.
These items are worn in combination with elaborate jewellery and leg guards that are made of leather, shells and metal.  Believe it or not, I’ve heard that a full set of Himba dress can weigh up to forty kilos!

Where are the Himba people from?

The Himba are a semi-nomadic, pastoralist tribe of people whose origins are in Angola.  They first inhabited Kaokoland around the 16th century.
They are intrinsically linked both culturally and linguistically to the Herero tribe in Namibia and were originally considered as Herero.  The name Himba is a literal translation of the word ‘beggar’ in their Otjiherero language and this rather unfortunate name was given to them when the Himba had to move their cattle great distances during a bovine illness epidemic in the nineteenth century.  When they went searching for crops and cattle, they had to ask other people for help, hence their name “Himba”.  It was this move in search of crops and cattle that split the Himba from the Herero and they became two separate tribes.
Today the Himba and Herero speak more or less the same Bantu derived language, but their appearances are a stark contrast.  Noticeably more in the women of both tribes, the Himba have chosen to retain their red ochre appearance whereas the Herero women have adopted a Victorian style crinoline dress and a hat made of rolled cloth, which they also start to wear when they grow from girls into women.

How do the Himba people get medical help if they need it?

Most Himba people live in extremely remote and isolated areas of Namibia.  It is my understanding that if a Himba person becomes ill, their first course of action is to seek traditional medicine and care but in recent years, a number of remote clinics have been built across Kaokoland that offer modern medical treatment in the case of long standing illnesses, complicated childbirth and emergencies.

What is the life expectancy of Himba people?

I think this is difficult to truly determine as many Himba live a long way from towns and settlements so estimates vary.  I’ve read that Himba women live only to the age of around 45, around 10 years less than men, but I’ve photographed people who look a lot older than this and I’m unsure of a source that specifies their life expectancy more exactly.

Do they engage in tribal conflict?

There are three main tribes living in northern Namibia – the Himba, Herero and Zemba people.  It is always surprising to me how harmoniously these tribes co-exist.  The large Namibian town of Opuwo is bustling with activity and it is possible to walk down the streets of Opuwo amongst people of all three tribes together.  It is quite something to shop for food at the large OK Supermarket in Opuwo alongside Himba women wandering the aisles bare-breasted with children slung around their backs.
On my most recent trip, I asked a lodge owner near Opuwo if there was ever any problems with the different tribes in the area and he said “No. Mostly these people just want to be free to live their own culture”.
In recent years the Himba and Zemba people have stood united to block the construction of a hydro-electricity dam on the Kunene River, downstream from Epupa Falls, on the basis that the construction would destroy traditional Himba grave sites.

Are the Himba people poor?

I guess this depends on where the Himba people live and what you define as “poor”.
Traditionally their wealth is measured by the amount of livestock they own and this remains true to this day for many Himba people living in remote areas.  In Opuwo it is possible to meet Himba people who are more affected by the lifestyles of towns, who may have issues with alcohol and who may be living in a shanty style building on the outskirts of town.  Thankfully the number of Himba people living like this is still a minority.
I feel we need to avoid equating the way of life that Himba people choose with poverty.  We see them living in traditional huts in the middle of nowhere, walking great distances to herd their livestock, get water and food and we think they are poor when the opposite is more true.

What roles do men, women and children play in Himba society?

The Himba live under a patriarchal system in terms of authority, but a matriarchal one in terms of economy.  On a day to day basis, life is generally conducted along the following lines:
Men – responsible mainly for herding livestock, killing animals for meat and cooking meat
Women – responsible for finances, making porridge, caring for children, milking cows and goats.
Children – responsible for fetching water and fire wood, herding goats and cows and just being kids!
I have seen all sorts of variations on the above roles in my travels including women herding livestock, men caring for children, all members of the family taking livestock to drink and all members of the family fetching water but traditionally the roles above apply.

What about the appearance of Himba men?

Himba men do not paint their skin with ochre.
Traditionally younger men would wear their hair in a single plait called an Ondatu until they were ready to marry, when their single plait was turned into two plaits.  This signified that he was no longer interested in younger girls and that he was serious.  Once a Himba man married he covered his hear in what is called an Ondumba, a piece of cloth that almost looked like a turban.  The only time the cloth was removed was in mourning after a family bereavement.
Modern Himba men have mostly adopted a Western style of attire like the head man Uapenga in the image below.

Why do Himba women always have a space between their teeth?

The space between the front two teeth in Himba women is created as a part of them growing from girls into women.  Much like the change in their hair above and the colouring of their skin with ochre, the gap in their front time is a symbol of maturity and beauty in Himba women.

What about metal leg guards that Himba women wear?

All adult Himba women wear beautiful leg guards.  When I first saw these I thought they were just a very decorative way of protecting their legs against snake bites but I believe these are just for decoration.  When a Himba woman is married, small notches are made in them to signify how many children she might have.

What happens when Himba people die?

I recently had the quiet  honour of visiting a cemetery for Himba people in Kaokoland and I found it truly fascinating.  Traditionally, Himba graves were adorned simply.  A large red stone at the end of an oblong pile of smaller stones acted as the headstone of a woman.  The graves of men were adorned with a large white stone at the end of the same oblong pile of stones.
Modern Himba are more regularly choosing engraved headstones made of marble and granite, much like our own.  If their dates of birth and death are known, then these are placed on their headstones.  If not, they are simply omitted.  Interestingly a symbol of what the person did in their lives is also engraved on their headstones. For example a Himba man who hunted might have a rifle engraved on his headstone.  A man who only farmed may have a cow engraved on his headstone.
These permanent burial grounds are also adorned with the skulls of cattle as offerings to the Himba people’s ancestors.

What challenges do Himba people face?

It is dreadfully naïve to think that the Himba live in a totally innocent world, free of trouble and the same sort of pressures that we confront each day.  Over the short time I’ve come to know them, I’ve learned that Himba people face a myriad of challenges associated with education; slotting their culture into modern Namibia; social change; alcohol; social problems and the cultural shift they are experiencing through tourism.
However, in many ways I think the Himba are much wealthier than us.
They are able to provide for their families through their livestock; their children grow up playing together and return home to families that love them and provide them with a secure home; their sense of community and honour is far greater than many English speaking cultures.
Often when I spend time with the Himba people in Kaokoland, I leave feeling that we have lost our way a little in our developed world.  It is a wonderful experience to spend time with people who are connected to their families, their land and their livestock in a very intimate way.  In our frenetic, fast-paced way of life we sometimes lose sight of the things that should be the most important to us.  Basic things like family are given a low priority over technology, work, traffic, television, internet, politics and life in general.
When I visit the Himba a part of me feels like I am going home, to a place where the only noises I hear are the whirring sounds of flocks of African Peach-faced parrots and of Himba children calling to their goats in the valley, the crackling sounds of a wood fire or the wind rustling through the grasslands.  They live in a world that is disconnected in so many ways from our way of life, I feel like I am returning to my childhood when I visit the Himba people in Kaokoland.
It is for these reasons that I will always try to tread as softly as I can upon their culture.  I take small groups into Kaokoland to meet the Himba but I am always careful to not overwhelm them when I visit.  My deepest respect for Himba people underpins every aspect of my visits with them and I always try to encourage my guests to speak with the Himba through our translator and find out more about them.  In my experience Himba people are very generous with their culture if you ask them questions.
They can also be very curious about our culture. I recently had a funny conversation with an older Himba lady I met in Kaoko.
“How many children do you have?”  she asked me.  In hindsight I should have replied “Four” as I have four stepkids who I consider my own.  Instead I said “None” and this of course sparked the inevitable reply.  “Why?” I tried valiantly to explain that my job takes me all over the world and I wouldn’t be able to take my children with me when I travel.  The confused look on this lovely Himba ladies face was growing more intense as my translator tried to explain this to her.  She paused for a moment and then asked how old I was.  “Forty five” and she smiled.  “That’s OK, you still have five years to have a baby!”  We both laughed!  I was with my mother when we were having this conversation and the topic switched to my mother and the fact that I was her daughter before we drifted off on to other subjects.
It is my hope that my guests leave Kaokoland with more than just beautiful photographs but also with stories of their time with the Himba people.  I like people to get to know the names of the people they meet, a few words of Himba language, experience sitting on the ground and chatting to them about their way of life and laugh with them when the occasional moment gets ‘lost in translation’.
If you would like me to introduce you to the Himba on one of my trips, I run annual small group tours to Namibia.  Please email me at inger@ingervandyke.com to find out more…..

2 thoughts on “My Wanderings with the Himba

  1. Annisa says:

    Is there a reason as of to why only the Himba women covers themselves in red? Why does the men not do this? I’m very curious about these people hehehe

    • inger says:

      Hi Annisa,

      Great question and I’m sorry for the delay in reply. I have actually been visiting the Himba up in Kaoko in the last three weeks! Traditionally the men of the Himba also wore ochre but they don’t seem to anymore. This could largely be due to education and an evolution of their culture. Personally I have not seen a Himba man wearing ochre in my travels (although I would love to!). It is becoming harder and harder to see them wearing their traditional hair styles of Ondatu and Ondumba too – but that’s another story.

      I hope you get to meet them some day. If you are interested in joining me on a trip, please let me know too.

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