20th October, 2013
The Himba tribe is one of the highlights of a visit to Namibia, especially when one has the time to travel all the way north-west to the Kunene region formerly known as Kaokoland. It is an out-of-the-way area for most of the regular tourist itineraries, but worth the effort if the visitor has interest in tribal ways of life. To this end, the Himba will not disappoint since for the absolute majority of them, they still live the way of life they have lived for hundreds of years.
When visiting such tribes it is always appropriate to equip oneself with some gifts, firstly as courtesy and secondly since most traditional tribes live off the land, which in most cases is a tougher life than the average person experiences. In the case of meeting with the Himba, gifts in the form of food are more appreciated by them, since the use of money is not much of a commodity given that the place is so remote with no place where to spend it. My guide Nico suggested we prepare maize meal, sugar and sweets for the kids. For the actual visit itself I had the company of an English speaking Himba man.
The Himba people are nomadic pastoralists and their life consists of herding goats, sheep and cattle. The goats and sheep are normally taken care of by girls or young boys, while cattle herding is taken care of by adult males. In most cases the head of the village owns all animals and he is the only one to determine when a cow is killed for consumption, since it is the most valuable thing he owns. Power and status between different Himba settlements is determined by the amount of cattle owned, the more cattle the richer he is considered.
In the majority of villages the head-man is missing for most of the time, since he needs to graze elsewhere, where enough grass can be found for the cattle. In such cases the authority of running the settlement goes to his wife, which in most cases will be the eldest woman in that settlement, thus considered the head-woman of the settlement. Anything that goes on in her village has to occur with her blessing and when talking to one as I had that experience to, you can feel the authority of how she manages the rest of the dwellers of the settlement.
The initial striking feature when arriving at one of these villages is the small amount of dwellings, which normally consists of between 8 and 20 structures. In fact the use of the word village is probably wrong in itself, since these are actually settlements of a group of relatives rather than a congregation of separate families forming a large group. Each family (couple) in the settlement has its own hut which they use to sleep in, while all other structures are for communal use.
These rounded structures (huts) consist of twigs formed into a circular formation and then walled by means of mud and dung from their animals. The center of the settlement usually contains a pen made out of sticks to enclose the young sheep and goats and prevent them from breastfeeding from their mothers, enabling the Himba to use the milk for their own needs. The third type of dwelling found in a Himba settlement consist of a raised hut also made of sticks and dung but the lower level is an enclosure made out of sticks only. The lower part is at times used as a pen while the upper part is always used as food storage, and in most cases this is padlocked and controlled by the settlement head-woman.
The Himba is a sister tribe to the Herero with the difference that the Herero settled down while the Himba lead a nomadic life. The language spoken by Himba is Otjihimba, which is very similar to that spoken by Herero. Himba believe in ancestral worship and each of their settlements have what is called okuruwo (ancestral fire) believed to provide ancestral protection. This is usually situated in front of the entrance to the hut of the head-man. At night the fire is move inside the hut and kindled again outside every morning. Like most other primitive tribes, Himba perform the circumcision ritual as a “rite of passage” to both boys and girls, after which they can decide to marry.
The Himba wear nearly no clothing except for loincloths and a headdress for particular occasions. The women’s body is covered with otjize, a butter fat and ochre mixture often mixed with the aromatic resin of the Omuzumba shrub to make their skin look attractive. Some believe it is for sun protection but according to the Himba I met, it is done specifically as a skin embellishment (a rudimentary form of make-up). The hair is made up of plaits of braided hair, covered in otjize as well, with women in the settlement helping each other in the hair preparations. On average, the hair is done twice a year due to the extensive time needed to make it into such patterns. The anklets worn by women indicate their age according to the number of rings they wear. Married women wear a ring around their thigh indicating their status. Married men wear their hair in a turban like fashion held in place also with otjize that also indicates their married status.
The hair style of boys and girls is also fashioned in a way to indicate their status in life. Unmarried adolescent boys wear a single plait pointing in a backward orientation. When they are regarded mature enough to marry, they are allowed to wear two plaits. Regarding girls, upon approaching the age of puberty, the thick plaits of a young girl are loosened and made into thin strings that hang over her eyes. After the initiation rite which follows the reaching of puberty the hair-strings must hang at the back of the head, thus denoting the reaching of marriageable age.
The Herero people migrated into Namibia around the 16th century from the Mocademes province of Angola. Initially, they tried to occupy the grassy plains north of Etosha Pan but were driven off westward by the resident Owambo tribe into the drier Kaokoland. Because of their dispersed settlements they were systematically raided by Nama (tribe) gangs, which managed to disperse them even further to the north. During this period of unrest large numbers of these Herero fled into Angola and sought refuge with the Ngambwe tribe. The hosting tribe looked down upon these refugees and started calling them Ovahimba, which means beggars and thus the name remained, even after they migrated back into Namibia. Though Himba are distinct in their way of life from Herero, they are considered as being cousins so mixing of families from both tribes is an accepted norm, whereas individuals mixed with other tribes are considered as outcasts.
Frank Psaila © 2013