In the harsh desert environment of the Kunene region in Namibia, live the Himba People.
Despite the modern world creeping ever closer, the Himba have resisted change and preserved their own identity and rich culture.
On the Move: A Way of Life
Today, the Himba Tribe numbers about 30-50,000 people. They are closely related to the Herero people and speak the language of Otijihimba, a dialect of the Herero language.
The Himba people are semi-nomadic, so are often on the move. As a result, they don’t have a lot of possessions. They breed cattle and goats, which are essential to their livelihood, and must move constantly with their herds to new watering places. Their homes are simple round structures, plastered in mud and dung.
The roles within the Himba community are gender-defined. The women typically do more of the labor-intensive work. Women carry the water to the village; they build their houses and tend to the livestock. Women also raise the children in the tribe.
Men handle the political tasks of their community, including legal issues, but economic issues are usually decided by the women.
When a girl is born, her future husband is decided. They are then married when the girl is between 14 and 17 years old. Interestingly, polygamy is allowed for both men and women.
A Distinctive Appearance
You many not recognize the name, Himba, but you’ve likely seen photographs of people from the tribe. Both men and women go topless and wear lots of leather jewelry.
But it’s the women’s appearance that is so remarkable. Himba women slather a paste, called otjize, which is made of butter, fat and red ochre, on their skin and hair each morning. The paste gives them a distinctive red hue. It can take hours to apply the paste and to get their elaborate hairstyles just right. The intricate hairstyles include bits of woven hay, goat hair, and sometimes even hair extensions.
Appearance is full of meaning for the Himba people. Before puberty, girls have only two hair braids (twins have only one braid each), but get more as they age. After a year of marriage or following the birth of their first child, Himba women add an elaborate animal skin or headdress to their hairstyle.
Single men have only one large braid growing backwards from the crown of their head. After they’re married, men stop cutting their hair and wrap it up in a turban. They never remove the turban except for funerals. And after a death, they shave their head.
Spirituality is important to the Himba people. They worship the god Mukuru and their ancient ancestors. An important role in the tribe is that of the fire-keeper, called the “okuruwo.” He is responsible for keeping the family ancestral fire burning. Every 7-10 days, people use the fire to communicate with Mukuru or their ancestors. The village chief has the only house that faces the fire.
The Himba people also enjoy traditional music and dancing. A popular instrument is a musical bow, called an ohuta.
The 1980’s brought difficult times to the Himba people. In addition to the always harsh physical environment they live in, war and severe drought visited their homeland.
During this time, some people left for Angola, some men joined the South African Army and others poured into the town of Opuwo for relief food. There, harsh poverty forced the Himba people into crowded cardboard settlements—a very different life than they were used to.
These harsh times almost completely decimated their way of life. Around 90% of Himba cattle died, according to an article in National Geographic.
The 1990’s brought a return of peace and much-needed rain to the area. The Himba people were able to rebuild their depleted herds, and return to their way of life.
There have also been recent efforts to give more local control to the Himba people, through local conservancies.
Impressively, despite the ever-encroaching outside world, the Himba people have been able to hold onto a way of life that has been relatively unchanged since the 16th century.