With skin as red as the earth and traditions that go back as early as the 16th century, meeting the semi-nomadic tribe of Namibia is an extraordinary experience that will stretch the mind of any traveller.
The translation of the Otjihimba word ‘Himba’ is debatable; some saying it means ‘beggar’ referring back to the end of the 19th century when a bovine epidemic plagued the country resulting in a split of what was then the Herero tribe. The Herero depended on their cattle for survival and after the crisis, headed south in search of new lands. Those that chose to stay in familiar territories roamed the Kunene region in northern Namibia in search of cattle and crops, asking tribe members for help. These people became known as the Himba.
Another translation, ‘aardvark’ refers to the same period when the tribe existed without livestock, forcing them to survive off the land; the aardvark is an animal that digs for food.
Today the Himba tribe can be found in remote regions of northern Namibia where they are still practising age old traditions in one of the harshest environments on earth. With that said, westernisation has spilled into their society and should you find yourself in the city of Windhoek you will be able to meet members of the Himba tribe who have come to the city to sell their goods in the local markets.
A distinctive attribute of the Himba is the red orchre cream that they use to cover their skin, protecting themselves from the extremely hot sun and mosquito bites. This cream is a mixture of small pieces of orchre stone (which they have pounded) and butterfat. The mixture is heated with smoke and applied to their bodies; the colour representing blood, the essence of life.
Due to the scarcity of water, a daily smoke bath is carried out for hygiene purposes. With charcoal and a bowl of herbs they wash themselves in the scent and the heat of the smoke.
Despite the language barrier, the Himba tribe are visually expressive. The traditional clothing of the Himba men and women is both practical and symbolic. Leather skins make skirts that are suitable for the extremely hot temperatures in Namibia. If you see a woman wearing a decorative headpiece (Erembe) this means she is married. Young boys will have one braided plait and the girls have two braided plaits that are styled in the direction of their faces. The women also use clay and red orchre as a coating over their hair, adding to their striking appearance.
Polygamous in nature, Himba men have an average of two wives and arranged marriages can occur from as early as 10 years old. Whilst it is illegal in Namibia to marry so young this tradition is still common amongst the Himba people. The roles of the women and girls range from collecting firewood to making jewellery and handicrafts, a sharpened skill that is reflected in their intricate designs. The men’s responsibility is attending to the livestock and dealing with matters pertaining to the village.
Walking through a Himba village, you will be struck with the simplicity of the homestead in comparison to the western world. However, what may look like little offers much.
Meeting different cultures is as transformative as visiting new places. It widens your world, gives birth to new questions and provides a unique lens to add to your current reality.