Himba people

The Himba people live in the Kunene region of northern Namibia. There are between 20,000 and 50,000 Himba people. The Himba are closely related to the Herero people. About 240,000 Herero people live in Namibia, Botswana and Angola. They belong to the Bantu group of African nations. The Himba and Herero speak the same language. The Himba raise cattle and goats. Milking of animals as well as other jobs like bringing water to the village and building homes is done by women. Women raise children too. There is a situation that one woman in the community gets a task of raising children. So, she raises children of her own and those of other women in the community. Men on the other side are more involved in political and legal matters.

Himba women (photo by Charles Fred)
Himba women

It has to be said that Himba women do not wear lot of clothes. To somehow protect themselves from the sun they make a paste of butter fat, ochre, and herbs which they later put on their skin. That is why their skin is of reddish colour. The Himba believe that this colour is beautiful. It also has symbolic meaning as it unites the red colour of earth and blood which is the symbol of life. The hairstyle worn by Himba women is also quite unique. The hair is braided ("weaved") and covered with the specail ochre mixuture called "otjize". Before reaching the puberty girls have only two hair braids. After the puberty they are allowed to make more of them. Single Himba men have only one braid backwards from the crown of the head. When they get married keep their hair tied in the shape of a turban.

Himba woman making her perfume (photo by Hans Hillewaert)
Himba woman making her perfume

Himba women have a rather interesting way to make them smell nice. How do they do it? They slowly burn certain aromatic plants and resins and use the smoke created to perfume and clean themselves. The Himba wear lot of leather jewelry. They often combine it with shells. Western style of fashion appears too but only on men. Both men and women walk topless. They wear skirts or loincloths made of animal skin. Adult women wear beaded anklets. They are used to protect them from snake bites.

Both boys and girls are circumcised before reaching puberty. During the circumcision boys should be silent and girls are encouraged to scream. The Himba believe that this act makes them ready for wedding. As soon as the girl is born, her future husband is decided. They get married when the girl is between 14 and 17 years old.

Himba house (photo by Yves Picq)
Traditional house of the Himba people

Every member of certain tribal community belongs to two clans – a "patriclan" (through the father) and "matriclan" (through the mother). It means that the Himba people have a bilateral system of descent. On top of each clan there is the eldest man of the clan. Sons live with their father's clan. When girls get married they move to the clan of their husband.

Inheritance of goods is done with the domination of the matriclan. Let's imagine that a man dies. His son will not get the cattle that belonged to the deceased. Instead the uncle (mother's brother) will become the new owner of the cattle.

In everyday life the Himba people worship the god Mukuru and their ancestors. The fire-keeper is an important person in every family. He keeps the family ancestral fire burning. Every 7 to 10 days he uses the fire to communicate with the Mukuru and family ancestors. The direct communication with the Mukuru is not always possible. The Himba believe that the Mukuru is quite a busy guy so the family ancestors operate as his representatives.

Himba people
Himba people in their settlement

The Himba live in relatively isolated communities. They manage to survive and keep their traditions despite harsh desert environment they live in. The nature has not always been their only problem. Let's mention just one example. In 1904 they suffered from genocide organized by German colonial authorities led by Lothar von Trotha (1848-1920).

In 1980s the drought killed almost all of their cattle. They became refugees in the town of Opuwo. Since the 1990s their position has improved. Many of them live now in the nature protected areas. They can again live freely and have some use from the tourists. But new trouble appeared on the horizon. Namibian government plans to build the hydroelectric Epupa dam on the Cunene river. Many believe that building of the dam could create floods and seriously endanger the survival of the Himba.