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Culture Dive: The Himba people of Namibia

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Namibia is home to at least 11 ethnic groups, from the Owambo - the most represented group - to smaller groups such as the Kavango, the Damara, and the San.

Perhaps the most intriguing of them all is the Kunene region’s Himba people, a semi-nomadic and pastoral indigenous group that is committed to their long-standing traditions while their younger members are beginning to dip their toes into modernity.

Displaced by the Nama tribe, the Himba people crossed the Namibia-Angolan border in the early 16th Century as part of the Herero tribe. They chose northern Namibia, specifically Kaokoland, as their homeland, which was devastated by a relentless bovine epidemic three centuries later, leading to a great loss in cattle. Since they rely heavily on cattle for a living, some of the tribe opted to explore more southern regions to increase their chances of survival. Those who remained behind became the Himba.

Image credit: MaciejZiarko on Pixabay

Since then, the Himba have persisted through horrific droughts and brutal wars - notably the Herero Wars, during which the Herero population was almost wiped out by German troops.

Today, between 20,000 and 50,000 Himba people reside in the north-west of Namibia and on the other side of the Kunene River in Angola.

An eye-catching appearance

Himba women are famous for covering their bodies in otjize paste, a combination of butterfat, red ochre, and often the aromatic resin of the oomuzumba plant, which gives their skin a striking reddish glow. This is not just for cosmetic motives but also to cleanse the skin for lengthy periods of time due to water scarcity, to protect the skin from the dry Namibian heat, to repel mosquitos, and to distinguish between men and women.

Image: Jovanel on Pixabay

Men, women, and children are easily distinguishable by their clothing, adornments, and elaborately braided hair, which is usually styled using otjize, straw, and goat hair.

Hairstyles, in particular, play a role in indicating age, clan, and marital status within the Himba community. A young Himba girl typically has two plaits named ozondato at the front of her head before puberty, and then braids covering her face during puberty, which are later re-styled towards the back of the head when she is ready to marry. Nevertheless, these hairstyles vary depending on the clan. Once married for a year, or having given birth to a child, women wear the erembe, a headdress on top of the head made from cow or goat skin.

 

Image: paul24 on Pixabay

On the other hand, men wear a single ondatu plait from a young age. When they are married, they wear turbans that are only removed at funerals or when their spouse passes away. 

Traditional garments are often made from calfskins: loincloths for men and more elaborate skirts that are adorned with shells, iron, and copper jewellery for women. Occasionally, sandals with soles made from old car tyres are worn. In addition, Himba women wear beaded anklets known as omohanga, which is where they hide any money they may have and which also protects them from insect bites.

The importance of cattle

Cattle is an indicator of wealth. Due to the Himba subsistence economy, survival depends upon the Himba's cow and goat herds which provide milk, meat for special occasions, and leather for clothing. Cattle also provides the foundation of their housing, typical huts which are constructed from cattle dung and earth. They are incredibly basic because the tribes travel around based on whether there is enough grazing and water for their livestock.

Image: hjournal16 on Pixabay

Typically, it is the Himba man’s duty to lead livestock to pasture, which means they are often away for days at a time, leaving women responsible for tending to children and livestock, milking, cooking, and collecting firewood, among other duties. Despite their seemingly set roles, all members of Himba tribes enjoy equal rights and decisions are divided between men and women. Overall authority is held by the men, typically the village leaders, yet financial decisions are determined by the women.

Their supreme being

As animists, the Himba people worship a God called Mukuru, with whom they communicate through the holy fire. This fire is seen as a bridge of communication between the dead and the living and is used to communicate with the Himba people’s ancestors, who are in direct contact with their supreme being. It is constantly kept alight until the death of the headman when it is left to burn down, and his family will mourn through dance.  

The Himba people in a modernising world

Their way of life considered, it may be hard to believe that the Himba are not isolated from urban life and modernity. However, you need only to head to the Kunene region capital of Opuwo to witness the Himba community mix with other ethnic groups and make the most of the modern conveniences. In this town, it is commonplace to see Himba people in full traditional dress browsing supermarket shelves, using mobile phones, and drinking in side-street bars.

The younger generations of the Himba, in particular, are increasingly opting to leave their slow-paced village life for the hectic modern world. With more Himba children being enrolled at schools, their eyes are being opened to other ways of life, and some choose to abandon their traditions in exchange for Western clothing and salaried jobs.

In a BBC article, a young Himba businessman says, "When I'm in traditional clothes outside the village, I get strange looks. I have a few businesses and people treat me with more respect when I look like them, they take me more seriously."

Could this be the beginning of the end for Namibia’s Himba people? In the same article, a tribe chief from Omuhoro village hints that it could be, claiming that the allure to modern life is inevitable in a so-called changed world despite his aversion to their traditions disappearing.

"It scares me a lot. I would prefer to die before the traditions of my people finish," he says.




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