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The Himbas September 20, 2007

Posted by isabelleinnamibia in Beauty, Cows, Culture, Education, Home and away, Namibia.

It was in Damaraland where we visited one of the last surviving, truly traditional groups in Namibia, the Himba people. The Himbas are a group of matrilineal nomadic cattle herders known for their defiance against the pull towards modernity. Despite the rapid developments in towns across Namibia, the Himbas continue to live in a traditional way, abiding by their tribal laws, dress and rituals, despite the discrimination they face from other Namibians for being “the ones left behind”. In order to be accepted into society or to send their children to school, they are expected to conform and reject their traditions. But it is their traditions that define their identity and existence, and so their children remain uneducated, unemployed and unaccepted. With their life in the village, it is easy to forget that a world of technology and development exists, and whilst the Himbas are self-sufficient and live a more-or-less sustainable lifestyle through their cattle herding, they do encounter modern life when they visit the growing towns around Namibia, which they find challenges their ethos.

They are most wildly known for their nudity and their glowing red skin. The women wear little more than a loin cloth of leather and symbolic intricate jewellery from leather and metal, and cover themselves in a clay-like substance made from ochre powder and butter fat called otjize. The ochre is found only at one mountain in the Kaokoland area of Namibia, where the women go once a year to mine as much as their village will need. This ochre rock is ground up and mixed with butterfat and some herbs, and then smeared onto their skin and hair, giving them a red clay look. The importance of the otjize is that it protects the skin from the sun and insects, but is also a sign of beauty amongst Himbas. And I certainly agree, the women are the most beautiful in Namibia.

It is taboo for Himba women to wash with water, and so to cleanse themselves, they reapply a fresh layer of otjize each morning. They also use smoke from smouldering specific herbs and plants to “cleanse” and perfume themselves and their clothing. The smoke also helps to keep insects and animals from coming into their dung huts.

They also have very intricate hair styles, consisting of heavily braided dreadlocks, covered in the red clay. A Himba’s hairstyle will represent what level they are at in life, such as which women are fertile, who is married, who has children, and whose parents are still alive. In young children, boys and girls have distinctly different hair styles to separate the two. When a woman is married, her hair is rebraided, including animal hair and hair from her family members. She will have the same style until she is old.

As we walked around the village we saw how they recycle everything to some purpose. Each bit of an animal is used for eating, clothing or building. Old sacks are twisted in strips and turned into string. Every plant has a purpose. One woman was using cow leather to make a baby harness for her little boy (who was sat nearby chewing on a razor blade). One woman was swinging a calabash from a tree; the calabash was filled with cow milk, and the aim is to curdle the milk and make it sour, which is a Namibian delicacy. A child nearby was making the mid-morning pap in a small pot over a fire. Everyone was busy with something, in a calm and relaxed manner.

The “Queen Lady” of the village then took us into her main hut to demonstrate the different tools they use and how the women perform their beauty regime. It takes them 3 hours each morning to prepare themselves for the day, through the smoke and otjize ritual. She really was the most striking of women, and her nudity didn’t seem at all unnatural. She was incredibly elegant and gentle: a proper Queen.

The Himbas are actually related to the Victorian-dress-wearing, vigorously proud Hereros that I work with, and are wildly different and the same in many ways. They are both so vehemently proud of their traditions and cultures, and both share the same language, heritage and passion for bovines. I have even seen the odd Herero woman wearing the red ochre, “to protect the skin from the sun”. But I have been warned that their shared ancestory is not always something that they are proud of. My Herero colleagues explained how many Hereros find the Himbas embarrassing, like the poor relatives who won’t cover themselves up and insist in running around naked. Whilst the Himbas see the Hereros as the ones who gave up on their tradition in favour of a colonial influenced style. The Hereros are the Christianised Himbas, although many believe in both Christianity and the traditional Holy Fire. The Himbas are refusing to be modernised and “sell out”: they are true to their lifestyle, and whilst some discover alcohol and modernity in the towns, this behaviour is disapproved of.

The village we visited is not actually truly traditional, as it is an orphan project set up by a local farmer, where Himba orphans are adopted by infertile Himba women. But despite not being “traditional” and being visited by small groups of tourists who stay at the farmer’s lodge (such as ourselves), it seems to be a good project: orphans get a family within their traditional group, women get children they could not otherwise have, and the tourist visits allow for a small sustainable income which they get from the crafts and jewellery that they sell.

To see pictures of the village we visited, have a look at my Flickr photo account on the right.



1. Utjanga Kavirindi - February 12, 2009

I am a herero woman and was very surprised to read that the “Hereros find the Himbas embarassing.” I haven’t personally come across fellow Hereros who would agree with that statement. If there are then it’s really a big shame. I personally feel a great sisterly love for them and am proud of the pride they take in heritage.

2. fdaluisio - February 16, 2010

I would agree with Utjanga Kavirindi. While relationships are complicated everywhere, I wouldn’t “paint’ the Herero – Himba relationship with such a broad brush.

Magda - May 20, 2010

I would like to know the name of one herb that the beautiful Himba women use. Can you please help me. I am a medical student doing a monograph on one herb but I would like to know the name of one herb. Everywhere I look on the web it seems that every foreigner going to visit the Himba has the same sentence, “the Himba women use a mixture of ochre, butter fat and herbs.” But which herbs??? I would really like some information from a true Native. Thank you for your time.

3. audri louw - March 29, 2011

Great article!!!! 🙂

4. James Milton - January 16, 2012

I am an African American, having found the Himba fascinating I collected over 580 images of them. I am happy to see the Herero people and the Himba basically have a respectful and loving relationship with each other judging by the remarks here, contrary to the article. Much of the information about them is not from either the Himba or Herero. I hope one day one of them can reveal their righteous culture to the world. Both are truly a proud beautiful people with noting to be ashamed of.

5. Kakunaa Ngunaihe - July 5, 2012

How can the hereros be embarrassed by the way the himbas are dressing, if they use to wear almost the same attires?

6. Smilly Tjivikua - September 18, 2013

I’m a himba girl, and i’m rearly proud to be 1, the strong norm and culture we have is the one that make me proud.. my elders used to tell me that a herero is actually a Himba (back in history)

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