7 Fascinating Facts about the Himba Tribe of Namibia
If you’ve read or seen any material about Namibia, chances are you’ve come across the Himba tribe. If you haven’t, get excited because this post is about to rock your world! Okay maybe not, but it’ll at least give you something interesting to discuss the next time you need to sound cultured and or well informed.
7 FASCINATING FACTS ABOUT THE HIMBA TRIBE OF NAMIBIA
The Himba are an indigenous people that live in the Kunene region of northern Namibia and southern region of Angola. Like the Kenyan Masai Mara or the Congolese Pygmies, they’re well known for being an authentic tribe that continues to practice the traditions and customs of their ancestors, the most obvious one being the way they dress. Their history is a tough one involving calamities ranging from genocide attempts in the early 1900s to a severe drought in the ‘80s that almost threatened to eradicate the pastoral and nomadic way of life they practice.
While I was in Namibia I wasn’t able to take a trip up to Kunene to learn more about the Himba, but I did get to interact with a number of them at the Himba market in the city centre. During my short period of interaction with them, they came across as warm albeit financially shrewd. One of the things I enjoyed the most about the visit was meeting and chatting with a white Canadian man who was preparing to marry into the tribe! A wife had already been selected for him, and he was in the process of organising his paper work as well as arranging for the cows which would be used to pay dowry. He seemed genuinely excited at the prospect of moving to Kunene to live a simpler life, and I was happy for him.
Below are seven of the most fascinating things I’ve discovered about the Himba since then, I hope you enjoy.
1. Livelihood: Forget property, cash or penny stocks, the Himba measure their wealth in terms of the predominant source of their livelihood - livestock faming. In fact, the number of cattle a Himba owns in their lifetime is represented by the number of horns on their grave when they die. Yes, it’s that serious.
2. Daily Life: The women and girls play a more visibly active and labour intensive role than men and boys do. Their responsibilities range from building and maintaining homes, cooking, cleaning, taking care of the children, fetching water for the village to making clothes, jewellery and other handicrafts. The men do nothing. Kidding. The men are responsible for herding of livestock as well as political and legal affairs. The dominant role the women play might explain why most of the Himba photos you see focuses mostly on the women and children.
3. Clothing: Himba people live in a dry arid climate (aka the desert) so it makes sense that their clothing is reflective of and suitable for their environs. Both the women and men wear skirt-like outfits on the bottom made out of calfskin and leave their tops bare. A life with absolutely no bras? Sounds delightful.
4. Hairstyles: The hairstyles the Himba wear aren’t just to look cute, but to denote age and social status. Infants will have their heads shaved or have a crop of head on their crown, preadolescent girls will often have two braided hair plaits (a single one for boys), multiple otijze covered plaits when they reach puberty, and then add on a headpiece called the Erembe when they are married.
5. Smoke Showers: Himba women typically do not take water baths and take smoke baths instead. It basically involves them bending over a smouldering bowl of charcoal and sweating. Honestly counterintuitive to me but I suppose it works. The practice apparently dates back to the time of great droughts where water was scarce and only men were allowed to use water to wash. The red paste Himba women are so well known for rubbing all over their bodies is called otijze, and in addition to protecting them from the scorching desert sun and mosquito bites, is useful for keeping their skin clean and cool in the hot weather. So it’s basically a deodorant, anti perspirant, sunscreen and insect repellant in one. Cool.
6. Social Interactions: It may seem like the Himba are a bunch of recluses trapped in time, but they are actually a very social tribe that take advantage of the conveniences offered by modernism as they deem fit. As such they will often travel to neighbouring towns to shop for consumer goods and to acquire healthcare. In fact, I saw a Himba woman at the grocery store in Swakopmund! She was picking up a bar of Dove soap when I spotted her (I know, I wanted to ask if she would use it before, during or after her smoke shower too) and it took everything in me not to stalk her while she completed her shopping.
7. Education: A few of the Himba women I visited at the market spoke a bit of English, at least enough to let me know the photos I was taking with them would not be free. This wasn’t too surprising, given that they were based in Windhoek, the capital city. I was however surprised to find that some of the Himba people in YouTube documentaries I watched after actually spoke decent English. As it turns out a number of Himba villages have schools in them. They are however deemed as a threat to the Himba way of life by the Himba leadership.
And there we have it! The Himbas are definitely one of the most fascinating tribes I have come across in my travels.
Over to you. What is the most interesting tribe or tradition you’ve ever come across while travelling or otherwise?
Fun and sun,