- People - The Himba Tribe
HIMBA PEOPLE OF NAMIBIA
An ancient tribe of semi-nomadic pastoralists, many of whom still live and dress according to ancient traditions, the Himba live in scattered settlements throughout the Kunene Region. They are a tall, slender and statuesque people, characterised especially by their proud yet friendly bearing. The homes of the Himba are simple, cone-shaped structures of saplings, bound together with palm leaves and plastered with mud and dung.
The characteristic looks of the Himba people, an offshoot of the Herero people, are
widely known and admired. These tall, graceful semi-nomadic herders regularly
feature in fashion shoots, documentaries on vanishing Africa and make the front
covers of tourism brochures.
||The characteristic ‘look’ of the Himba comes from intricate hairstyles, traditional
clothing, the use of personal adornments in the form of jewellery, as well as the use
of a mixture of red ochre, butter and resin from the Omuzumba shrub. This paste is
known as ‘otjize’ used as protection against the weather and a skin lotion. It is
rubbed on the skin, into hair and onto traditional clothing.
But the Himba are a people in transition and travellers are more likely to pass them
without a second glance as today they are likely to wear western garb. Although
traditional life in the homestead or ‘kraal’ continues, use of traditional garb is
declining, and is more often practiced for cultural encounters or in the inaccessible
areas of Kaokoland where towns and settlements with western influences are few
and far between.
The western way of life offers many benefits to the Himba, aside from clothing. For
instance, canvas and other western building materials are used in the construction of
huts, making them more able to withstand the elements. Western medicine is now
used alongside traditional medicines. Most Himba children now attend schools. Radio
brings news, music and entertainment from further a field. Kin lotion is added to
otjize. And faced with a life of hardship, particularly in times of drought and hunger,
many young Himba men choose to work in towns and villages.
But development also brings challenges, threats and controversy. Although many of
the Himba elders insist on tradition, modern garb and lifestyles causes conflict in
communities. A proposed ‘mega dam’ in Namibia’s Kunene region would bring much
needed hydroelectric power and water security to Namibia, but would submerge a
large part of the Himba’s traditional range as well as ancestral graves.
Yet traditions endure, and women and children particularly, are expected to adhere
to customs in their communities.
||Aside from their traditional appearance, the second phenomenon with which the
Himba's are associated is the sacred fire, the ‘okuruwo’. The sacred fire represents
the ancestors of the Himba’s, and is kept burning 24 hours a day. The Himba believe
in a god who created everything, but this god is very remote, and communication
with this god only takes place through the spirits of male ancestors. The male leader,
the headman, of the Himba clan sits by the fire during the day and talks to the
ancestors about problems facing the family.
While he sits by the okuruwo, he ensures that it carries on burning. At night, his wife
takes an ember from the fire inside the hut. In the morning this ember will be used
to rekindle the sacred fire. Although it may be little more than a smouldering log the fire is sacred, and the
entire area in which the fire burns must be treated with extreme respect. Strangers
are not allowed to pass between the sacred fire and the headman’s hut, nor may
they pass between the cattle kraal at the centre of the village and the sacred fire. If
need be, guests must walk around the back of the hut.
The headman’s hut is the only hut in the homestead which has an opening facing the
fire. All other huts and openings face away from the fire. The homestead, called the
‘onganda’, is surrounded by a circular fence constructed
from large branches, normally from the Mopane tree. In many homesteads there is
only one opening. The headman’s hut is located furthest from the opening with the
sacred fire in front of it. At the centre of the homestead, there is a second circular
fence of branches, a kraal for the cattle and goats.
The huts for the rest of the clan are built towards the edges of the homestead with
their doors facing away from the sacred fire. Himba huts are circular and constructed
of branches and dried mud, though modern material such as canvas and zinc plate
may be used to provide additional protection from the weather.
Storage areas are constructed in trees, where small animals cannot get at them.
Small plots for growing maize are placed away from the village and are also
surrounded by fences made of sticks.
The Himba day starts early. Women arise before or at dawn and apply otjize. Before
the cattle are herded to the grazing areas, they are milked by the women, often on
one side only leaving the other side free for the calves. Each homestead has two
fires, a small one inside the hut for warmth and a larger one outside, for cooking.
Once the cattle are milked, the men herd cattle to the grazing area. If the grazing is
poor, the entire village will move to a place where there is better grazing. Young
men often set up separate, temporary villages and move around with the cattle,
leaving the women, children and older men at the main homestead.
Women spend the day close to the homestead. They occupy themselves with
cooking, gardening, milking cattle, looking after children, caring for livestock in the
kraal and making clothes, jewellery and the traditional ochre and butter paste,
otjize. Flour is made from maize and butter is churned. Wood has to be collected, and
water has to be carried from wells. The children help with the tasks.
The diet of the Himba consists mainly of a porridge made from maize and milk. Milk
left over after making the porridge is used to make butter which is churned in
gourds. Although meat is a part of the Himba diet, beef is consumed sparingly as
cattle represent the wealth of a clan. Meat from small stock such as goats is more
likely to be found in the Himba meal.
When cattle are slaughtered, it is usually done at a ceremony. Married men eat meat
which is kept apart for them. The Himba homestead is a family unit, overseen by the headman who is normally a
grandfather and the oldest male in the village. Most social systems either follow the
lineage of the father (the patrilineal aspect, the ‘oruzo’) or the mother (the
matrilineal aspect, the ‘eanda’). The Himba social system uses both and a Himba
person belongs to the oruzo and the eanda.
||The headman is responsible for residence, religious aspects of life embodied by the
sacred fire and ensuring that the rules of tradition and the specific rules of the clan
are obeyed. The matrilineal aspect is responsible for movable property and economic
matters such as handling of money and property. The Himba headman’s authority is identified by an erenge bracelet. He oversees
births, marriages and coming of age ceremonies. He performs the various ceremonies at the sacred fire, involving the spirits of the ancestors in the daily life of
the village. He is also responsible for the rules of the tribe. If a crime is committed or
a property dispute arises, he will be called to give judgement. If his judgement is not
accepted, a number of headmen will meet to discuss the matter.
are arranged with a view to spreading wealth. Once married, the women
leave their villages and move to the villages of their husbands where
they adopt the rules of the new clan. Himba men are not monogamous and
may have a number of wives and children in different homesteads. Women
are not monogamous either and may have a number of partners. However
courtship and relationships are bound by
strict rules and modes of behaviour.
When a woman is ready to give birth, she will be accompanied by a group of women
outside the homestead. They will assist her during her labour. Immediately after the
child is born, the women return to the homestead. The mother and child then spend
a week at a special shelter built to the side of the headman’s hut, near the sacred
fire, under special protection of the ancestral spirits. After the week has passed, the child is brought to the sacred fire and introduced to
the spirits of the ancestors by the headman. The child is given names from the
patrilineal and matrilineal lines, ensuring that the origins of the child are known.
The child remains with its mother until the age of three, after which it lives with its
siblings. Although Himba children are very independent, they are cared for by all the
members of the family in the homestead. Between the ages of 10 and 12, the bottom four incisor teeth of the child are
knocked out in a ceremony that is believed to protect the child from dangerous
influences and ensure the protection of the ancestors. Young males are circumcised
and have a coming of age rituals. Young girls also have a coming of age ceremony.
||Many of the children receive western education from mobile schools that travel
around the homesteads; however some of the children board at formal schools.
These schools are a problem as many of the young men who attend these schools
don’t return permanently to their homesteads, but instead seek work in towns. This
leaves many of the homesteads with a population of women, children, young boys
and old men.
When a Himba dies, the body is wrapped and bound in the skin of cattle and placed
next to the sacred fire. The first period of mourning lasts 24 hours or more, during
which time cattle are slaughtered. The person is buried far from the village, and the
horns of the slaughtered cattle are placed on the grave. In the case of a man, the
horns are placed upright, but when a woman is buried, the horns point downwards.
The greater the number of horns on the grave, the greater the wealth and status of
In the case of a headman, the main hut is dismantled and parts of it are burned. The
sacred fire is scattered, to be rekindled later from a new Mopane branches. The
headman is bound wrapped in the skin of his favourite ox and buried facing the
rising sun in the east. His walking stick is broken in two and placed on the grave
along with his sandals and the horn that he used for calling cattle. The elder is
believed to enter the afterlife accompanied by the cattle that are slaughtered during
the mourning period. After the person is buried, the clan returns to the homestead and a second period of
mourning begins, lasting about a month. More cattle are slaughtered and their horns
will be added to those already on the grave. The ancestors are contacted by burning
the root of the Omuhe shrub, and a purification ritual takes place.
Cattle owned by deceased males will often be inherited by the family of the deceased
male’s sister, normally the male son. In the case of the death of a woman, the
homestead will be inherited by a brother, or if the woman has no surviving brother,
by the eldest child of a sister. In this way cattle rights and property rights are
continuously redistributed through families.
Although the Himba’s are generally hospitable, due to cultural differences and
language differences, it is advisable to visit the Himba’s on an organised activity with
an activity operator who understands and respects their customs and heritage. The
following should be remembered at all times:
- Do not walk between the sacred fire and the headman’s hut and the / or the kraal
under any circumstances. Ask for guidance if unsure.
- Ask permission before entering the homestead.
- Ask permission before taking photos.
- Do not wash hands or face or even utensils with clean water, as clean water is
regarded as a precious resource, best used for cooking, drinking and for animals.
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