Not many cultures manage to withstand the ever growing technological world. In the north of Namibia, a small tribe of an estimated 50.000 people are still living the way their ancestors did. Dressed in nothing more than a loin cloth made out of animal skin, the Himba people challenge the modern world in managing to live according to their beliefs and traditions.
The Ova-Himba (as they are actually called) have managed to maintain their original true culture over the years. In recent years, they have allowed tourists to visit their villages to show them how they live. Surprisingly enough, the Himba are not very affected by these visits and have not changed like other tribes in the world unfortunately have.
Traditional Himba Villages
Even though the Himba people are considered to be semi nomadic, they do have family homesteads. These villages are traditional settlements with little round family huts surrounding a wooden livestock enclosure and an ancestral fire, which are the center of each village. The little huts are made out of wood and dried grass and plastered with a mixture of mud and cattle dung. The ancestral or central fire is supposed to burn continuously. During the night, an ember of this fire is taken into the Chief’s hut to make sure the sacred fire can be relit again in the morning.
Most of the Himba live in the north of Namibia in the Kunene region, but it is possible to see Himba people in Windhoek as well, or in the region of Kamanjab and Outjo. In Kamanjab tourists can visit a Himba village set up on a farm. This is open for public and shows all the traditions and beliefs of the tribe. Therefore, it is not uncommon to come across a Himba woman in town dressed only in a loin cloth.
Diet of the Himba
Their livestock, which are mainly cows, chickens and goats provide them with dairy products (milk and butter) and meat. In order to maintain the meat for a longer period of time, it is dried in the sun. In addition they farm some crops like corn and millet. The corn is crushed by hand to make cornmeal or porridge which is their staple diet.
Most people have already seen pictures of the Himba woman with a specific hairdo and red skin, which characterises the tribe. This is their specific trademark, at least for the women.
The women have a specific daily beauty ritual which takes about 3 hours each morning. Due to living in a region where there is often scarcity of water they have adjusted to a life without using water to wash themselves. Every morning the Himba woman uses hot ash and a cloth to steam each part of their body as a cleansing method. Afterwards an ointment made out of butterfat, red ochre and some incense is applied to their skin, giving them the typical red hue.
This ancient tradition is said to be used for purely aesthetic and beauty reasons. However, it does protect their skin as well from insects and the effects of living in a harsh desert climate. If you see these women, their skin looks (and feels) very smooth, soft and young, meaning it is a perfect anti ageing cream as well as a hair remover.
Another specific feature is their hair. They use hair extensions which are be braided and covered with the same mixture of butterfat and red ochre as applied to their skin. It takes about three days for their hairdo to be finished. When walking in their villages, almost always you’ll see the women sitting together while doing somebody’s hair. Mostly this happens at the end of the day, when all the daily tasks are finished.
This hairstyle is specific to woman who reach adult age. Men normally have short hair. For children, the hairstyle is different between boys and girls.
Boys typically shave their whole head except for a single lock of hair top and center of their head. This is then braided and allowed to grow towards the back of their head. A young girl will have an ‘Ozondato’ meaning double braids. She leaves two locks of hair on each side of the head, which will be braided and grown towards the front of the face.
The traditional clothing of a Himba woman is a loin cloth made out of animal skin (mostly goat). They also cover themselves with lots of jewellery, made from shells, iron and copper. The way they wear this jewellery as well as which type they wear depends on their social status and age.
On the contrary, men will usually be seen dressed in western clothing.
At a young age, the four lower front teeth of the women are knocked out. According to them, it is for beauty but as well as to speak their language better.
When visiting a Himba village…
Although many tourists visit Himba settlements mainly around Kamanjab, surprisingly enough, you don’t see it influencing their way of living too much. They accept foreigners with different habits, but still prefer to live their traditional way.
It is recommended to visit with a guide, who will be able to communicate to them in their own language and translate all they explain to you. The guide will also be able to inform you about their traditions and habits, what to do and what not.
Further, if you would like to bring some presents to the Himba, it is advised that you bring items they can use. In local shops, it is easy to find local food, like porridge flour or rice. It is not recommended to bring items from the Western world, like little presents for the kids or sweets. The Himba tribe wants to maintain their own way of living, and who are we to interrupt these traditions. If you are not sure, you can always ask the local guide what would be advisable and who you should hand the presents to, which normally is the chief of the village.
I think it is amazing that in the world today, some tribes still manage to live up to their ancestral traditions and are hardly influenced by the world around them. It is difficult to sustain this lifestyle and during the years I have visited them I have slowly seen the Himba change and adapt to some modern things. I still have a lot of respect for them and sincerely wish they can continue to live their life the Himba way.
Have you ever visited a traditional tribe somewhere? Which tribe was it and how did you interact with them?
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