The Himba

Due to the extensive interest and wide publicity afforded the Himba, semi-nomadic people who still live and dress according to ancient customs and traditions, they are, next to the Bushmen, arguably the best known of Namibia’s people. With the Tjimba and other Herero people who inhabit Kaokoland, the traditional name of Namibia’s remote north-western Kunene Region, they are informally referred to as the Kaokovelders.

The Himba live in scattered settlements throughout the region. Their homes are simple cone-shaped structures made of saplings bound together with palm leaves and plastered with mud and dung. The men build the structures, while the women mix the clay and do the plastering. In the headman’s hut a fire burns day and night, both to keep away insects and to provide heat and light. Families often have several of these huts in different locations, moving from home to home a few times a year in search of grazing for their cattle and goats.

The Himba are tall, slender and statuesque people, renowned for their beauty and photogenic qualities. They are a dignified yet friendly people and are willing to have their photographs taken if asked beforehand. The women especially are admired for their unusual sculptural features, enhanced by intricate hairstyles and traditional adornments. They rub their faces and bodies with a mixture of ground red ochre, animal fat and herbs, which protects their skin against the harshness of the desert and keeps insects away. Himba women spend as much as three hours a day to wash and dress. They use a separate mixture of butterfat, herbs and black coals to rub on their hair, and ‘steam’ their clothes over the permanent fire.

Himba males wear different hairstyles to the women, such as the single plait, ondato, worn by young boys down the back of the head, the ozondato, two plaits, worn by Himba men when they reach marriageable age and the ombwiya headdress, a scarf made from fabric covering the hair and decorated with an ornamental band, worn by married men. A young girl typically has ozondato (plaits). Once she has undergone the puberty ceremony, she wears the ekori headdress made from tanned goat or sheepskin with three leaf-shaped points that are usually decorated with iron beads.

Himba women make finely woven baskets with elegant sculptural shapes, traditionally used to hold milk and butter. Some have leather handles decorated with iron beads. They also make a variety of jewellery, mostly with leather, iron and ostrich eggshell beads, shells and carved makalani nuts (vegetable ivory). An interesting Himba craft is dolls, made from fabric and rubbed red with the ochre mixture.