It is hard to imagine that just a few hours drive from the teeming metropolis of modern Windhoek, there lives a small native tribe who exist pretty much as they have done for hundreds of years. I’m referring to the Himba who are found in the Kunene region of north-western Namibia. A tribe that is clinging tenaciously to the customs and traditions of their forefathers with little hope of being able to stem the tide of Westernisation that is lapping at their feet, beckoning the youngsters with the trappings of modern life.
Originally part of the nomadic Herero tribe that lived in southern Angola and migrated to Namibia in the early 16th century, they were driven into the waterless and inhospitable Kaokoland area by the Ovambo’s who guarded their own territory jealously and ferociously. The Herero’s eventually decided to head east where life was easier and they were converted to Christianity, whilst the Himba stayed on the western side of the country and resisted change to their culture. They often had to beg for food in order to survive and the name ‘Himba” derives from ‘Tjiiimba’ which means ‘the people that beg.’ And they still do, believe me!
The Herero’s covered their bodies with long dresses and multiple petticoats, whilst the Himba retained their tradition of near-nakedness because of the heat and lack of water. The two tribes still speak the same language in spite of their differences, although the Himba’s are looked upon with disdain by their former tribesmen.
Today they still live a nomadic existence, often abandoning their mud huts and settlements in search of water for themselves and their herds of cattle, goats and sheep, which are their main currency and provide for all their necessities in the way of milk, meat, clothing and utensils. They have adapted to their arid environment, but are becoming more sedentary due to tourism and modern innovations such as water pumps and wells.
Himba hairstyles tell a lot about the person; identifying their social status. For example, pre-pubescent girls wear two thick braids in front of their faces – these look like ram horns. After puberty the braids are replaced by many strands hanging all over their heads and faces. As she gets older the braids are lengthened and tied back, indicating that she is ready for marriage. Once married, an ‘erembe’ (a piece of goat leather) is tied to the top of her head. Single men wear their hair in a single braid running backwards from their crowns (called an ‘ondatu’) with the rest shaved off; two plaits if they are eligible to marry and a turban style hairdo for married men. Often these are covered by a similar shaped hat or material.
On our drive from Kunene River Lodge to Epupa Falls, we came across a Himba burial site. The gravestones were surrounded by a wooden fence and a number of ox skulls placed on a tree in the area. The skulls apparently denote the wealth of the deceased – each skull representing one hundred oxen that the person owned. Also the direction the skulls are placed tells whether the deceased was male or female.
Death of the physical body is not the end for the Himba as they believe that the deceased stays in the homestead with them for two generations. Each Himba settlement has what is known as the Holy Fire (Okoruwo). This is always positioned between the entrance to the kraal and the door of the main dwelling. The Holy Fire is used to light all fires in the settlement and it is the duty of the oldest member of the patriclan to ensure that it is kept smoldering and never goes out. Flames from the Holy Fire are used for daily rituals and special ceremonies like births, deaths, marriages and circumcision, and it is through this medium that communication takes place with the ancestors. Special rituals are always performed by the Onganga or witchdoctor.
So much more could be written about this fascinating tribe, but I hope that I have whet your appetite a bit to come and see them for yourselves. They are a proud and friendly people, although as I said earlier, their begging can be a little off-putting to travelers who would like to get to know them better.