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Himba People

The Himba Tribe – insights into the life of an extraordinary people

The Himba Tribe (singular: OmuHimba, plural: OvaHimba) are indigenous peoples with an estimated population of around 50,000, who live in northern Namibia, in the Kunene region (formerly Kaokoland) and on the other side of the Kunene River in Angola. The OvaHimba are a semi-nomadic, pastoralist people who are culturally different from the Herero peoples in Northern Namibia and Southern Angola. They speak OtjiHimba, a Herero variety that belongs to the Bantu family in the Niger Congo. The OvaHimba are considered the last (semi) nomadic people of Namibia.

The OvaHimba are predominantly cattle farmers who breed sheep and goats, but take their wealth into account in the number of their cattle. They also grow and cultivate plants such as corn and millet. Cattle are the most important source of milk and meat for the OvaHimba. Their main food is sour milk and corn porridge (oruhere ruomaere) and sometimes just normal hard porridge, as there is a lack of milk and meat. Your diet is also supplemented with corn flour, chicken eggs, wild herbs and honey. The cattle are only occasionally and opportunistically sold for cash. Non-agricultural businesses, wages and salaries, pensions and other cash transfers make up a very small part of OvaHimba’s livelihood, which is mainly generated through work in nature reserves, old-age pensions and drought relief from the Namibian government.

Women and girls are usually more labor intensive than men and boys. For example, they carry water into the village, plaster the houses made of mopane wood with a traditional mixture of red clay and cow dung binder, and collect firewood, the calabash vines, which are used to produce and ensure a safe supply of sour milk, for cooking and serving meals and for the production of handicrafts, clothing and jewelry are used. Women and girls are also responsible for milking the cows and goats. Women and girls take care of the children, and one woman or girl takes care of another woman’s children. The main tasks of the men are cattle breeding, herding, where the men are often not at home for a long time, slaughtering animals, building and holding gatherings with tribal chiefs. Each Himba village is run by a so-called “headman”, who is also the founder of a village but does not necessarily have to be a “chief”. There are a number of “chiefs” or kings in the Kunene Region, three of whom live in the Epupa constituency, including the absolute head of all the Himba, Chief Kapika (pictured above), who is recognized by most but not all other chiefs.

Members of a single extended family usually live in a homestead (onganda), a small family village consisting of a circular hamlet with huts surrounding an okuruwo (sacred ancestral fire) and a kraal for sacred cattle. Both fire and cattle are closely linked to the veneration of the dead, with the sacred fire protecting the ancestors and the sacred cattle permitting “proper human-ancestor relationships”.

Both Himba men and Himba women are used to wearing traditional clothing that suits their living environment in Kaokoland and the hot, semi-arid climate in their region. In most cases, it is simply rock-like clothing made from cowhide and sheepskin or increasingly from more modern textiles and occasionally sandals for shoes. Women’s sandals are made of cow leather, while men are made from old car tires. Himba people, especially women, are remarkably famous for rubbing themselves with Otjize paste, a cosmetic blend of butterfat and ocher pigment. This cosmetic mixture, which is often perfumed with the aromatic resin of the Omuzumba shrub, gives your skin and hair braids a characteristic orange or red tinge characteristic as well as texture and style. Otjize is primarily considered a sought-after aesthetic beauty cosmetics, symbolizing the rich red color of the earth and blood as the essence of life and in keeping with the beauty ideal of OvaHimba.

Hairstyle and jewelry play an important role in the OvaHimba, which indicates the age and social status within their community. In an infant or child, the head is usually shaved or only a small amount of hair on the top of the head. This will soon be formed into a braid for little boys that extends to the back of the head. Young girls have two braids that extend towards the face, often parallel to their eyes, with the type of wear determined by the Oruzo affiliation (patrilineal ancestry). The style remains during pre-adolescence until puberty. Some young girls may also have a braid protruding forward, which means that they belong to a pair of twins.

From puberty, boys continue to have a braid back, while girls usually have two braids that fall forward in the face. Women who have been married or have had a child for about a year wear an elaborate headpiece called Erembe, which is made from sheepskin and has many strands of braided hair dyed and shaped with Otjize paste. Unmarried young men continue to wear a braid that extends to the back of the head, while married men wear a hat or headgear and bare hair underneath. Widowed men take off their hats or headgear and expose unbraided hair.

The OvaHimba are polygamous, with the average Himba man being the husband of two or more women. They also practice early marriages. Young Himba girls are engaged to male partners chosen by their fathers. This happens from the onset of puberty, which can mean that girls aged 10 or younger are engaged or promised. The actual wedding will take place later in the future man’s village. As a rite of passage for the Himba, it is customary to circumcise boys before puberty. At that point, the lower middle two incisors are removed from both boys and girls. After marriage, a Himba boy is considered a man, in contrast to a Himba girl who is only considered a full-fledged woman when she gives birth to a child. The marriage between the OvaHimba involves transactions by cattle, which are the source of their economy. Bridewealth is involved in these transactions. This can be negotiable between the groom’s family and the bride’s father, depending on the relative poverty of the families affected. For the bride’s family to accept the bride’s wealth, the cattle must be of high quality. It is common to offer an ox, but more cattle are offered if the groom’s father is rich and able to offer more.

Although the majority of OvaHimba live a distinct cultural lifestyle in their remote rural surroundings and on their farmsteads, they are socially dynamic and not all isolated from the trends of local urban cultures. The OvaHimba coexist and interact with members of other ethnic groups in their country and the social trends of city dwellers. This is especially true for those who live near Opuwo, the capital of the Kunene region.

Due to the harsh desert climate in the region in which they live and their isolation from external influences, the OvaHimba have managed to maintain and preserve much of their traditional lifestyle. Members live under a tribal structure based on bilateral ancestry that helps them live in one of the most extreme environments on earth. In bilateral ancestry, each member of the tribe belongs to two clans: one by the father (a patrician named Oruzo) and one by the mother (a matrice named EADDA). Himba clans are led by the oldest man in the clan. The sons live in their father’s clan, and when the daughters marry, they move into their husband’s clan. However, the inheritance of wealth does not follow the patrician plan, but is determined by the patrician plan, that is, a son does not inherit his father’s cattle, but that of his maternal uncle.

The OvaHimba are a monotheistic people who worship the god Mukuru and the ancestors of their clan (ancestor worship). Mukuru only blesses while the ancestors can bless and swear. Each family has their own sacred ancestral fire, which is kept by the fireman. The fireman approaches the holy ancestral fire every seven to eight days to communicate with Mukuru and the ancestors on behalf of his family. Since Mukuru is employed in a distant realm, the ancestors often act as representatives of Mukuru.

The OvaHimba traditionally believe in Omiti, which some translate as witchcraft, but others call “black magic” or “bad medicine”. Some OvaHimba believe that death is caused by Omiti, or rather someone who uses Omiti for malicious purposes. In addition, some believe that evil people who use Omiti have the power to get bad thoughts in someone else’s head or to trigger extraordinary events (for example, when a common illness becomes life-threatening). However, omiti users do not always attack their victim directly. Sometimes they target a relative or loved one. Some OvaHimba will consult a traditional African fortune-teller healer to reveal the reason for an extraordinary event or the source of the Omiti.