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Tribes of Africa
The Himba

Young Himba Girl

Image © Sjaak Zijlma

The Himba People

The Himba are semi-nomadic pastoralists who live in Kaokoland which is in the Northwest of Namibia. The area is very rugged, dry, remote and mountainous. The Himba live by herding sheep, goats and some cattle and they move location several times a year to graze their livestock. The Himba are descendents of the Herero and still speak the same language. Their houses are just simple cone-shaped structures made with saplings covered in mud and dung. The Himba maintain their traditional beliefs including ancestor worship and rituals concerning sacred fire (okoruwo) which is considered an important link between the living and the dead.

The Himba are a striking people to look at. The women are topless and wear mini-skirts made of goat skins adorned with shells and jewellery made of iron and copper. The men wear goatskin loin cloths. Both men and women smear their skin with a mixture of rancid butter, ash and ochre to protect them from the harsh desert climate. The paste (Otjize) is often mixed with the aromatic resin of the Omuzumba shrub, a little like adding perfume to a suntan lotion. As well as protection from the sun, the deep red colour is a highly desirable look in the Himba culture. It is certainly eye-catching and very beautiful. The Himba use the same paste (Otjize) in their hair which is long and plaited into intricate designs. You can tell the marital status of a Himba lady by the way she wears her hair. The men also change their hairstyle to denote their social position. A married man for example wears his hair in a turban.

The jewelry worn by the Himba is made of shells and metals and the women in particular, wear plenty of it. I have some samples of Himba jewelry and clothing at home and (a warning to tourists who visit the Himba) the leather used is not treated, so it's a pretty smelly souvenir.

For the most part, the modern world hasn't yet intruded on their traditional way of life which is why (ironically) more and more tourists are keen to visit the Himba. That is not to say that the Himba are a relic of the past, no tribe on earth lives in a time capsule. But rather, they have held on to their traditions and adapted to outside influences in their own way.

Tips to Keep in Mind When Visiting the Himba:

  • Ask permission before you enter or camp near a Himba settlement
  • Ask permission before taking photos
  • Don't use any clean water sources to wash yourself (water is scarce and the Himba need it for themselves and their livestock)

    Source: Lonely Planet Guide

Himba Tours

Further Reading

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