The Himba

Trip Start Jul 25, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Namibia  ,
Monday, September 17, 2007

The Himba.

I had first heard of the Himba of north western Namibia from the drunken ramblings of a fat, middle aged German guy in Backpackers in Uganda. He talked about a mystical people who lived in Namibia. A people who lived like they had for thousands of years. A people who were pure. A people who were protected from the outside world, and only he was allowed to see them. A people whose women rubbed butter, ash, and ochre on their skin and went topless. Seeing as this guy was a rather abusive drunk, and definitely a few apples short of a strudel, I wasn't sure if he was talking about actual people or little naked pixies that lived in his head.

The truth, as it is in most things, was somewhere in between.

The Ovahimba, or Himba as they are commonly known, are a sub-sect of the Herero people. They were a pastoral people who lived semi-nomadic life styles. In the late 19th century, while most of the Herero moved south with their cattle in the north central regions of Namibia, some stayed in the mountains and desert of north-western Namibia, in the area called Kaokoland. Tribal conflicts with the Nama people eventually forced these people to flee in neighbouring Angola, where they sought aid from another tribal group, the Ngambwe. These people treated the people from north west Namibia with disdain and gave them the name "ovaHimba" or "those who beg." Eventually the Himba moved back into the Kaokoland where they continued their pastoral life style. As the 20th century moved on, and more and more African tribal people adopted the cultural and economic practices of their colonial masters, the Himba proudly maintained their life style that had been handed down for generations. They have suffered, greatly at times, especially duiring the drought of the 1990's, but still continue to eke out a living in the north of Nambia.

The Himba are probably best known for the dress of their women. The women smear their skin with a mixture of butter fat, ochre and ash. This gives protection from the sun, and gives their skin a deep reddish colour. Adult women also work the ochre into their hair, forming elaborate braids and weaving in tuffs of cattle hair on the ends. The married women wear a leather headpiece, distinguishing their position from the unmarried younger women. They wear a combination of leather, shell, and iron jewellery, ranging from necklaces to bands that wrap around their ankles. A small leather miniskirt covers the waist area, and their breasts are bare. The missionary police never managed to shame them into covering themselves like good "respectable" Christians. Their culture is poly-amorous, with a man being able to take as many wives as he can support.

It's a culture that is, like many indigenous African cultures, fighting to keep its traditional practices and customs. While in Epupa Falls, I spoke with a few young Himba who spoke English but dressed in Western clothes. They told me that the young people who wear western dress are the ones who go to school. The ones who still dress in the traditional way do not go to school. It's a dilemma. One hates to see unique cultures and practices falling by the wayside, but at the same time, can not fault a people for wanting to embrace education and materially better themselves. The myth of the "noble savage" living in harmony with nature, wanting for nothing, is generally just that - a myth. Life is difficult, and most people want to improve it, to get more creature comforts, if they can.

The Himba are not stupid either. They have figured out their way of life has an appeal to the voyeuristic nature of travel and tourism. When driving through the dirt tracks of the north, children will come running when they hear a car, yelling "sweeties!", an appeal for candy from tourists. If you stop, they will offer to pose for photographs, 20 Namibia dollars a shoot. They are, for better or worse, a people who can live up to the traditional meaning of their name. I used to always get upset when people would ask for money if I wanted to take a photograph. Now I'm not so sure how I feel. If it allows these people to keep a more traditional life style, and make a bit of money to make life a little easier, is that such a bad thing? Cultural tourism, for all it's drawbacks, has also keep alive traditional dancing, singing, and practices all over the world that otherwise would have fallen by the wayside. One might argue that the authenticity is lacking, but culture is resilient and has a way taking what it wants from the western world while maintaining the practices and beliefs its members believe are most important. Fusion is, and always has been throughout history, how cultures changed, adapted and grew. The difference today is the ease and speed with which the cultural transmission can take place.

Still, when you spend a morning in a Himba village, taking out a gift of mealy-meal, sugar, and tea, you get a sense of just how far the Himba are from being assimilated by western society. Each village is made of a main hut, with a sacred fire that is kept burning all day directly across from the hut. One of the worst transgressions a visitor can make is to cross between the fire and the door of the main hut. The sacred fire is where the sprits of the ancestors stay, and when times are difficult, the Himba still consult their ancestors, beseeching them for help. The main hut is the chief's, and scattered around the site are small huts for each wife he might have. The huts have a distinctive beehive shape to them, and are made from a combination of mud and cow dung. The sun beats down mercilessly in this part of the country, but the huts do a good job of keeping heat out during the day, and in at night. Goats wander around aimlessly, and every morning the women milk them to add to their supply of food.

My favourite part of Epupa Falls was the pools at the top of the falls. Here Himba children, women, and men came all day long to wash themselves, their clothes and blankets, or simply to cool off in the water and shade. Children jumped into the water and the eddies above the falls and played as children have been doing in every culture around the world for thousands of years. They tolerated my presence and a number of them even came to befriend me. On my first day, a little girl named Anna of about three years old spent half an hour using me as a jungle gym while her mother and friends looked on in amusement. After a while I was able to photograph a number of the children and young people who came down to the waterfalls. They clamoured over each other to get a view of themselves on the back of my camera. They spent a fascinated 30 minutes ohhing and ahhing over the photos of animals I had taken on safari, yelling out the name of the animal in Herero when it came onto the screen. Sitting on the rocks next to the waterfalls with these beautiful and unique people was a highlight of my trip so far. It was a place I could have spent weeks or months living, rather than the three days we had.

Kevin, one of my travelling companions, joked he could see me moving here and creating my own little village with numerous wives - the great white Himba. Despite the temptation, after a few days, we moved on and left Epupa, gradually making our way back towards Tsumeb. Still, it was an amazing, if brief, snapshot into a culture far different from my own, and reaffirmed just why I am doing this trip.

And all those half naked women didn't hurt either.

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