Faces of Namibia
Art work by by Papa Shikongeni
The HIMBA from Namibia
The Himba are an ethnic group of about 20,000 to 50,000 people living in northern Namibia, in the Kunene region (formerly
Kaokoland) Recently they have also built two villages in Kamanjab which have become a tourist destination. They are mostly a
nomadic, pastoral people, closely related to the Herero, and speak Otjihimba, a dialect of the Herero language.
The Himba breed cattle and goats. The responsibility of milking the cows lies with the women. Women take care of the children,
and one woman will take care of another woman's children. Women tend to perform more labor-intensive work than men do, such
as carrying water to the village and building homes. Men handle the political tasks and legal trials.
Members of an extended family typically dwell in a homestead, "a small, circular hamlet of huts and work shelters" that surrounds
"an okuruwo (ancestral fire) and a central livestock enclosure." Both the fire and the livestock are closely tied to their belief in
ancestor worship, the fire representing ancestral protection and the livestock allowing "proper relations between human and
The Himba wear little clothing, but the women are famous for covering themselves with otjize, a mixture of butter fat and ochre,
possibly to protect themselves from the sun. The mixture gives their skins a reddish tinge. This symbolizes earth's rich red color
and the blood that symbolizes life, and is consistent with the Himba ideal of beauty. Women braid each other's hair and cover it
in their ochre mixture.
Modern clothes are scarce, but generally go to the men when available. Traditionally both men and women go
topless and wear skirts or loincloths made of animal skins in various colors. Adult women wear beaded anklets to protect their legs
from venomous animal bites.
Boys are generally circumcised before puberty, to make them eligible for marriage.
Because of the harsh desert climate in the region where they live and their seclusion from outside influences, the Himba have
managed to maintain much of their traditional lifestyle. Members live under a tribal structure based on bilateral descent that helps
them live in one of the most extreme environments on earth.
Under bilateral descent, every tribe member belongs to two clans, one through the father (a patriclan, called oruzo) and another
through the mother (a matriclan, called eanda). Himba clans are led by the eldest male in the clan. Sons live with their father's clan
and when daughters marry they go to live with the clan of their husband. However, inheritance of wealth does not follow the
patriclan but is determined by the matriclan, i.e. a son does not inherit his father's cattle but his maternal uncle's instead.
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