Do you think you have siblings who are quite different from you? Well, I thought I did until I met two sisters in Namibia who raised the bar of family differences. The image below portrays them: Jaongarerua, the wife of the headman of a small Himba village who was featured in a previous post, and her sister Blousene, a Herero woman. From a sartorial perspective, they are certainly a world apart. As we saw in previous posts, Himba women wear little clothing other than skirts made of multiple layers of goatskin. Herero women, on the other hand, wear capacious Victorian-style dresses. Jaongarerua and Blousene are sisters, they were born into a Himba family but Blousene married a Herero man and adopted the Herero lifestyle.
Hereros and Himbas are essentially cattle-breeding “sister” tribes who speak the same language and have similar traditions. They are both members of a larger tribe that apparently split up at some point. The Hereros settled in towns and villages while the Himbas continued with a nomadic lifestyle. It is hard to know when and why the two groups parted. Very little of their history is documented, and most of it is conveyed through oral tradition. But what produced the Herero sense of style is clearly known. In the late 19th century, the Germans took possession of “German South Africa” (nowadays Namibia). They then systematically appropriated Herero grazing land and brought Herero people in to work for them. The wives of the German colonialists and missionaries took upon themselves to teach the women working in their houses how to dress “properly”.
The Herero people resisted expropriation for many years and started a “great rebellion” that ended with their near destruction in the early 1900s. One would think that the Hereros would have rejected a style of dressing imposed by the colonialists, yet the Herero women embraced it fully and to this day have fiercely protected their dress as a crucial part of their cultural identity.
So even in Namibia’s tropical climate, Herero ladies wear heavy dresses, reflecting the style of the Victorian period with numerous petticoats worn to add roundness to their skirts. One can see them while visiting Herero villages but also in larger cities, like in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital. The dresses are hand-sewn, with women adding their own personal flair, and are topped off with an elaborate horn-shaped headgear sometimes made of a matching fabric. The headdress is said to represent the horns of the cattle, which are so important to the Himba and Herero communities. These elaborate dresses also convey social status as only married women wear them. (Unmarried women wear more typical, modern western clothes.) Also, the size of the hat is an indication of the size of cattle herd own by the family; a larger hat suggests a more prosperous family. The Herero women take enormous pride in their outfits. Now when one visits their villages or a local Herero market, dolls wearing the exact replicas of the dresses can be purchased.
While visiting Opuwo, we also came across another different yet related tribe the Thimbas (also called Tjimbas, or Chimbas). I don’t know whether they can be called a “sister” tribe or merely a “cousin” one, but they too speak a similar language and seem to follow the same traditions as the Himbas and Hereros. I was told that they are part of a group that had fled to Angola during the Herero-German war to finally return to Namibia when civil war broke in Angola. Their attire is somewhat similar to the Himbas, but the women like to adorn themselves with colorful beads, some of them woven in their hair. Somehow, life appears harder for them than for the Himbas, as their cattle looked rather thin and so did the children.
Meet the family,