I have recently returned from an exciting journey to stunning Namibia, a West African country much visited for its wildlife. Although I did not shun the wildlife completely, I mostly focused on the unique cultures in northern Namibia, while also experiencing the dramatic southwestern desert environments. As such, I spent most of my visit in and around the beautiful and challenging Namib Desert, which the country is named after. (Interestingly, because of the vast and mostly unpopulated Namib desert, Namibia is one of the least densely populated countries in the world, second only to Mongolia. Namibia is twice the size of California and has only 2 million inhabitants.) The Namib Desert is well-known for the Sossuvlei area, which boasts the highest (and most-photographed) free-standing dunes in the world. This arid desert is also home to the Deadvlei area with its striking dead camel thorn trees. And just north of the desert, in Kaokoland, is the challenging environment where the Himbas, one of the most colorful tribes I’ve encountered, have chosen for their home.
At the must-do stop of Sossuvlei, one begins seeing a lot of red. No doubt, this is a stunning landscape. You stand in a yellowish-white claypan (flat surface area), but you are surrounded by gigantic sand dunes with a red-orange hue. I can testify that climbing one of the dunes at dawn is harder than it looks but offers spectacular views when you finally reach its apex. The Deadvlei, on the other hand, is even eerier than I expected, with these dead trees still standing across the red background of the dunes, looking like giant fingers waving at you.
This scenery was good preparation for meeting with the local tribe, the Himbas, since they have taken the red color of the sand. There is a lot to say about the Himbas. They are a semi-nomadic tribe of pastoralists, and estimates of their numbers vary widely between 20,000 and 50,000. But what sets the Himbas apart in a photographer’s eyes is their striking appearance, particularly the women.
Himba women get their unique reddish hue by covering themselves entirely with “otjize”, a mixture of butterfat, ground red ochre, and a fragrant local resin (also now called Namibian myrrh). I was told that the Himbas enjoy the red as it symbolizes the earth’s rich color as well as the color of blood, a sign of life. I was also told that those Himba women mostly use “otjize” because it is a natural sunscreen and insect repellent. Whatever the reason, this practice gives them a stunning look as women cover not only their body but also their hair, clothing, and jewelry.
The Himbas wear little clothing, and women traditionally only wear skirts made of multiple layers of goatskins. Some of them add to their skirt a final layer of animal skin all covered with shells as a distinctive adornment. Himba women also wear belts that they configure to convey the number of children they have. The beaded anklets, though mainly worn to protect their legs from venomous animal bites, also convey information about their marital status and family size via the height of the anklets and the number of threads holding them together. Nowadays, some women also seem to use the anklets as a “wallet”; this is where a woman stored her hard-earned money after I purchased one small necklace from her.
The Himbas seem to enjoy jewelry. Most women wear a large white shell necklace, a family heirloom handed down from mother to daughter. They also wear heavy necklaces, bracelets made of iron and copper, and lighter pieces made of wiring and seeds. Now that they see foreigners from time to time, they sometimes include objects discarded or left behind by them; lots of women use keys as ornaments, a cross was proudly used as a decoration for a headdress by one of them, and a feather by another.
Another unique characteristic of the Himbas is their hairstyle, which varies due to their age and social status. Single men wear one plait, while married men wear a turban that they never take off (unless their spouse has died). Small children tend to have shaved heads, growing their hair into two plaits as they age. When a girl reaches puberty, the plaits are moved to the front, so they cover their eyes, not attracting men’s attention. All women wear many streams of braided hair, but only married women wear a dramatic headdress also made of animal skin. These headdresses vary as a function of the clan to which the women belong. I visited several Himba villages in two areas, and the headdresses were quite different.
For those of us knowing that it can take some time to look our best, it is not surprising that the same is true for Himba women. So we see many of them busy smearing themselves with “otjize” or helping one another with their dreadlocks. As water is very scarce in their part of the world, women often purify themselves and their clothing by using the smoke generated by burning the wood of a local tree.
Although the Himbas are semi-nomadic, an extended family typically dwells in a homestead, a small collection of huts surrounded by a low circular wooden fence. These huts, mostly round structures plastered in mud and dung, are built around an “okuruwo” (ancestral or holy fire) and a central livestock enclosure. A headman oversees each homestead, typically an older man, who is responsible for the rules and traditions of the clan.
The “okuruwo” is considered the most important part of the Himba village. It is meant to be kept continuously lit, as it represents the ancestors of the villagers, who act as intermediaries to the Himba’s god, Mukuru. Around this fire, the all-important ceremonies of births, marriages, and coming-of-age are performed. The headman’s hut is the only one whose entrance faces the fire — all the others face away — and it is important for outsiders not to walk in the sacred area between his house and the fire (without explicit permission, which we received.)
The huts are rather small and quite bare. They are mostly furnished with mats on which to sleep, goatskins hanging from the roof, as well as jars of products and adornments worn by women. Of necessity, most of the activities, such as cooking or craft, are done outside the huts. Women are used to hard labor as they often have to be alone when men are away with the cattle.
For Himbas, life revolves around the cattle. This is the basis of their wealth and survival. Every morning, the women milk the cattle before the village men lead them out to graze. If there is nowhere to graze, the village may relocate, or the men set up a temporary village with their stock. Women or young girls are responsible for taking care of the goats. These goats are typically kept in a pen in the center of the village.
One of the Himba’s favorite activities seems to be singing and dancing. On several occasions during our visits, the women would suddenly get together and start clapping and singing. Their dance style is mostly done with all of them standing next to one another. Still, occasionally one will go up front for a short solo “performance,” at which point the remaining members increase the rhythm and volume of the song, I assume to convey their enthusiasm at the performance. At the first homestead we visited, we had a magical evening of songs and dances around the holy fire.
All in all, I was amazed that the Himbas have maintained much of their traditional lifestyles after facing many challenges such as wars, droughts, and the prospect of a proposed hydroelectric project. The question, of course, is whether they will continue to live this way for much longer. Jaongarerua, the headman’s wife in Puros, says she has five children, three living the traditional ways, the other two having adopted a Western style of living. From what I could see, women are more determined to resist the modern lifestyle than men, at least concerning clothing. Men are more likely to be seen wearing t-shirts. The proximity to a somewhat modern city did not seem to impact the ways of the Himba women greatly either. One of the villages we visited was located near Opuwo, a small town close to the Angola border. We saw Himba women all over town in their traditional garbs, most loosely covering themselves with a large piece of cloth. And, of course, the occasional cell phone, dangling from their neck like an additional necklace.
Enjoy the red,