At its best, travel broadens our minds and invites us to see the world and its people through a new lens. Visiting Africa, in particular, challenges our preconceptions of culture and of how to be in the world. In Namibia, our small group drops by a modest Himba village to meet tribespeople who uphold traditions that stretch back untold centuries.
It is an incredible privilege for Discovery Tours travelers to meet the Himba, the last semi-nomadic people of Namibia. About 50,000 people comprise the total population, which straddles northern Namibia and southern Angola. Because their culture has evolved in seclusion amidst a harsh desert climate, they have maintained their unique tribal traditions without outside influence from the modern world.
A Typical Himba Village
An extended family lives in a homestead called an onganda, a circular village of huts and other shelters surrounding a sacred ancestral fire (an okuruwo) and a sacred livestock pen (a kraal). The fire and livestock are more than a source of warmth, cooking, and food. The Himba people revere their dead and believe the fire embodies ancestral protection. The fire is kept burning by the fire-keeper of the tribe, who has the additional responsibility of standing before the flames every week or so to communicate directly with their god, Mukuru. The Himba believe that their livestock, as well, connects them to those who have passed before.
Currency and Food
Himba wealth is not measured in money. Instead, their most valuable asset is their cattle. This is not to say that they don’t use money as a means of exchange; it’s common for the Himba to mingle in marketplaces and enjoy the conveniences of 21st century consumerism. But all in all, cash makes up a tiny portion of a tribe’s typical livelihood.
Rather, theirs is a self-sustaining economy. For generations, they have bred chickens for eggs, sheep and goats for milk and meat, and bees for honey. The men look after the cattle, sometimes herding them away from their villages for many days in order to follow the best grazing land. Killing animals for food and construction of dwellings also fall to the men. Meanwhile, the women keep the home fires burning, often quite literally. In addition to keeping the firewood stocked, women and girls fetch water, plaster homes with a mud-manure mix, cook, and make handicrafts for tribal wear and for selling. Maize, millet and cornmeal make up most of their diet, and it’s typical for them to stop by a favorite berry bush or tree for a snack on the run.
Clothing and Cosmetics
Meeting the Himba for the first time, it is easy to marvel at their clothing and hairstyles. Their traditional dress is heavily influenced by the desert environment in which they live. Sandals, a calfskin skirt and many beads and other jewelry are common among both women and men. But what sets them apart is the otjize paste with which many women and some men cover their skin and hair. This cosmetic mix of butterfat and ochre pigment, sometimes scented with the resin of a local fragrant shrub, cleanses the skin and acts as a sunscreen and mosquito repellent. The resulting red-orange tinge of the skin is considered the height of beauty, representing life-giving blood and the rich, red earth.
Your small group is invited into a Himba village during our Namibia, Naturally itinerary.