Descended from a group of Herero herders who fled Angola in the early 16th century, the semi-nomadic people of the Himba tribe live in the Omusati and Kunene (formerly Kaokoland) regions in the northwest of Namibia.
With a population of over 50,000, the Himba are a polygamous people where most women and men have multiple partners that are encouraged with mutual consent. Girls are circumcised, but only considered women once they have borne a child. They are married off to male partners selected by their fathers once they attain puberty.
Despite western influence and agitation, the Himba people have upheld most of their cultures and traditions, and these include the OtjiHimba language, a unique social structure, and distinct body adornments.
Because women generally enjoy equal rights in Himba tribes and make most of the economic decisions, it is often perceived to be a matrilineal society.
For women, it is customary to engage in daily activities of milking cows, plastering the homes, and taking care of the children while the men go hunting, sometimes leaving for long periods of time.
One of the most distinct aspects of the Himba that has fascinated travellers for centuries is the ochre pigment that the women beautify their skin with. Women are not allowed to use water for washing. This implies themselves and also their clothes. According to the elderly, this dates back to the great droughts where water was scarce, and only men were allowed access to water for washing purposes. Apart from applying red ochre on their skin, Himba women do take a daily smoke bath to maintain personal hygiene. They will put some smouldering charcoal into a little bowl of herbs (mostly leaves and little branches of Commiphora trees) and wait for the smoke to ascend. After that, they will bow over the smoking bowl, and due to the heat, they will start perspiring. For a full-body wash, they cover themselves with a blanket so that the smoke gets trapped underneath the fabric.
Butterfat and ochre are blended into a paste that is known as otjize and sometimes fragranced with the omuzumba shrub that provides a natural insect repellant. It is designed to cleanse the skin and provide a sunscreen-like protection against the hot and arid climate of Kaokoland. Himba women are also known to burn aromatic herbs in a container known as an ombware and use the smoke as a fragrance.
These women are also the artisans in the community. Alongside making aprons and girdles to wear using animal skins, and everyday items like baskets, pottery and musical instruments, they also create beautiful jewellery and other body adornments using iron, copper or shell. Beaded anklets are worn to shield their lower legs against venomous animal bites, while a large white ohumba shell is often worn on the chest of women to denote their married status. A favorite of these jewelries is the jewelry of a married woman. The main necklace has a shell or cone shell, which symbolizes marriage and is strung with iron and ostrich egg beads. Their ankles, the most private part of a woman’s body is covered with iron bracelets. On their head they wear an ornate headpiece called the Erembe, which resembles cattle horns. Their wrists are banded with coils of iron and plastic etched bands. Their hair is braided with a mixture of animal hair, cow dung and Otjize. It takes close to 12 hours to prepare their hair!
As early as the 15th century, different tribes used hair to show one’s social hierarchy. Members of royalty wore elaborate hairstyles as a symbol of their stature. For the Himba, the hairstyle is also usually indicative of their age, social, and marital status, with children’s hairstyles changing as they mature and pass through particular rites of passage.
Hair braiding is a communal activity with the range of styles differing from tribe to tribe. Close relatives spend hours creating elaborate and socially symbolic hairstyles. The braids they create are often lengthened by including bits of woven hay, goat hair and artificial hair extensions.
For a Himba woman, her hair is her power. These semi-nomadic people live in one of the most extreme environments on earth, the deserts that border Namibia with Angola. As water is scarce, they use a mixture of pastes on both their bodies and hair. These pastes blend the aromatic resin of the omazumba shrub with animal fat and ground red pigmented stone. This ‘otjize’ paste gives the women’s skin and hair a distinctive red glow which symbolizes both blood, the essence of life, and the earth’s rich red colour.
Hair is also seen as a symbol of fertility amongst the Himba community where thick braids and lustrous hair indicates a woman’s ability to bear healthy children. Women who have been married for about a year, or have had a child, wear an ornate headpiece called the Erembe, sculpted from sheep or goatskin, with many streams of braided hair, coloured and shaped with ‘otjize’ paste. They will also be given a necklace that incorporates a cone shell, known locally as Ohumba, which is also considered a symbol of fertility. Some young girls may also have one braided plait extending forwards, which means they are one of a pair of twins.
Teenage girls wear braid strands or dreadlocked hair that hangs over their faces. Doing this symbolizes that they’ve entered into puberty.
This red full-body painting and hair dyeing of the women among the Himba semi-nomads of north-western Namibia and the most south-westerly part of Angola is presently one of the most visible examples of red body and hair make-up in Africa.
Their red skin is one of the many things that make them extremely unique.
While the Himba have maintained many of their traditional customs, like the ‘Okujepisa Omukazendu’ treatment, where a man shows his approval and pleasure of seeing his guest by giving his wife to the guest to spend the night while the husband sleeps in another room, or outside the house, modern influences are inevitable and one can only describe their lifestyle as a careful balance living within two worlds.