Decked out in voluminous Victorian-styled dresses, complete with horn-shaped headgear, the Herero women of Namibia have held on tight to pieces of 19th century history.
For over a century these women have fiercely protected their dress as a crucial part of their cultural identity.
Their style of dressing was influenced by the wives of German missionaries and colonialists who first came to the country, Namibia, in the early 1900s and settled there, bringing with them all the prejudice that centuries of civilization had bred into them. The traditional semi-naked dress of the Herero was unacceptable to these paragons of virtue and eventually the Herero women were coerced into adopting the Victorian dress, adapting it into the style so distinctive today.
The Herero dress is symbolic of the tragic history of the Herero people. After a genocide carried out by German settlers in the 1900s which saw an estimated 100,000 killed, the Herero have, ironically, made this dress – with its German roots – their own.
The long dresses are heavy and reflect the style of the Victorian period with numerous petticoats worn to add fullness to their skirts. They are hand-sewn by the women who add their own personal style and flair. The Herero women included a horn-like headscarf (known as ‘otjikaiva‘) which is usually made with a fabric that matches the dress. The horned feature of the headscarf symbolizes the Herero’s prized cattle, which are a wealth and status symbol in their communities.
Namibia was a German colony for just over a century, and in the early 1900s the Herero and the Nama people rose up against the Germans with tragic consequences.
Every year the Herero people commemorate those that died in battle with a special ceremony. And the women wear a special dress which is specific to Herero culture. Today, married and older women wear the Victorian dress daily, while unmarried and younger women only wear it on special occasions, such as weddings and church gatherings.
Wearing the dress is a right of passage into womanhood, and matriarchs are in charge of giving young girls their first dress, showing them how it is worn and how to behave when wearing it.
Blogger Mwalimushi Kamati-Chinkoti of My Beautiful Namibia website says wearing the dresses often symbolizes a woman’s place in the society.
On her website, she wrote: “These outfits are regarded as proper dress for traditional married women. By wearing the long dress, a newly-married woman shows her in-laws that she is willing to take up the responsibilities of a Herero home and will raise her children to respect their heritage and their father’s family.”
“The Herero women’s long dress has become a symbol of Herero tradition for Herero, tourists, scholars and other Namibians,” she added.
They take enormous pride in their outfits and have also developed a sideline in making and selling dolls wearing exact replicas of the dresses to tourists.
“It’s all I have to hold on to, I take so much pride in embracing it the same way my ancestors embraced it knowing that it’s all that colonialism left them with,” Ngaevarue Katjangua, a 24-year-old woman from Otjihitua village says.
The headscarf on its own also holds a lot of cultural pride for Katjangua, who says that wearing it reminds her of all the rules she is bound to as a Herero woman, such as the rules surrounding behaviour and etiquette, the rules on how to handle milk in the homestead, or the rules surrounding which parts of a cow one is allowed to eat or not.
Keeping the memory of the Herero-German war alive is very important for the Herero tribe, and there is an annual festival in August to commemorate this. The Herero genocide in 1904 killed almost 75% of the population, and the event is a key moment in Herero identity.
I take a versed moment to appreciate these women, their struggle, their resilience, and how passionate they are to hold on to their culture and beliefs, after labeled years of war and anguish led them victoriously to their independence. I find strength here, and I am grateful. Not everyone lives through what they’ve been through, let alone are alive and well to embody it, and carry it on with pride as a reminder of where they were in the beginning and how hard they lost and fought to gain freedom.
Find strength here. Find courage. No scars to your beautiful; Wear them gracefully.