The Himba are an ethnic group of about 20,000 to 50,000 people living in northern Namibia, in the Kunene region (formerly Kaokoland). Recently they have built two villages in Kamanjab which have become tourist destinations. They are mostly a nomadic, pastoral people, closely related to the Herero, and speak Otjihimba, a dialect of the Herero language.
The Himba breed cattle and goats. The responsibility for milking the cows lies with the women. Women take care of the children, and one woman will take care of another woman's children. Women tend to perform more labor-intensive work than men do, such as carrying water to the village and building homes. Men handle the political tasks and legal trials.
Members of an extended family typically dwell in a homestead, "a small, circular hamlet of huts and work shelters" that surrounds "an okuruwo (ancestral fire) and a central livestock enclosure." Both the fire and the livestock are closely tied to their belief in ancestor worship, the fire representing ancestral protection and the livestock allowing "proper relations between human and ancestor."
The Himba wear little clothing, but the women are famous for covering themselves with otjize, a mixture of butter fat and ochre, possibly to protect themselves from the sun. The mixture gives their skins a reddish tinge. This symbolizes earth's rich red color and the blood that symbolizes life, and is consistent with the Himba ideal of beauty. Women braid each other's hair and cover it in their ochre mixture.
Modern clothes are scarce, but generally go to the men when available. Traditionally both men and women go topless and wear skirts or loincloths made of animal skins in various colors. Adult women wear beaded anklets to protect their legs from venomous animal bites.
Boys are generally circumcised before puberty, to make them eligible for marriage.
Because of the harsh desert climate in the region where they live and their seclusion from outside influences, the Himba have managed to maintain much of their traditional lifestyle. Members live under a tribal structure based on bilateral descent that helps them live in one of the most extreme environments on earth.
Under bilateral descent, every tribe member belongs to two clans, one through the father (a patriclan, called oruzo) and another through the mother (a matriclan, called eanda).
Himba clans are led by the eldest male in the clan. Sons live with their father's clan and when daughters marry they go to live with the clan of their husband. However, inheritance of wealth does not follow the patriclan but is determined by the matriclan, i.e. a son does not inherit his father's cattle but his maternal uncle's instead.
Disaster and adversity
The Himba's history is wrought with disasters, including severe droughts and guerrilla warfare, especially during Namibia's quest for independence and as a result of the civil war in neighboring Angola. In 1904, they suffered from the same attempt at genocide by the German colonial power under Lothar von Trotha that decimated other groups in Namibia, notably the Herero and the Nama.
In the 1980s it appeared the Himba way of life was coming to a close. A severe drought killed ninety percent of their cattle and many gave up their herds and became refugees in the town of Opuwo living in slums on international relief. Since they live on the Angolan border, many Himba were also kidnapping victims in the Angolan civil war.
Since the 1990s, the Himba have been successful in maintaining control of their lands and have experienced resurgence. Many Himba now live on nature conservancies that give them control of wildlife and tourism on their lands. They have worked with international activists to block a proposed hydroelectric dam along the Epupa Dam that would have flooded their ancestral lands.
The government of Namibia has provided mobile schools for Himba children. Vengapi Tijvinda, a grandmother in her 50s, says: "Life is still the same, but the children can read and write. I am a member of [a] conservancy, and we have tasted game meat again."
The Himba are a monotheistic people who worship the god Mukuru. Each family has its own ancestral fire, which is kept by the fire-keeper. The fire-keeper approaches the ancestral fire every seven to eight days in order to communicate with Mukuru and the ancestors on behalf of his family. Often, because Mukuru is busy in a distant realm, the ancestors act as Mukuru's representatives. However, the difference between Mukuru and the ancestors is that while Mukuru only blesses and never curses; the ancestors do both.
The Himba traditionally believe in omiti, which some translate to mean witchcraft but which others call "bad medicine". Some Himba believe that death is caused by omiti, or rather, by someone using omiti for malicious purposes. Additionally, some believe that evil people who use omiti have the power to place bad thoughts into another's mind or cause extraordinary events to happen (such as a when a common illness becomes life-threatening). But users of omiti do not always attack their victim directly; sometimes they target a relative or loved one. Some Himba will consult a diviner to reveal the reason behind an extraordinary event, or the source of the omiti.