By Alex Ohan
The Himba; are an ethnic group of about 20,000 to 50,000 people living in northern Namibia, in the Kunene region. Recently they have built two villages in Kamanjab which have become tourist destinations. They are mostly a semi-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 labour-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 reddish tinges. 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 that they extend with plastic hair that they usually have to purchase, and cover it except the ends, 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 and another through the mother. 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.
Himba Girls Bilateral descent is found among only a few groups in West Africa, India, Australia, Melanesia and Polynesia, and anthropologists consider the system advantageous for groups that live in extreme environments because it allows individuals to rely on two sets of families dispersed over a wide area.
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. 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