Visiting A Himba Cultural Village
It was my idea to visit the Himba Cultural village, and Butch obliged. He paid the R400, and arrangements were made. The guide would be alerted all in good time for preparations. We’d go for our bike ride. En route back to Oppi Koppi, we’d pop in as it was on our way.
We arrived on the farm, exhausted and hot, to be greeted by a group of small boys who ran ahead, showing us the way. Our bicycles were an oddity, and they eagerly inspected them from every angle, prodding and probing the brakes, gears and tyres.
With some encouragement, Butch managed to get them to show us the way to the village where we were expected. Only one of the boys spoke English; he attended the local school and would even translate for us. We thanked him but assured him the guide would be proficient in English. He folded his arms tightly across his chest, dropped his gaze and said quite clearly that the guide wasn’t there.
We were puzzled, looking at the blank adult faces around us and realising no one understood us. Then the penny dropped, and he quickly sent one of his side kicks off to fetch the guide in the village, but he would gladly accompany us in the meantime.
Who could refuse such an offer? Not us. He valiantly tried to muster up some enthusiasm from the rest of the tribe, who stared at us. Unwelcome guests are a pain, and I felt like the unpleasant mother-in-law dropping in to do an inspection.
People started dashing about clearing, sweeping, and herding small children. A few small solar panels were removed from the roofs to be stashed away, and Butch noticed a large domestic solar panel being carried off and hidden under some brush. It was mayhem.
Butch and I stood around feeling unwelcome but encouraged to look around as much as we liked by the self-appointed guide, who himself didn’t seem too popular, if truth be told. He did show us a lady busy preparing a maise porridge which is their staple diet. Only on rare festive occasions will a goat or chicken be slaughtered.
At last, when Butch was about to start herding me with hands flexed, and his head cocked in the direction of the bikes, ready to guide me off, we spotted the guide coming up the path, and he’d made it in the nick of time.
He was very nattily attired in his Hawaiian shirt, denim shorts, sneakers and Panama hat. He looked positively relaxed.
The Himba speak a dialect of the Herero language called Otjihimba. We were taught customary greetings, but the clicks and sounds were far too complicated for me to remember. I did, at the time, say Hallo and thank you.
I shall now recount what he told us to the best of my ability.
This tribe of Himba were from the north of Namibia, near the Angolan border. A severe drought forced them to migrate to the south a few years ago. They are hunter-gatherers; therefore, a good supply of water, abundant grazing, and enough food and game for hunting are required.
They found that their needs were met on the current land they occupy. The owner, a farmer, has given them permission and the right to live there for as long as needed. During the drought, they lost many cattle; now, the headman only has four. They have managed to increase the herd of goats to a sizable amount.
Cattle are prized and tell of the community's well being and wealth. When a man proposes to a girl, it is customary to pay a bride’s price, labola. The father of the bride and the groom will negotiate the number of cattle he is to pay. (It turns out that marriages are actually arranged by the fathers and girls can be married off at twelve years old.)
Because wealth is measured in terms of the number of cattle a man owns and not how many he loses due to labola to another man, it has become acceptable for men to marry their cousins. In that way, cattle are kept in the family.
The Himba are traditionalists, and it is very much a patriarchal society. Rules are made by the elders and become a tradition. Youngsters are obedient but free to pursue their desires by leaving the tribe.
Traditions are stringently adhered to, e.g., when a young girl starts menstruating, her body may never again touch water. Suffusion using cow or goat’s milk butter mixed with ground red ochre is used to protect and film her skin, and smoke baths are used to cleanse her body and infuse her hair.
The Himba people live in one of the most extreme environments on earth, with the harsh desert climate and the unavailability of potable water. However, their lack of bathing has not resulted in a lack of personal hygiene.
It is argued that her skin protects her from the elements and is the only garment she needs besides the leather coverings and adornments she wears. Stones are ground daily to provide the red ochre used in various treatments.
Women’s hair is braided and covered in red ochre-stained mud or clay and butter, which is fashioned into strips which are attached to the hair and touched up periodically to neaten or as her hair grows.
A handful of fragrant indigenous herbs are placed in a pottery bowl, and a lump of hot coal is added to set it alight. The aromatic smoke is used to infuse the hair. I couldn’t resist having my hair infused, which the young lady did for me while she enjoyed her daily cleansing smoke bath ritual. A larger bowl with more herbs, e.g. the leaves and bark of the Commiphora tree, is used. A scanty leather skirt/apron is tied around her waist, which covers the smoke and allows it to permeate her skin and purify her body. The process takes ninety minutes and is repeated at night before bed.
We sat in her sparse hut while this routine took place. To convince me of the validity of this method of protecting the skin, I was permitted to touch her arm, which was surprisingly soft, smooth, and fragrant. If I close my eyes now, I recall her skin feeling like the silkiest satin.
Because the Himba are nomadic, they have very few personal possessions. The huts are rarely furnished. Men use a wooden stand to lay their heads on to sleep; women aren’t permitted to use the device. Beautifying oneself with handmade jewellery in leather, wood or animal bone is very popular. Metal beads are fashioned into wide ankle "bracelets" to protect women's legs from being bitten by snakes or scorpions.
Smoke is significant in many of the rituals practised by the Himba. Fire is a constant in their community, used for cooking during the day and at night to ward off animals like hyena. It is the place where the small community gathers to eat, conduct meetings, speak to the spirits of the forefathers, and ward off mosquitoes, moths and other critters.
“Holy fire/Supreme being (Mukuru)
Himbas are animists, and their supreme being is called Mukuru. The way they communicate with their god is through the holy fire. The smoke of the sacred fire rises towards heaven, enabling them to communicate with their ancestors who are in direct contact with the Supreme Being. In every village, you will find the holy fire smouldering; next to it, some wood logs are put on a sacred stone to feed the fire when needed. You are not allowed to cross the holy line if you are an outsider or have not been invited into the village. The sacred line starts from the main entrance of the chief’s hut and goes straight, passing the holy fire, to the opening of the cattle enclosure. “ From Africa Geographic
The spirits of the forefathers speak and guide using the smoke as a means of communication which the headman can interpret and relay to the rest of the group.
Himba children stay with their mothers until the age of three. With their siblings, children are raised, nurtured and disciplined by all the group members collectively. Although marriage is preferred, children are not illegitimate, and a woman can be pregnant and have children before marriage and date someone from another clan or tribe. Marriages can be polygamous. But that can be expensive. Labola has to be paid for every bride.
Boys become herders and hunters. Boys and girls participate in a rite of passage before they are allowed to marry, and both will be circumcised before puberty.
Only one child in a family is permitted to have an education, and it is accepted and expected that the other children will help with daily chores. Once a child earns money, they are expected to support their elderly parents and family.
It is not frowned upon for children to seek an education outside of the clan, but they will have to leave the group to pursue their lives in a modern society like ours.
Traditional herbal medications are used, and older women assist mothers in labour. Some traditional midwives are available to help. It is infrequent and almost unheard of for a Himba mother to be hospitalised during childbirth. If there are complications, these women have the knowledge to deal with an emergency, which is their tradition.
No one in the tribe contracted Covid.
The rondavel or cylinderical huts are constructed from branches and mud. Branches are planted in a trench and then the spaces between are filled with mud which hardens over time. The mud floor is treated with a mud and dung mixture which is smoothed over the surface. The funnel shaped roof cools the space down. A small hole right at the top ensures cool air can circulate and smoke from the fire inside can escape. The huts are built around the central goat and cattle kraal (pen) Each wife has a separate hut.
I had many questions regarding incest, education, healthcare, marriage, female circumcision, and modernity, but the standard answer was that their ways are traditional and the elders have the knowledge to guide, instruct and teach. Hence, there is no need for modern practices.
We were told that no goats or cattle are sold but kept for own use. Each family receives a bag of maise meal four times a year as a government grant. To my mind the trinkets sold and the tourists who visit the village can’t possibly be the only income generated?
There are signs that modernity has crept into their society since they live in close proximity to a town. I suspect there are people with cell phones who need to charge them, hence the solar panels. On occasion, I did see Himba women in traditional attire in supermarkets or walking to the village ostencibly to do shopping. The hair extensions… what can I say. A conundrum. I suspect a lot of cherry picking goes on.
Interesting fact: Davidoff and his team worked with the Himba tribe from Namibia. In their language, there is no word for blue and no real distinction between green and blue.
Another fact or fallacy: The men of the Himba Tribe have several women and, as a courtesy, will sometimes make a wife available to visiting guests so that she can provide sexual pleasure. The guest sleeps with the wife while the husband stays outside. (Google)
All I can say is that the feminist in me wasn’t happy. Many unanswered questions pop up while I type this blog, and I’ll probably never know the answers. If you have anything to add or correct me, please feel free to leave a comment.
While we were being shown around the rest of the clan set up their trinkets and handmade crafts for us to admire with the hope that we'd purchase something. I bought a pretty beaded bracelet. I'm sure the tour group would've supported the ladies' beautiful, skillfully made handiwork.
Freely translated from the Otjiherero language, the word Himba means beggar. Why did they inherit this somewhat derogatory name? Well, after the schism, many of those that remained roamed the vast Kaokoland in search of cattle and crops, asking fellow or other tribe members for help (Wikipedia)
Before setting off numerous people and small boys waved us off shouting "give me your bike"!
Permission was granted to take photographs, in fact we were encouraged to take photos by the guide. When I told him I am going to write a story about our visit and some of the photographs will be used and displayed on the internet he beamed and said "No problem!"