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Meet the red people of Namibia whose culture fascinates many



The Himba tribe has over the years captivated audiences through remarkable documentaries, which shed light on their distinct way of life. While some aspects of their culture might seem unconventional to non-natives, these practices to the Himba people are simply part of their everyday reality.

But what lies beneath the surface of their unique culture? What stories and traditions shape their existence? Read on as we explore the depths of the Himba tribe and uncover the rich heritage that defines their identity.

Who are the Himba tribe?

Kaokoveld, Namibia - July 17th, 2009: Himba women dancing and clapping hands at their village near Opuwo. Namibia. Himbas are the last nomadic people in NamibiaKaokoveld, Namibia – July 17th, 2009: Himba women dancing and clapping hands at their village near Opuwo. Namibia. Himbas are the last nomadic people in Namibia

The Himba tribe is a unique group of people who live in the northern part of Namibia, which is a country in Africa. They are comprised of various communities and villages that span the northern regions of Namibia, primarily in the Kunene and Omusati regions. They have a unique culture and way of life that set them apart.

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One remarkable thing about the Himba is their distinct appearance. They have a tradition of covering their bodies with a mixture of red ochre (a kind of clay) and animal fat. This mixture gives their skin a reddish colour and also helps to protect them from the harsh sun and insects. This reddish appearance is a significant part of their identity.

the Himba tribe women performing a dance

The Himba people are known for their strong sense of community and close-knit families. They usually live in traditional huts made from materials like mud, thatch and wood. Each family has its own space within the village, and they often work together to build and maintain their homes.

Cattle are a crucial aspect of the Himba way of life. They value their cattle not just for economic reasons, but also for their cultural and spiritual importance. Cattle represent wealth and are involved in various rituals and ceremonies.

The Himba have a matriarchal social structure, which means that women have a central role in the community. They take care of the homes, children, and daily activities, while the men often take care of the cattle and protect the village.

Their language, “OtjiHimba”, is part of the larger “Herero” language family and plays a significant role in preserving their culture and traditions.

The Himba people have faced challenges due to modernisation and changes in their environment, but many of them continue to maintain their unique way of life and traditions. Visiting a Himba village can offer a chance to learn about their rich culture and gain a deeper understanding of the diversity of human societies on our planet.

All you need to know about the Himba tribe

the Himba tribe women going to work

1. Red ochre, hairstyles and beauty

The Himba hairstyle is a multifaceted art form; First, the hair is braided in cool patterns not only for decoration but also to keep it tidy in the dry desert environment. After braiding, a blend of red ochre, butterfat and herbs is applied gently, imparting the hair with a bright reddish hue. This hue embodies cultural symbolism, connecting the Himba identity to their land and ancestors.

This red mix also does useful things. It acts like a natural sunblock, keeping the sun from hurting the head and skin in the desert. It also stops bugs from bothering them. Himba women like to keep their hairstyle nice. They put on the red mix again to keep the colour bright and the hair safe.

A young Himba woman with a birthmark under her eye, wearing skin paste, a large necklace and an ornate plaited hairstyle in an outdoor village setting. A toddler in the background wearing the traditional tribal dress.A young Himba woman with a birthmark under her eye, wearing skin paste, a large necklace and an ornate plaited hairstyle in an outdoor village setting. A toddler in the background wearing the traditional tribal dress.

2. Himba women

Himba society is organised around women, who play key roles in decision-making, family structure and community life.  Beyond their distinctive appearance, Himba women have a role that extends into their daily lives and community. With a population of over 50,000, these women engage in a variety of essential tasks within their semi-nomadic lifestyle. They play a pivotal role in milking cows, taking care of their children and carrying out other important duties. This contribution allows the community to thrive amidst the challenges of their arid environment.

Additionally, Himba women hold an integral part in the preservation of their cultural practices and values. In their unique matriarchal society, women hold decision-making authority and inheritance is passed down through the maternal line. They also play a vital role in upholding traditions and passing down knowledge to future generations. This dynamic highlights their essential role in maintaining the social fabric and cultural heritage of the Himba tribe.

2. Nomadic lifestyle

Traditionally, the Himba are semi-nomadic, moving their livestock to find grazing areas. Their lifestyle reflects a deep connection to the land and a harmonious relationship with nature.

3. Himba jewellery

Himba jewellery on a woman

Himba jewellery is more than just adornment; it is a reflection of their culture and way of life. Himba women often wear handmade jewellery that carries deep significance. These jewellery pieces are composed of shells, beads and metals. These adornments are not just for beauty; they are cultural markers that reflect a woman’s age and social status. These adornments are worn on special occasions and celebrations, adding a touch of cultural pride to their appearance

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4. Importance of cattle

Cattle hold immense value for the Himba. They represent wealth and social status and are used forvarious rituals. Cattle are exchanged during important life events like marriages and are central to religious ceremonies and sacrifices.

5. Initiation rituals

the Himba woman performing traditional dance

The initiation ritual of the Himba people is a significant cultural practice that marks the transition from adolescence to adulthood. This rite of passage holds deep meaning within the community and plays a pivotal role in passing down cultural values and traditions. Typically, this initiation takes place when young girls and boys reach puberty.

The initiation process involves several key elements:

  • Separation and isolation – Initiation often begins with a period of isolation for the initiates, during which they are separated from their families and the rest of the community. This separation serves as a symbolic detachment from childhood and prepares them for their new roles as adults.
  • Cultural education – During this period, the initiates receive intensive cultural education from older members of the community. They learn about their roles and responsibilities as adults, as well as important cultural practices, traditions and values. This education is passed down through storytelling, ceremonies, and practical demonstrations.
  • Scarification and symbolism – As part of the initiation, scarification may take place. Patterns are incised onto the initiates’ skin using sharp instruments. These scar patterns not only serve as a sign of maturity but also carry symbolic meanings related to cultural identity, social status, and spirituality.
  • Dress and adornments -Throughout the initiation process, initiates wear distinctive attire and adornments that signify their transitional status. This might include specific hairstyles, jewellery and clothing that distinguish them from other members of the community.
  • Ceremonies and celebrations – The initiation culminates in a series of ceremonies and celebrations. These events are marked by music, dance and communal gatherings. They provide an opportunity for the community to celebrate the initiates’ transition and welcome them as adults.
  • Integration into society – Following the completion of the initiation rituals, the initiates are reintegrated into the community as adults. They take on new responsibilities and roles, contributing to the community’s well-being and preservation of their cultural heritage.

6. Village layout

Himba villages are organised into homesteads, with each extended family having their own space. The central area is used for social gatherings and ceremonies.

7. Oral tradition

a Himba tribe elderSource: Trevor Cole

The Himba culture places a strong emphasis on oral tradition. Knowledge, history and stories are passed down from generation to generation through storytelling and song, preserving their cultural heritage.

8. Shamanistic beliefs

Himba spirituality is deeply connected to Shamanism and the natural world. They believe in a higher power and ancestral spirits and their shamans (spiritual leaders) play a vital role in healing, divination and communication with the spirit realm.

The traditional beliefs of the Himba people include the idea of “omiti”. While some interpretations refer to it as witchcraft, others call it “black magic” or “bad medicine”. According to their religious doctrine, omiti can be blamed for someone’s death, especially if it is used maliciously.

Furthermore, it’s said that those who use “omiti” have the power to make other people think bad things about them. This conviction highlights the OvaHimba’s in-depth comprehension of the invisible world and their attribution of specific occurrences and motives to this enigmatic power.

9. Marriage and family

A typical Himba marriage is based on family dynamics and cultural customs that are highly valued in the community. The fathers of the bride and groom are frequently the ones who choose the right spouses for their children in arranged marriages. Negotiations between the families begin when a good match is established, including conversations about dowries, which frequently involve cattle.

Marriage is a social event that is distinguished by customary rites and get-togethers. The bride dons elaborate apparel for the event, including beaded jewellery and an eye-catching hat. Her skin is painted with red ochre paste, a crucial component of the Himba identity, to symbolise her entry into a new stage of life.

Polygamy— the practice of a man having numerous wives— is one distinctive feature of Himba marriage. In the Himba culture, an elaborate headdress called the Erembe is worn by married women who have been married for about a year or who have given birth. This headdress is made of sheepskin and has several braided hair strands on it.

10. Adaptation to modernisation

the Himba tribe man with a white woman holding a child

The Himba have faced challenges due to modernisation, such as encroaching technology and changing societal norms. However, efforts are being made to balance preserving their culture while embracing some aspects of the modern world.

11. Tourism and cultural exchange

Many Himba communities welcome visitors interested in learning about their culture. Tourism offers an opportunity for cultural exchange and economic support, but it is important for visitors to be respectful and aware of the tribe’s values and customs.

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