Himba: the red people of Namibia

The Himba are a population of Namibia, they are a fascinating and easily recognizable people thanks to the particular color that their body assumes after being sprinkled with a mixture of butter and ocher that makes them the red people of Namibia.

The earth is not ours, it is a treasure that we care for for future generations.

Namibian proverb

Originally the Himba were a part of the Herero ethnic group of Bantu origin who in the mid-sixteenth century had emigrated from central Africa to the territories of Kaokoland, that is the north-western region of present-day Namibia.

Following the clashes with the Nama, a group of nourished from Herero moved north to the south of present-day Angola to seek refuge and safe pastures for their cattle.

The territories were occupied by the indigenous tribes of the Ngambwe to whom the Herero submitted and asked for pastures and lands where they could establish themselves: this earned them the name of Ova-Himba, that is, those who ask.

The Himba thus lost contact with the original ethnic group and this allowed them to keep their traditions and their language intact.

The Herero people who remained in Namibia suffered the strong influence of the German colonists who forced them, among other things, to wear colonial clothes that later became the traditional clothes of the Herero.

In the early 1900s the Himba moved south, gradually regaining possession of their ancient territories and rebuilding their kraal, or traditional villages.

The kraals consist of domed huts made of acacia branches intertwined and plastered with a mixture of mud and cow dung and surrounded by fences of thorny branches called otjunda useful for protecting oneself from dangerous animals.

The Himba are a semi-nomadic people whose existence is punctuated by the periodic transhumance of livestock and the celebration of religious rites and ancestral ceremonies.

Ritual songs and dances accompany many moments of daily life in the village; every day the women and children stay in the village while the men look after the livestock and take care to keep the community safe.

Although the village is formally ruled by an elderly man, in reality, women occupy an important role and the matrilineal descent determines the relationships, marriages and inheritance.

Confirming that women hold control of the social organization is the entrusting of the okurowo, that is, the sacred hearth around which all tribal ceremonies take place, to the matriarch.

The Himba believe in the cult of ancestors, a ceremony is held every morning to honor the ancestors: it is the offering of milk to the ancestors.

The milk is milked by the women using wooden buckets, the buckets are brought to the sacred fire by the young people of the village in a sort of procession; upon reaching the fire, the village chief dips a hand in the milk and takes a sip.

After the village chief drank from all the buckets, the milk is distributed to all the members of the village.

While the men take care of the cattle, the women stay in the village taking care of the huts, producing corn flour using large wooden sticks and preparing the otjizie dough, which gives it the typical red color.

Otjizie is a mixture prepared with butter and ocher that women spread on the body and hair to protect themselves from insects and the sun, thus keeping the skin smooth and supple.

The clothing of Himba women is quite simple: a goat skin kilt, numerous leather and metal jewelry and hair ornaments.

Himba women usually burn special essences that release a fragrant smoke.