The Himba

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Africa » Namibia » Kaokoland
September 16th 2010
Published: September 22nd 2010
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After Etosha National Park we had one night in Outjo, a small town with flowered bougainvillea on every corner and a delicious German bakery which I think is its claim to fame. Bus loads of German tourists poured into this bakery while we had our lunch clearing it of apple strudel and chicken schnitzel. Tribal Himba women set up a small market in the town. Their lovely red skin is produced by mixing ochre, butter and bush herbs. This gives their skin a burnt orange hue which serves as a sunblock and insect repellent.

We had a big drive to the small settlement in the north-west of Opuwo and such an interesting place, dusty streets lined with small commercial buildings and topless Himba women walking with the beautifully and colourfully dressed Hereo. It was quite a sight to visit the supermarket and see the colourful Himba in the supermarket buying groceries.

Our visit of a Himba village was a real highlight. The Himba are semi-nomadic. Our hotel manages sustainable tours into the Himba community where the guide visits the villages, first on his own to make sure they would be happy for tourists to visit and if they say yes he brings tourists to see them but only every few weeks. He rotates tours around different villages so that the Himba do not become dependent on tourism and maintain their traditional way of life. Instead of money, the Himba receive basic commodities such as maize, sugar, bread, tobacco and coffee. This certainly guaranteed us a warm welcome. The people were relaxed and interested in us as much as we were in them, although they could not comprehend our way of life, they were not aggressive in any way. They very kindly allowed us to take photos and look around without asking for money. This was definitely a very different and well organised cultural experience in comparison to the Mursi tribes in the Lower Omo Valley in Ethiopia.

The visit was fascinating. The chief of the village was not there so we spoke to one of his old wives. They thought it was odd that the men would only have one wife, the more wives you have in Himba culture, the wealthier you are. No-one in our group had an children which they found even stranger and blamed the men for not doing their job properly. Himba women marry between the ages of 12-14 and have children soon after. The marriages are arranged through the fathers in exchange for cattle. Most Himba women will have between 10-16 children as they do not believe in contraception.

The women do not bathe in water so they use the mixture of ochre and butter as part of their daily cleaning routine followed by the application of perfume which is the smoke from hot embers of the fire which they waft around their face, armpits and interestingly in order to clean their nether regions they sit over the top of the smoking embers until their skirts billow with smoke and then the bath is finished. Women tend to avoid visiting the hospital when they are sick because the doctors make them wash in water and remove their ochre colouring to prevent infection if surgery is required (we drove passed the hospital, there is only one doctor for at least 100 patients daily so they have to queue all day in order to see him).

The women are beautifully decorated. Necklaces, head dresses made out of goatskin and metal plates determine whether you are married, the anklets represents your mother and father, one stripe means you have no or one child, two stripes means you have two or more children. The hair has a dread lock appearance and hair extensions are often used (they use the hair off their children and husbands).

At the age of 11 the four bottom teeth get taken out, with a hammer and if the tooth breaks they cut them out with a hot poker - it sounds astonishingly painful. This ritual is done in order to replicate the mouth of a cow who they idolise. Contrary to the Himba women, the men wash every day and wear western clothes. They take the cattle out to graze and spend most of the day sleeping. With at least 3 wives who they visit each night they unsurprisingly have no energy during the day.

Leaving Opuwo we headed south towards Twyfelfontein, one of the most extensive rock art galleries on the continent. Our first stop on the way was the petrified forest, an area of open veld scattered with petrified tree trunks up to 34m long and up to 6m in diameter. We did not see anything nearly this big and although the site is scattered with chunks of petrified wood it was nothing like the forest I had naïvely pictured in my imagination. Although a bit disappointed, the pieces that we did see were amazing in the sense that they were 260 million years old.

After checking into a terrible community camp based on the dried up river bed, we decided to look at Burnt Mountain, a volcanic hill that appears to have been literally exposed to fire. Virtually nothing grows on this desolate place. Across the road were the organ pipes, a small gorge of unusual 4m high dolerite columns. To be honest, we were a little disappointed, we had conjured up in our imagination something quite grand and well... it wasn't and we headed back a little disappointed.

We were pleasantly impressed the next day though with our visit to Twyfelfonein to look at the rock art. This area has been made into a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the money that has obviously been poured into the area has been a real benefit. The information centre was fantastic, if only the guides could be a little more enthusiastic. Incredibly most of the paintings are at least 6000 years old. It is believed that the paintings are the work of the ancient San hunters. Miraculously they have been preserved by the patina covering the local sandstone which has covered the paintings protecting them from erosion. The dry area here must have been quite different given the amount of game and waterholes depicted in the paintings. It was a fascinating sight.

The impressive Brandberg (Fire Mountain) soared from the desert as we approached the next major rock art gallery. The Tsisab Ravine features the famous White Lady of Brandberg. The White Lady is not in fact a lady, it was wrongly assessed by an archaeologist who speculated that the work had Egyptian or Cretan origins. It is now believed that the figure which stands at 40cm high is part of a hunting procession or depicts a young boy, painted white from the chest down in some sort of coming of age ceremony. The walk to the paintings was equally interesting with rock dassies chasing each other across the dry river bed with some small babies dashing for cover under rocks and brightly coloured birds singing from the trees.

Next stop is Swakopmund on the Skeleton Coast where we will be based for the next week in backpacker accommodation which will feel like luxury after all the camping.

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