The Himba are an ethnic group of about 20,000 to 50,000 people living in northern Namibia
Namibia, officially the Republic of Namibia , is a country in southern Africa whose western border is the Atlantic Ocean. It shares land borders with Angola and Zambia to the north, Botswana to the east and South Africa to the south and east. It gained independence from South Africa on 21 March...

, in the Kunene
Kunene Region
Kunene is one of the thirteen regions of Namibia and home to the Himba ethnic group. Compared to the rest of Namibia, it is relatively underdeveloped...

 region (formerly Kaokoland
Kaokoland is an area in Northern Namibia, in the Kunene Region. It is one of the wildest and less populated areas in Namibia, with a population density of one person every 2 km², that is 1/4 of the national average. The most represented ethnic group is the Himba people, that accounts for...

). Recently they have built two villages in Kamanjab
Kamanjab is a village and a constituency in the Kunene region in Namibia. It has a population of 6,012.-References:...

 which have become tourist destinations. They are mostly a nomad
Nomadic people , commonly known as itinerants in modern-day contexts, are communities of people who move from one place to another, rather than settling permanently in one location. There are an estimated 30-40 million nomads in the world. Many cultures have traditionally been nomadic, but...

ic, pastoral people, closely related to the Herero, and speak Otjihimba, a dialect of the Herero language
Herero language
The Herero language is a language of the Bantu family . It is spoken by the Herero people in Namibia and Botswana...


Daily life

The Himba breed cattle
Cattle are the most common type of large domesticated ungulates. They are a prominent modern member of the subfamily Bovinae, are the most widespread species of the genus Bos, and are most commonly classified collectively as Bos primigenius...

 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 labor-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
Otjize is a mixture of butter, ash and ochre, by people in the Himba tribe in Namibia, to protect themselves from the harsh desert climate. The paste is often mixed with the aromatic resin of the Omuzumba shrub, a little like adding perfume to a suntan lotion. The mixture gives their skins a deep...

, a mixture of butter fat and ochre
Ochre is the term for both a golden-yellow or light yellow brown color and for a form of earth pigment which produces the color. The pigment can also be used to create a reddish tint known as "red ochre". The more rarely used terms "purple ochre" and "brown ochre" also exist for variant hues...

, possibly to protect themselves from the sun. The mixture gives their skins a reddish tinge. This symbolizes earth's rich red color and the blood that symbolizes life, and is consistent with the Himba ideal of beauty
Beauty is a characteristic of a person, animal, place, object, or idea that provides a perceptual experience of pleasure, meaning, or satisfaction. Beauty is studied as part of aesthetics, sociology, social psychology, and culture...

. Women braid each other's hair and cover it in their ochre mixture.

Modern clothes are scarce, but generally go to the men when available. Traditionally both men and women
Toplessness is the state in which a female's breasts are uncovered, with the areolae and nipples visible, usually in a public space. It can also refer to a female not wearing any clothing above the waist, which is the female equivalent to a male barechestedness.The history and even the present-day...

 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
Male circumcision is the surgical removal of some or all of the foreskin from the penis. The word "circumcision" comes from Latin and ....

 before puberty
Puberty is the process of physical changes by which a child's body matures into an adult body capable of reproduction, as initiated by hormonal signals from the brain to the gonads; the ovaries in a girl, the testes in a boy...

, to make them eligible for marriage.

Tribal structure

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
Bilateral descent
Bilateral descent is a system of family lineage in which the relatives on the mother's side and father's side are equally important for emotional ties or for transfer of property or wealth. It is a family arrangement where descent and inheritance are passed equally through both parents...

 that helps them live in one of the most extreme environments on earth.

Under bilateral descent
Bilateral descent
Bilateral descent is a system of family lineage in which the relatives on the mother's side and father's side are equally important for emotional ties or for transfer of property or wealth. It is a family arrangement where descent and inheritance are passed equally through both parents...

, every tribe member belongs to two clans, one through the father (a patriclan, called oruzo) and another through the mother (a matriclan, called eanda). 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. However, inheritance of wealth does not follow the patriclan but is determined by the matriclan, i.e. a son does not inherit his father's cattle but his maternal uncle's instead.
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.

Disaster and adversity

The Himba's history is wrought with disasters, including severe droughts and guerrilla warfare, especially during Namibia's quest for independence and as a result of the civil war in neighboring Angola
Angola, officially the Republic of Angola , is a country in south-central Africa bordered by Namibia on the south, the Democratic Republic of the Congo on the north, and Zambia on the east; its west coast is on the Atlantic Ocean with Luanda as its capital city...

. In 1904, they suffered from the same attempt at genocide by the German
Germany , officially the Federal Republic of Germany , is a federal parliamentary republic in Europe. The country consists of 16 states while the capital and largest city is Berlin. Germany covers an area of 357,021 km2 and has a largely temperate seasonal climate...

 colonial power under Lothar von Trotha
Lothar von Trotha
Adrian Dietrich Lothar von Trotha was a German military commander widely condemned for his conduct of the Herero Wars in South-West Africa, especially for the events that led to the near-extermination of the Herero....

 that decimated other groups in Namibia, notably the Herero and the Nama
Nama are an African ethnic group of South Africa, Namibia and Botswana. They traditionally speak the Nama language of the Khoe-Kwadi language family, although many Nama now speak Afrikaans. The Nama are the largest group of the Khoikhoi people, most of whom have largely disappeared as a group,...


In the 1980s it appeared the Himba way of life was coming to a close. A severe drought killed ninety percent of their cattle and many gave up their herds and became refugees in the town of Opuwo
Opuwo is the capital of the Kunene Region in north-western Namibia. The town is situated about 720 km north-northwest from the capital Windhoek, and has a population of 5,100...

 living in slums on international relief. Since they live on the Angolan border, many Himba were also kidnapping victims in the Angolan civil war.


Since the 1990s, the Himba have been successful in maintaining control of their lands and have experienced a resurgence. Many Himba now live on nature conservancies that give them control of wildlife and tourism on their lands. They have worked with international activists to block a proposed hydroelectric dam along the Kunene River that would have flooded their ancestral lands.

The government of Namibia has provided mobile schools for Himba children. Vengapi Tijvinda, a grandmother in her 50s, says: "Life is still the same, but the children can read and write. I am a member of [a] conservancy, and we have tasted game meat again."


The Himba are a monotheistic
Monotheism is the belief in the existence of one and only one god. Monotheism is characteristic of the Baha'i Faith, Christianity, Druzism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Samaritanism, Sikhism and Zoroastrianism.While they profess the existence of only one deity, monotheistic religions may still...

 people who worship the god Mukuru
Mukuru is the god worshipped by the Himba people of Namibia. Mukuru is an omnipotent deity. The deceased ancestors of the Himba are subservient to him.More strictly, Mukuru is not exactly "the Lord, the Divinity" but the link for man with him....

. 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
Witchcraft, in historical, anthropological, religious, and mythological contexts, is the alleged use of supernatural or magical powers. A witch is a practitioner of 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 happen (such as when a common illness becomes life-threatening). 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
Divination is the attempt to gain insight into a question or situation by way of an occultic standardized process or ritual...

 to reveal the reason behind an extraordinary event, or the source of the omiti.

Exceptional color perception

Several researchers studied the Himba color perception. The Himba use four color names: Zuzu stands for dark shades of blue, red, green and purple; Vapa is white and some shades of yellow; Buru is some shades of green and blue; and Dambu is some other shades of green, red and brown.

The Himba color judgment is deeply affected by this classification. They find it difficult or even impossible to distinguish between colors that go under the same name in their system, while differentiating easily and immediately between close shades of color that they categorize under different names. This fascinating phenomenon is often said to demonstrate the deep effect language has over the perception of reality. So far the research does not rule out a genetic basis.

Further reading

  • Peter Pickford, Beverly Pickford, Margaret Jacobsohn: Himba; ed. New Holland Publishers (UK) Ltd, 1990; ISBN 978-1853680847
  • Klaus G. Förg, Gerhard Burkl: Himba. Namibias ockerrotes Volk; Rosenheim: Rosenheimer Verlagshaus, 2004; ISBN 3-475-53572-6 (in German)
  • David Crandall: The Place of Stunted Ironwood Trees; New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc, 2000; ISBN 0-8264-1270-X
  • Rina Sherman: Ma vie avec les Ovahimba; Paris: Hugo et Cie, 2009; ISBN 978-2755602616 (in French)

External links


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