WESTERN visitors to the remote and arid landscapes of Namibia invariably describe them as “the most beautiful people in Africa”. They exude a certain aura; a sense of diversity that is endearing rather than threatening. They are, of course, the Himba…
The Himba is a tribe of semi-nomadic pastoralists that inhabit the northwest corner of Namibia in an area called Koakoland. Ethnically part of the Herero nation, a Bantu group that arrived in Namibia in the 16th century, the Himba split away when the Herero came under attack from the neighbouring Nama culture. They fled north into Angola where the locals called them Ovahimba, which means ‘beggar’ in the local dialect.
Economically, the Himba is the most self-sufficient and independent of all Namibia’s ethnic groups
The Himba left Angola in the first part of the 20th century, returning to the Kaokoland to reclaim their cattle. Since then, they have maintained a traditional lifestyle impervious to modern ‘developments’ throughout the rest of the world. In no way does this denote a dependence on state revenue. Economically, the Himba is the most self-sufficient and independent of all Namibia’s ethnic groups. Rather than become reliant on – and slaves to – Western influence, they have shown remarkable resourcefulness in adversity. Conversely, the Herero has become much more westernised and have also converted to Christianity.
The most distinctively visual characteristic of the Himba is the mix of red ochre, resin and fat with which they cover their largely naked bodies for protection from the sun. They also use this paste on their hair; the colour red a highly desirable expression of beauty. The topless women wear goatskin mini-skirts decorated with iron and copper jewellery, while the men don loincloths made from the same material.
The global reach of tourism has finally but not unexpectedly caught up with the Himba and their uniquely scenic land
The Himba men possess a proud bearing, while the women are strikingly attractive. Children wear their hair in two forward-facing plats, while married men cover their hair with a type of turban. Older men, invariably, carry a staff.
The global reach of tourism has finally but not unexpectedly caught up with the Himba and their uniquely scenic land. And along with that has come dangers. Recent incidents have occurred where Himba tribes’ people have stopped touring vehicles and begged for medical supplies. Well-meaning tourists have gladly supplied what they can, unknowingly placing the objects of their largesse in danger. The Himba simply do not know how to use the medication and the vast majority does not speak a word of English and will not understand any directions for use. There is the added danger that they may become addicted to the medication.
While the Himba are undoubtedly photogenic, seek permission before taking photographs of individuals.
All images in this report courtesy of astonishedXpression African correspondent Lizelle van der Walt, taken during a July 2013 trip to the Kaokoland.