Himba

A respectful visit with Namibia’s Himba tribe

Pip
March 26, 2015

In the remote northwest corner of Namibia known as ‘Kaokoland’ a harsh, dry climate allows little to grow in the infertile soils, and the mountainous geography limits accessibility. Here lives a group of semi-nomadic pastoralists, clinging to a traditional way of life as the world expands and develops around them. The Himba have long allured travellers, drawn to their exotic ochre-coloured skin, elaborate hairstyles, and calf-skin skirts. Today, many communities are opening their village doors to tourists hoping to share in the beauty of a simpler way of life, with all the cultural rites and traditions it includes. In addition to generating understanding, this helps to provide a stable income for the Himba as the world around them becomes less and less predictable. As with much tribal community tourism, visiting the Himba walks a fine line between intrigue, support and exploitation.

If you are thinking of visiting the Himba, the first thing you need to ask yourself is ‘Why?’ If you just want to go and take dozens of photos as proof of seeing a real African tribe in the flesh, then think again. This is not a zoo. If you want to learn more about their culture first-hand, living in tune with the Earth, or discover the rites and traditions of the Himba that date back hundreds of years, then engaging with the community directly and respectfully can be an experience which benefits both. If you are planning a Himba visit then here are a few things to keep in mind.

1. Choose a tour company that promotes cultural awareness, sustainability, and authenticity

Although possible, it is difficult to visit the Himba independently and turning up at a village uninvited is most definitely discouraged. There are many tour companies to choose from, most of which build up a relationship with a specific Himba community over time on the basis of trust, and aim to create an experience which is beneficial for all parties involved. In most instances, these communities are people living traditionally who welcome the occasional visitor to share in village life, but sometimes these experiences turn into ’show villages’ where the Himba are encouraged to dress or behave in what is considered a ‘tribal’ way to satisfy the expectations of tourists. Before you choose a company, research online and look for feedback from other clients on the authenticity of the tours, how the guides interact with the people, and the knowledge, understanding and respect shown by the guide.

Namibia Himba Huts
Himba communities are people living traditionally who welcome the occasional visitor to share in village life.

2. Offer gifts of staple items needed by the community

If you are invited to a friend’s house, perhaps you will take a bottle of wine or a dish of food to share, and the same courtesy stands if visiting the Himba. The community will produce much of their own food, but goods such as flour, oil and salt are valuable necessities that they use themselves or trade with other communities for goods they need. With many Himba living in remote areas, their access to these goods is limited by transport opportunities, so offerings from tourists are welcomed. Check with you guide before departing the nearest settlement as to what they suggest the community may need, and be cautious if buying sweets or toys for children as dental care is limited and fighting can often erupt at the sight of shiny (and foreign) plastic novelties.

Namibia Himba Young Girl Cooking
Himba community will produce much of their own food, but goods such as flour, oil and salt are valuable necessities that they use themselves or trade with other communities for goods they need.

3. Respect the traditional customs of the village

After a formal and hospitable welcome, the headman will probably explain a little of the village and its traditions, including where you can and cannot walk. For example, the area of the ‘holy fire’, or okuruwo (a sacred fire representing the Himba ancestors which is kept burning 24 hours a day) is normally off limits and it is considered highly disrespectful if you enter this area. In OtjiHimba (a dialect of the Herero language), a member of the community will explain their traditional way of life and guide you around the community - the kraal where cattle are kept safely over night, the living huts made from branches slathered with clay and cow dung, and the open fire where meals of porridge mixed with milk are cooked, or beef is prepared during special ceremonies.

Taking photos in the village is normally allowed (and your guide should advise you if not), but if you want to take photos of individuals, always ask their permission first. Much like you would not like somebody pointing a lens in your face without asking, the Himba don’t appreciate being treated with such disrespect either. Most will oblige and a few may ask for money, aware that many people go back to their home country and sell images. Giving money for images comes at your own discretion, but if they request a few Namibian dollars and you don’t feel comfortable giving it, then don’t take the photo.

Namibia Himba Girl
Taking photos in the village is normally allowed. But if you want to take photos of individuals, always ask their permission first.

4. Be curious and ask questions

Despite the cultural contrasts you may have with the Himba, underneath our different coloured skins and bodily adornments we are all human, and visiting a tribal village is about being immersed in a different way of life. Be inquisitive and ask your guide to translate questions to the Himba about themselves, their belief in the God ‘Mukuru’ and omiti witchraft, and their dreams for themselves and their family. Find someone your own age and gender in the community and find out what life would like to be for you in their community. For women, their tasks may be more labour-intensive than what you are used to - collecting firewood, milking the cows and goats, plastering homes, as well as taking care of multiple children from extended families. For men, livestock farming is their main concern, meaning they are often away from their families for extended periods, while others have left the village to seek work in towns and cities across Namibia. Ask about their community, what threatens their existence and how things are changing for the Himba today.

For women, embrace the opportunity to have otjize paste, made from butterfat and ochre pigment, applied to your face in a Himba beauty treatment. In addition to being considered aesthetically beautiful, it works as a skin protectant from sun and mosquitoes, and its colour connects the people with the red of the earth and blood which sustains all life.

Namibia Himba Child Cooking
Find someone your own age and gender in the community and find out what life would like to be for you in their community.

5. Support local artisans within the community

In some communities which receive tourists, the Himba will produce trinkets, jewellery and handicrafts for sale. While many feel uncomfortable about this modernisation of their lifestyle by engaging in a monetary society, the reality is that the Himba are now living between two worlds and readily mix with members of Namibia’s other ethnic groups and urban townsfolk which expose them to this on a daily basis. In addition, they are susceptible to modern diseases requiring modern healthcare, and many send their children to local schools, all of which comes at a price only money can pay for. Without a small income in the villages, Himba men are left to seek work in the bigger towns and cities to support their communities. Buying traditional jewellery, or perhaps a pair of sandals made from old car tires, is not a ‘hand-out’ for the Himba, but supports their continual traditional and remote existence in a rapidly changing world.

Traditional Himba Pottery
Himba communities will produce trinkets, jewellery and handicrafts for sale. Buying something is not a ‘hand-out’ for the Himba, but supports their continual traditional and remote existence.

Preserving the traditional Himba way of life

The climatic and political instability in which the Himba live threatens their lifestyle with drought, conflict, and human development projects. Despite this, they have chosen to continue life as nomadic pastoralists in connection with the land as their ancestors have done for hundreds of years before them. If conducted with respect and cultural awareness, a visit to the Himba can offer not only the support, understanding and acceptance required for them to continue this existence, but create greater awareness in the global community of their vulnerable plight and why their way of life should be preserved.

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