the himba of namibia
You cannot read anything about Namibia without coming across a mention of the Himba tribes living on the northern regions of the country. Brief - usually - mentions of their nakedness, their very distinctive hair styles and decorations can usually be found amidst inummerable articles on the Etosha National Park, the Skeleton Coast and, of course, the Namib desert. Considering how few of them there are, how regimented and - sometimes sadly - touristic a visit to them has become, this is hardly surprising. After all, the average visit to a Himba village by even the most specialised tour is no more than a couple of hours on the way to somewhere else, rather than a stop in itself. But it can be different.
Before we even explore the Himba, their way of life and what I’ve come to learn from them, let’s dispel a few misconceptions. First of all, the Himba are located in a few known, very specific areas and while they do move around a bit, most local tour guides know where those areas/locations are with a reasonable level of certainty. Do not, under any circumstance, accept a quick show of the few - very few and not representative - Himba you can sometimes come across in some of Namibia’s larger towns or cities - while those are members of the Himba tribe, they usually do not truly represent what the Himba really are. Also, constantly bear in mind that the Himba, regardless of their increasing reliance on tourism, they still remain a largely animal farming society and their time tables are largely determined or centred around their livestock. They start their day just before dawn and usually refrain from activity once the sun goes up and the heat rises, so visiting them in the middle of the day will not really provide you with any real insight into their lives. Finally, do not be fooled into thinking that a 1 or even a 2-hour visit is enough. It takes time to get them to loosen up, to stop focusing on you as “yet another tourist” and naturally fall into their daily rhythm so you can truly experience them as you need to.
But the Himba are truly incredible! Yes there is a voyeristic side to any visit to one of their villages, but if you don’t treat them as subjects on display, if you smile and interact with them as an equal (and I mean that in the “not act as the privileged, uber-compassionate, oh-so-understanding white person” way - this is the worst you can do!) then you will be rewarded with real insights into a truly unique and dying people. Let me see if I can explain.
The Himba have no electricity or any other form of power. Nowhere. Never. In their village you will not find anything which can or ever could have been powered by electricity. This means their entire tooling and lifestyle does not resemble anything you have ever seen before. There are very few elements from the outside “civilisation” which actually make it into a Himba village and those are limited to a few plastic containers, maybe a couple of very basic tools, nylon rope or cord and finally, metal elements such as bolts, nails etc. which they use to create ornaments they both use and sell to tourists. You may not grasp exactly what that means, but in essence it means the Himba lead a very simple, very basic life and they constantly provide for all their needs with what’s available around them or what they can make there and then. This is evident in their huts, their limited clothing and everything in and around their village. The simplicity of the place is almost unsettling at first - you get an initial sense that the place is empty, a showcase village if you will, but once you spend some time there you can see that this is truly not the case.
The Himba do not have much water. This is hardly surprising considering where they live - in one of the driest places in the world and with little to no infrastructure to allow them to capture and store water, but this does make their way of life completely different. You may read that the Himba do not use water, but if you get past the crap and the superficial blogs and think a bit for yourself, you will immediately see that this cannot be the case. The Himba cook, just like anyone else. The Himba also need water for their livestock and for their very limited crops. But because the water is so limited, every ounce of water the manage to collect or gather goes first to their livestock and then to their cooking. Where it does not go at all is on bathing and cleaning.
This means that the Himba, pretty much unlike any other African tribe, they clean themselves using smoke from their dry wood fires and red clay mud which they make by mixing water - there is water again - with dust (of which they have plenty). Smoke is used to clean their entire bodies (albeit not their hair), including their sensitive areas and this is a ritual they go through every other day.
This is usually done inside their huts (to prevent the smoke from evaporating) and “washing” is done by them standing over the fire and moving smoke all over themselves until satisfied. A fresh layer of mud is then applied to the cleaned areas as protection from mosquitoes and other insects, including scorpions and spiders. Once every week - or even further apart - they will use more mud to apply to their braids, covering them completely. Usually this is done in pairs, with one woman “cleaning” the other.
Now, whether this holds true for all the men is hard to tell as most Himba villages are mostly populated by women and children, as most men - well, actually usually all men - are away herding their livestock, usually goats and a few cattle, but the few exchanges we were able to make with them with the help of our excellent guide suggested the men also do the same thing. Nevertheless, under normal circumstances, if there are no animals present in the village, do not expect to see any men around.
Other than that, the Himba society is largely governed by the women and each village (or tribe - that was not very clear) has a queen and princes or princesses but a very loose hierarchical structure. The women, apart from taking care of the village, they also use string, beads, screws, nuts and bolts and, most importantly, lard and mud to create simple necklaces and other ornaments which either they or some of the men in the village sell to tourists. Whenever a tour group descends into the village, chances are the women make more from these trinkets than the men make from a couple of months of herding their herds - quite a bit more actually. Those trinkets look from extremely nice to, well, boring, but one thing they share - IF they are authentic (please read below on this) - is that they stink! It’s the lard and mud in them, but the truth is that if you purchase an original Himba necklace and try to hang it at your home, the smell will permeate nearly everything. It is quite bad…trust me.
(A short comment on Himba-made trinkets: tour groups will sometimes stop at various “Himba markets” and let tourists out so they can have the original - yeah, i know - Himba experience. Most of the stuff on sale there have little or nothing to do with the Himba and are things they most likely buy from other markets and then simply resell with a markup. Please be careful…) Harsh as it may sound, I honestly cannot think of anything you would actually want to buy from the Himba, so keep that in mind - a necklace we bought (it does look good!) has to be kept in an airtight frame (yes, we actually made one!) otherwise the smell coming from it is simply horrendous!
So, of there is one piece of advice which can make your visit to the Himba a special one it is this: take your time. In everything. Choose your guide very carefully and ensure the visit to the intended Himba village will be a sufficiently long one. The best visits are those which arrive in the afternoon, stay somewhere really close-by for the night, and the allow you to revisit the next morning. Speak to your guide and ensure you will have enough time - I would recommend at least 2-3 hours in the afternoon and another hour or so in the morning. As an absolute minimum. Oh, and once you are there, again, please take your time. Walk around, explore the lay of the land so-to-speak, look for the light and how the people move and then consider what and how you will shoot.
To see more images from Namibia, please go here.