Tall and slender, the proud yet friendly Himba are noted for their unusual sculptural beauty, enhanced by intricate hairstyles and decorations. Their skins rubbed with red ochre, they seem to be forgotten by the rest of the world, but this is only as a result of their extreme isolation and conservative way of life.
Little has changed in Omuhoro village for generations - people live off the land and are closed off from the rest of the world. At day break, it is milking time - one of the daily duties of the village's women. The days are long but everyone has a role to play. The older women walk for kilometers to collect firewood and water, while another group focuses on cooking enough food to feed the 30 or so mouths in this homestead. The boys mainly look after the cattle and goats while the young girls help with taking care of the many children running around - there is a great sense of shared responsibility. But since Namibia's independence in the early 1990s, a different lifestyle has begun to filter through.
Around the 16th century, the Himba people crossed to Namibia from Angola, settling in Kunene as part of the Herero tribe. A few centuries later, a bovine epidemic swept through Namibia, causing a great loss in cattle. Facing crisis, the tribe decided to move south and explore different regions. Still, despite famine and hunger, some members decided to stay and struggle for survival in familiar territories, asking other tribes for help in searching for cattle or crops. Impoverished by disease and Nama cattle raiders, the Himba were left without livestock and forced to rely on the land for their survival. Driven by hunger, many Himba fled to Angola, where they were called Ova-himba, meaning ‘beggars’ in the Otjiherero language
The Himba are animists. Their supreme being is called Mukuru, and a holy fire (okuruwo) is the way to communicate with their God. The fire is kept continuously lit and is a bridge between the living and the dead, the line of communication between the village chief and the ancestors, who stand in direct contact with the Supreme Being. All houses’ doorways face away from the holy fire, with the exception of the chief’s house, which is lit by the sacred glow both day and night, assuring his link to the other side is never interrupted. The holy line starts from the main entrance of the chief’s hut and goes straight, passing the holy fire, to the entrance of the cattle enclosure. Holy Fire is kept alive until the death of the headman. When this happens, his hut is destroyed, and his “holy fire” is left to slowly burn down to only embers. His family will dance all night in mourning.
Only those who are invited are allowed to cross the holy line and sit by the fire to share their stories and laughter with tribal members over food and drinks. Oftentimes, the chief can be found, aglow in the fire’s light, holding communion with tribal ancestors, asking for a blessing and guidance. Each night, before the Himba people retire, an ember from the sacred fire is carried into the chief’s house. In the morning, the chief will use the same ember to reignite the sacred fire which may have been weakened by the night’s wind.
but whilst presented isolated to the world, in reality, many Himba are inching towards modernity. A tribe in transition, Himba culture is not static nor homogenous, and while some traces of their traditional lives are being left behind, new opportunities awaiting those moving from barren deserts to towns. With new opportunities arise new problems, in hindsight. Anthropologist and conservative expert.
Margie Jacobson, who has spent decades conducting fieldwork on the tribe, explains how this move has affected them. She quotes, "Those beautiful democratic and powerful structures are breaking down, with the introduction of Eurocentric education, party politics, wage labor and cash economy, in many cases, every man for himself." This does not bodes well for tribe as increasing droughts devastate their food security and traditional subsistence strategies yet their historical resilience in this face of change is an emblem of hope. It proves that culture is not static and the tribe is not be perceived as fossilized relics of the past times.
1. Earth.org (2019, June 14) | How the Himba tribe is transitioning under the effects of climate change'
2. BBC Travel (2021, April 15) | Namibia's Himba people caught between traditions and modernity