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  • The Ultimate Guide to the Intriguing Culture of the Himba Tribe

    9 min read

    women of Himba Tribe

    Get to know the semi nomadic Himba Tribe from the Beautiful Namibian desert plains

    The Himba tribe is a semi-nomadic group of indigenous people known for their unique way of life. They thrive on ancient traditions passed down from generation to generation.

    The Himba tribe offers a glimpse into a world largely untouched by modern society. But in recent years, the Himba have faced significant challenges, including land rights issues, drought, and the effects of tourism and modernization. 

    Despite these challenges, the Himba tribe have maintained their cultural identity and way of life. We look closer at who the Himba are, their beliefs and customs, and what makes them such an intriguing cultural phenomenon.

    a women of himba tribe standing in forest

    Who are the Himba people?

    The Himba tribe are an indigenous ethnic group inhabiting the Kunene region in northern Namibia and parts of Angola, where they have resided for centuries. They are renowned for their unique customs, traditions, and way of life.

    Despite their long history within Namibia, the Himba tribe people remain relatively unknown to those outside their community, making them a fascinating and mysterious group to outsiders.

    Their remote way of life and distinct appearance set them apart from other tribes in the area, adding to their unique cultural identity.

    The Himba people are known for their striking appearance, characterized by their red ochre-rubbed skin and intricate hairstyles. Being a semi-nomadic group, they rely heavily on their livestock, mainly cattle and goats, for survival.

    The Himba tribe have maintained many of their traditional customs and practices, including their dress, language, and beliefs in ancestral spirits. The Himba tribemay seem an enigma to outsiders due to the distance between them and contemporary society.

    However, those who take the time to learn about their way of life are often humbled by the sense of community they cultivate and the timeless beauty of their traditions.

    History Of the Himba Tribe 

    The history of the Himba tribe is long and complex, dating back several centuries.

    The exact origins of the Himba are still being determined. Still, it is believed that they migrated to the Kunene region of northern Namibia from the east in the 16th century.

    For centuries, the Himba tribe lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle, moving with their cattle and goats in search of grazing land and water sources. They developed a deep connection with the land and a rich cultural heritage passed down through generations.

    In the late 19th century, the Himba encountered European colonial powers seeking to establish control over the region. The colonial authorities introduced Christianity, imposed taxes, and forced the Himba to settle in villages. 

    This disrupted their traditional way of life and led to the loss of grazing land, significantly impacting their livestock-based economy.

    During the 20th century, Namibia gained independence from South Africa. The Himba continued to face challenges as they struggled to protect their cultural heritage and maintain their way of life. 

    In recent years, the Himba have faced additional challenges, including land rights issues, drought, and the effects of tourism and modernization.

    Despite these challenges, the Himba have resisted cultural assimilation and maintained their unique identity. 

    They have also been actively advocating for their rights and working with government and non-governmental organizations to address land rights, education, and healthcare issues.

    a child from himba tribe

    The red ochre-tinged appearance of Himba women

    One of the most distinctive aspects of Himba culture is the use of otjize, a mixture of ochre, butterfat, and other ingredients, which the Himba tribe women apply to their skin.

    Their striking appearance is for more than aesthetics, as it serves several functional purposes in their harsh desert environment. 

    They view this practice as an essential part of their cultural identity. It serves several purposes, including protecting their skin from the harsh sun, repelling insects, and promoting hygiene.

    The butterfat moisturizes the skin and hair, helping to prevent dryness and promote overall hygiene.

    This mixture is also symbolic in Himba culture, representing a connection to ancestral spirits and the earth.

    Despite modernization efforts in Namibia, many Himba people continue to embrace this traditional practice as an integral aspect of their unique cultural heritage. 

    a woman carring her baby from himba tribe

    Himba clothing and hairstyles

    The Himba have a unique clothing style and hairstyle that are an important part of their cultural identity. Himba hairstyles and clothing reinforce social and cultural norms within the community.

    Himba Tribe Clothing 

    Although minimalistic by modern norms, Himba clothing accentuates the beauty and offers protection from the elements. The Himba traditionally wear simple clothing from animal skins or plant fibers.

    Women wear long skirts made from goat skin or cowhide held by a leather belt. They often go topless but may wear a beaded necklace or a metal band around their neck. 

    Men wear a loincloth made from animal skins or plant fibers.

    Himba tribe Hairstyles 

    The Himba are also known for their intricate hairstyles, often adorned with jewelry and other decorative elements. 

    Hairstyles in Himba culture are not just about aesthetics but also have deep cultural significance. 

    They convey a person’s age, social status, and life stage. Hair is considered an extension of oneself and is often adorned with shells, beads, and other decorative elements to signify important events such as marriage or birth.

    For example, young girls will wear two braids with shells in their hair until puberty. They will then transition to a single braid adorned with jewelry.

    Married women wear elaborate hairstyles incorporating intricately braided designs and cowrie shells.

    Himba women typically braid their hair into intricate styles using a mixture of animal fat, ochre, and other materials. They often wear headdresses from animal skins, beads, and other decorations. 

    Men typically wear their hair short, but some may have a small tuft of hair on the crown of their head.

    Like the ochre pigment used on their skin, hairstyles also serve as a way for the Himba to connect with their ancestors and cultural heritage.

    The Role of Women in Himba Society

    The Himba have a strong sense of community and highly value social harmony. They have a complex system of social organization with a hierarchical structure based on age and gender.

    They also have a rich oral tradition, with storytelling and folklore playing an essential role in their culture.

    Polygamy is a cultural norm for the Himba tribe, with men often taking multiple wives. But while this may seem patriarchal and oppressive to some, it is essential to recognize that women in Himba society have agency and choice in these arrangements. 

    Marriages are based on mutual consent; women can initiate divorce if they are unhappy or mistreated.

    Women also play a significant role in the raising and educating of children. They are responsible for teaching the next generation cultural values and traditions and acting as community leaders.

    Key beliefs and rituals of the Himba tribe

    One of the essential beliefs of the Himba tribe is their ancestor worship. The Himba believe that their ancestors still play a vital role in their lives and that they can communicate with them through rituals and offerings.

    The Himba honor their ancestors with special ceremonies, such as the Epupa festival, where they dance and sing to pay homage to those who came before them.

    Additionally, the Himba conduct rainmaking ceremonies when they experience drought or other natural disasters. These rituals involve prayers, dances, and animal sacrifices to appease the spirits and bring rain for crop growth.

    These beliefs and practices are integral to their way of life, reflecting their unique cultural identity.

    a himba man

    Other Himba tribal Customary practices 

    The Himba tribe has a rich cultural heritage and many customary practices that are still observed today. Here are some of the notable ones:

    • Initiation ceremonies: The Himba has initiation ceremonies for both boys and girls. Boys undergo a circumcision ritual to mark their transition into manhood, while girls undergo a ceremony that prepares them for marriage and motherhood.
    • Cattle herding: The Himba are a pastoralist community, and cattle herding is essential to their way of life. They believe their cattle symbolize wealth and use them for food, milk, and other resources.
    • Social organization: The Himba have a complex system of social organization based on age and gender. The oldest men lead the community, make important decisions and settle disputes.
    • Storytelling and folklore: The Himba have a rich oral tradition, with storytelling and folklore playing a vital role in their culture. They use stories to pass on their history, traditions, and beliefs to future generations.

    Himba Tribe Religion 

    The Himba tribe has a traditional religion based on ancestor worship and the belief in a supreme being responsible for creating and maintaining the world. The Himba believe that their ancestors continue to play an essential role in their lives and that they can communicate with them through prayer and offerings.

    The Himba believe in a supreme being called Mukuru, who is believed to be responsible for the creation of the world and all living things. They believe that Mukuru is both benevolent and powerful and can help them in times of need.

    The Himba also believes in a spiritual world that exists alongside the physical world. They believe that the spirits of their ancestors can influence their daily lives and that they can communicate with them through prayer and offerings.

    The Himba have a complex system of religious beliefs and practices deeply integrated into their daily lives. They have traditional healers who are believed to have the ability to communicate with the spiritual world and provide guidance and healing.

    Despite the introduction of Christianity by European colonial powers, many Himba people continue to practice their traditional religion and maintain their cultural identity.

     However, some Himba have adopted elements of Christianity, and there is a growing number of Christian churches in the region.

    a himba woman showing her hairstyle

    Himba Tribal Structures  

    The Himba tribal structure is based on a complex system of social organization that is hierarchical and based on age and gender. Here are some of the critical elements of the Himba tribal structure:

    • Clan: The Himba are organized into clans based on a common ancestor. Each clan has its own set of customs, traditions, and responsibilities.
    • Age sets: The Himba have a system of age sets, which are groups of people born within a particular time frame. Each age set has its own set of responsibilities and duties, and they move through the ranks of the community as they age.
    • Elders: The elders are the most respected community members responsible for making important decisions and settling disputes. They are also responsible for passing down the community’s traditions, customs, and values to younger generations.
    • Men and women: The Himba have distinct roles and responsibilities for men and women. Men are responsible for herding cattle and protecting the community. At the same time, women are responsible for cooking, cleaning, and caring for the children.
    • Marriage: Marriage is an integral part of the Himba culture and is arranged by the bride and groom’s families. The groom pays a bride price, typically paid in cattle, and the couple then moves in with the groom’s family.

    The Himba tribal structure is complex and multifaceted and plays a vital role in shaping the community’s social norms and cultural traditions. The hierarchical structure is based on age and gender, reinforcing the importance of respect for elders and traditional gender roles.

    FAQ about the Himba tribe

    Are Himba tribes friendly?

    The Himba are generally known to be a friendly and hospitable people. They have a deep sense of community and highly value social harmony. 

    Visitors are often welcomed with open arms, and the Himba are happy to share their customs, traditions, and way of life with those who show respect and a genuine interest in learning about their culture.

    Suppose you plan to visit the Himba or interact with members of their community. In that case, it’s a good idea to do some research beforehand and to work with a reputable tour operator or local guide who can help facilitate your visit and ensure that you are respectful and sensitive to their customs and traditions. 

    With the right approach, the Himba can be friendly, welcoming, and eager to share their unique culture with visitors.

    What language do Himba people speak?

    The Himba people speak a language called OtjiHimba, which is a dialect of the Herero language. OtjiHimba is a Bantu language primarily spoken in Namibia’s Kunene region and parts of Angola.

    It is a tonal language, meaning words can change based on the tone or pitch used when speaking them.

    Although OtjiHimba is the primary language spoken by the Himba, many community members also speak other languages, including English, Afrikaans, and Portuguese. 

    Despite the linguistic diversity of the region, OtjiHimba remains an integral part of the cultural heritage and identity of the Himba people.

    Tips for Travelers:

    If you're interested in visiting the Himba tribe, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, it's important to be respectful of their culture and traditions, and to dress modestly.

    It's also advisable to go with a reputable tour company or guide, as the Himba tribe is a protected group and it is important to not exploit them. Finally, be sure to bring plenty of water and sunscreen, as the Namibian sun can be very intense.

    In conclusion

    With this ultimate guide, you are now equipped with everything you need to know about the fascinating Himba tribe. Their unique culture, traditions, and practices are sure to leave you with a lasting impression of this amazing part of the world.

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