The Himba People of Namibia

As a member of the Himba ethnic group, Tupa grew up in the remote Kunene Region of northwestern Namibia.  The Himba are one of the most iconic people in Africa, and tourists flock to the region just to take photos of a “traditional tribal society.”  But who are the Himba?


Just getting to the Himba’s traditional territory in Namibia’s Kunene Region can be an adventure in itself.  It is located in the far northwestern corner of the country and there is only one paved road that passes through it (and that only skirts its eastern edge).  The region itself is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and the desolate Skeleton Coast National Park to the west, the wild bush lands of Etosha National Park to the east, the Angolan border – defined by the crocodile-infested Kunene River – to the north, and a series of ephemeral “rivers” to the south that are little more than parched, wheel sucking sand traps pockmarked with mounds of elephant dung.


The Kunene’s most defining feature is its sweltering heat, during the dry season the average daily temperature rises above 90° Fahrenheit.  These conditions are alleviated somewhat during the wet season, when average daily temperatures drop to a crisp 85° Fahrenheit.  “Wet season” can be a misnomer, however, since the amount of annual rainfall is highly variable and practically non-existent for years at a time.  When the rains do come, they come in violent, highly concentrated bursts accompanied by massive thunder and lightning storms. Flash floods are common on these occasions, washing out roads and everything else in a dark, rolling mass of mud and debris that can rush past you in minutes.   After the Namibian sun pounds down on the remnants for a couple of hours, what was once a mighty river becomes little more than a series of stagnant, shallow pools of brown muck.  You can squat beside these and literally watch them evaporate from both the landscape and your own memory.


For the Himba people of Namibia, the Kunene is home.  The Himba share the same ancestral stock as the more numerous Herero people and speak a dialect of the Herero language.  The ancestors of both groups are believed to have migrated into northwestern Namibia from what is now southern Angola around the 16thcentury.  This was only one of a series of great migrations that took place over a two thousand year period that have come to define much of the cultural landscape of present-day Africa.  Linguistic evidence suggest that an original proto-Bantu language group of people from around what is now present day Cameroon and Eastern Nigeria expanded in two massive waves, one east and one south.  The ancestors of the Himba and Herero were part of the southern wave, but given the relatively short time period of the great Bantu migration, Bantu languages throughout sub-Saharan Africa are remarkably similar.  In fact, the Herero language still shares many of the same words as KiSwahili, which developed as part of the eastern Bantu expansion, and is now spoken primarily on the coast of East Africa and in parts of Central Africa.


The ancestors of the Himba and Herero were preceded in northern Namibia by the more powerful and centralized Ovambo people.  Initially, this forced the former to settle in the more arid regions to the west.  But over the following two hundred years, the majority moved around the Ovambo to the east and then south, settling throughout much of what is now north-central and central Namibia.  Generally, those who remained in the west became the Himba while those that skirted around the Ovambo to the east and south became the Herero.  The Himba and Herero continue to share a great deal in common, to the point that the Himba lobby through the Herero for various means of political and related support to this day.


Today, estimates for the number of Himba in Namibia range anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000.  It all depends on whom you ask.  The Himba are notoriously difficult to count due to their semi-nomadic lifestyle and scattered settlement patterns across a remote and inhospitable region. Moreover, putting numbers on things is a decidedly un-Himba thing to do (this typically applies to livestock but includes family members as well).  There is also widespread distrust among the Himba of the Ovambo/SWAPO-dominated government. All of this translates into a great deal of frustration for official government census takers.  They are not always well received among the Himba and are often provided with all kinds of imaginative responses to their questions intentionally meant to ruin their day.  Also, Namibia, like many African countries, does not officially provide census numbers according to tribal affiliation.  It is more politically savvy to do such things by administrative regions and sub-regions.  So, the total number of Himba remains a bit of a mystery.  Ask a Himba and you will get a shake of the head and a perplexed exclamation along the lines of, “Ha, ta, ta, ta…” to let you know what a truly ridiculous and unanswerable question it is.


With the possible exception of the Maasai in East Africa, the Himba are one of Africa’s most widely recognized cultural groups.  Their images are splashed across the pages of countless photography and coffee table books, often directly juxtaposed with photos of wild animals and other notably natural or undomesticated scenes.  You can find photos or featured stories of them everywhere from Vogueand National Geographicto CNNand the New York Times.  In narrative after narrative, their striking physical features and appearance are highlighted in great detail, with a particular emphasis on the women’s bare breasts, short leather skirts, thick bands of iron and copper jewelry, long, tightly plaited locks of hair, and reddish skin that comes from covering themselves with otjize(a combination of cooked butterfat and crushed ochre).  They are widely branded as “the beautiful people” or “Africa’s most beautiful people.” Literally hundreds of websites and travel blogs have cropped up that focus primarily on this sexualized image of the Himba, with tag lines like “Himba: Synonym of Beauty and Glamour” and “Himba Beauty Secrets.”  Since independence, the number of documentary filmmakers coming to Namibia – and to film the Himba specifically – has risen so sharply that the Namibian parliament established the Namibia Film Commission Act in 2000 in an attempt to regulate activities related to the industry, which has long been conceded as completely out of hand.  As one gets closer to Himba territory, it is not uncommon to pass international film crews driving in long, dusty caravans of semi-trailer trucks.  On arrival, their first order of business often includes paying local Himba families to look more “traditional” (i.e., discard T-shirts or any other signs of modernity) and pick up any trash and beer bottles scattered about the place.  For better or worse, the Himba have been put out there, and it is the exotic beauty and traditional appearance of the women – unsullied by western influence – that is deliberately and repeatedly placed at the forefront.


The traditional aspect of the Himba has long been a theme of those who come in contact with them.  A long line of colonial administrators, missionaries, and anthropologists have objectified the Himba as the distant “other,” or group of people living an untouched and relatively stable existence far from the influence of modern day society. Other than their physical appearance (which is itself related), this general idea is easily the most oft repeated theme by outsiders.  It is not simply tourists and others behind the camera lens who adopt this perspective; the Namibian government has repeatedly done so in the name of development, modernization, and capacity building.  The enduring march out of the past and into a distinctly modern future has been a continuous national theme throughout Africa, and one that is reinforced by international aid agencies and powerful global entities like the IMF, World Bank and, most recently in Namibia, the USAID and other stakeholders behind the Millennium Challenge Fund.  The Himba are often brought up in this context, with the traditional aspects of their society reinterpreted as little more than roadblocks from a harsh and primitive past to a vastly superior future that, if one were to go by Namibia’s politicians themselves, is best represented by driving shiny black Mercedes-Benz E300’s and other forms of conspicuous consumption.  Ironically, human rights groups, conservation organizations, and the many other ideologues who constantly revolve around the Himba reconstruct similar images of a largely traditional and pristine society in order to counter government or corporate intrusions that they deem harmful. Whether it be as the ignoble or noble savage, the Himba are continually reified as existing in a primal, homogenous state.


All of this is in stark contrast to the ways that the Himba look at themselves, which is, like any group, fragmented and highly dependent on the specific context or issue at hand.  The greatest differences exist between the youth and the older generations. Despite being widely considered as among the most successful pastoralists in Africa, it is increasingly clear that Himba youth have begun to define success in ways that are more in line with the discourse of development and modernity.  For them, the number of livestock or the imperatives of tradition cannot compare to the lure of money and modern goods.  This is reinforced everyday by the obvious comparisons between themselves and the assemblage of tourists and other foreigners who drive through their territory in Land Cruisers packed to the hilt with every material convenience and gadget under the sun.  The regional center of Opuwo beguiles Himba youth with its bustling shops and businesses while simultaneously making them aware of exactly how much they lack, whether it be a pair of shoes, a T-shirt, a digital camera, or simply cash.  Formal education and health care could also be added to that long wish list. Government promises to bring development to the Himba reinforce these beliefs; development is talked about as if it was something on display in a shop window or automatically gifted to somebody upon graduation from secondary school.  Not surprisingly, the older generations lament the breakdown of tradition and complain how their children or grandchildren look upon tending livestock with complete disdain.


Yet for all the changes brought about by increased contact with the outside world, the foundation of Himba society remains remarkably intact. Perhaps it is this cultural tenacity, for lack of a better term, that many mistake for a pristine and largely untouched society.  Or maybe it is the persistence of our own cultural stereotypes about Africa.  In either case, the majority of Himba, while experiencing profound changes over the past several decades, continue to lead their everyday lives in a manner similar to their ancestors.  Life still revolves around the movement of cattle, and people graze their livestock and plant their maize gardens in accordance with a seasonal round that is somehow highly patterned and unpredictable at the same time.   Despite the influence of a cash economy, wealth – and respect – continue to be measured in terms of the ownership and health of cattle, which in turn depends on access to water and good grazing land.  Each morning, the livestock are milked and turned out to graze, the best pastures gradually getting further and further out as okuni– or the time of dryness – comes on until, finally, it is necessary to pack up and move to the dry season pastures located high in the mountains. When the rains come again and the grasses return to the low country, the people come down from their dry season camps, plant their gardens, repair their houses and livestock fences, and begin another year.  The daily fare is mostly maize porridge and soured goat’s milk, supplemented with fruits, nuts, herbs and wild vegetables when seasonably available, as well as meat on special occasions.  Villages are made up of a collection of homesteads, each of which houses extended family members and consists of a small circular hamlet of huts (constructed of sapling posts bound together and plastered with mud and dung), work shelters, grain bins, and livestock enclosures.  The spiritual center of the homestead is the okuruwo, or holy fire, where the living seek advice and guidance from those ancestors who passed on.  The holy fire is constantly maintained and considered critical to the well-being of the entire household.  It is the ultimate symbol of continuity in an ever-changing world.


While the Himba are remarkable in their adherence to tradition, it is obvious that the past several decades in particular have held more change than continuity.  Few will deny that.  In the case of the Himba, however, general questions concerning cultural stability and continuity are shallow façades that mask some of the more exploitive and detrimental changes that have taken place in recent years.  And for some Himba households and individuals, these changes have brought about the worst kinds of human misery and suffering.