Benguela Turismo
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The Himbas
There are more than 50 million years that the Skeleton Coast sands redraw the maps daily, sculpting sand dunes that reach more than 300 feet tall and are among the largest of the entire planet. There is only one people capable of inhabiting this land, one of the most inhospitable of the entire African continent: these people are known as the Himbas, the people of that nation of Women in Red.

The Himbas are a pastoral ethnic group of about 20,000 to 50,000 people and speak the Otjihimba language, a Herero dialect. Since the 15th century they live near the Cunene River, which marks the border between Namibia and Angola, but roam freely between the two countries. For them, there are no boundaries. They wander through the desert as the Lions and elephants, peaking at 80 kilometres walk in search of water for their livestock.

Himba Women
Himba women. Photo © Javier Ventosa

The Himba women are famous for being all covered with otjize, a mixture of butter fat (or animal fat) and ochre, possibly to protect themselves from the sun and wind. This mixture leave their skin with a reddish tint, symbolizing the color of the Red Earth and blood, which represents life, and is consistent with the Himba ideal of beauty. Women plait their hair and cover it with the same mix of ochre.

The Tribe

The Himba tribe is one of the most charming of Africa. Is a Matriarchy in its maximum exponent, because women are in charge. They are the real owners of children, houses, cattle and all utensils that exist in their villages.

Himba tribe on the left. Himba village on the right. Photos: © Yvonne van Staveren | © Javier Ventosa

The Himba people practice ancestral worship, being considered by some anthropologists as an evolved monotheism. Their divinity is named Mukuru, and the Himbas use a ancestral fire to communicate with the spirits of their predecessors. According to the religion of the Himba people, Mukuru created man, the woman and the cattle from the same tree. Unlike most other monotheistic religions, Mukuru doesn't have a limitless power and the ancestors may also strongly influence the world of the living.

In the Himba family one of the male leader occupations is to maintain the ancestral fire alive, approaching him periodically in order to communicate with Mukuru and their ancestors. In Himba religion, Mukuru controls most elements of the physical world, such as land, water and climate, but are the ancestors who hold control over aspects such as disease or the cattle condition. For example, if someone gets sick, the Himba people believe that the spirits of the ancestors were somehow offended by the actions of this family.

Himba women and children. Photo © Alfred Daniels

The Himbas usually wear few clothes and modern costumes are scarce, but when there are some they usually get used by the men. Traditionally men and women are topless and wear skirts or loincloths made of animal skins. Adult women, in addition to the aforementioned skin ocher tint that extends also to the hair, use some kind of bracelets on their ankles to protect the legs from insect bites. The boys are circumcised, usually before puberty, to make them fit for marriage.

Women responsibility

Himba women are skilled artisans and so are the soul of the tribe, and who keep the economy from their homes, create children in their own way and with a downright affection. Sometimes they go to the major urban centres (mostly in Namibia) in order to sell their art, then they return to their rustic world. The women also have the responsibility of milking the cows and looking after the children from each other. Women tend to perform more strenuous tasks that men, like carrying water to their houses and also some construction tasks. To keep the tradition they never bathe, but spend several hours a day in beauty rituals (covering themselves with otjize). The Himbas also run a polygamous society, in which every woman can have sex with several men.

Traditional Himba hairstyle. Photo © Maurizio Peddis

The cattle is the main symbol of status of a Himba family, so women who have more cattle heads are considered richer and more important. Cattle theft is punishable by death. The meat is reserved only for special events such as weddings and funerals. When a Himba dies, a part of his cattle is sacrificed and the heads are stacked at the graveside, to protect his spirit.

The members of a typical Himba family inhabit a rural property, always in a small rounded village, where you can find at the center the “okuruwo” (the ancestral fire) and a cattle corral. Both the fire and the cattle are closely attached to their belief in the cult of ancestors.

Himba child. Photo © Maurizio Peddis

When German missionaries, who settled the northern Namibia, wanted them to see the “shame” of walking dressed scantily clad, and that their habits and traditions were not "best suited", the Himba retreated into the deepest of the Namib desert and so don't let themselves get infected with the mindset of missionaries, who never understood that the religion that they were trying to impose to the Himbas would end by modifying their ancestral roots and traditions, which fortunately linger to this day.