Meet the Tribe: Himba
Originally published 05 September 2011
The Himba people are probably the most easily recognised of Namibia’s ethnic groups. Their images are widely used to advertise the country, but their numbers make up just one or two per cent of the population.
They are a semi-nomadic tribe whose existence centres on herding and breeding sheep, cattle and goats. The women are known for covering their bodies with otjize, a mixture of butter fat and ochre which gives their skin and plaited hair a reddish tinge. Traditionally both men and women go topless and wear skirts or loincloths made of animal skins. Modern clothes are scarce, but generally go to the men when available.
The Himba maintain their traditional beliefs including ancestor worship and rituals concerning okoruwo (a sacred fire) which is considered an important link between the living and the dead. Each settlement has an okoruwo which is always positioned between the entrance to the kraal (village) and the door of the main dwelling. This is used to light all fires in the settlement and it is the duty of the oldest member of the patriclan to ensure that it is kept smouldering and never goes out. Flames from the okoruwo are used for daily rituals and special ceremonies like births, deaths, marriages and circumcision, and it is through this medium that communication takes place with the ancestral spirits.
Over the centuries the Himba have been almost wiped out by drought, famine and warfare, however, since the 1990s they have been resurgent. Aided by their leaders they have maintained control of their lands and also successfully blocked plans for a hydro electric dam at Epupa that would have flooded their ancestral home.
The Himba inhabit the Kunene Region (also known as Kaokoland) in north-western Namibia, a remote corner of the country that few tourists visit. This region is relatively unexplored and will appeal to the more adventurous traveller. To the north is the Kunene River, which separates Angola from Namibia, to the south is Damaraland and to the west is the incredible Skeleton Coast.
Named after the bleached whale and seal bones that covered the shore when the whaling industry was still active, and the skeletal shipwrecks caused by offshore rocks hidden by regular dense fog, this dramatic coastline is unforgettable.
There are a number of options if you’d like to explore this remote region and have the opportunity to visit a Himba settlement. However, the remoteness of the camps and the huge distances involved mean that some options will add considerable cost to a Namibia itinerary.
The most cost-effective way to visit the Himba is to do a self-drive trip to Kaokoland incorporating the Epupa and Ruacana Falls on the Kunene River. This is an exciting trip to Namibia’s most northern settlements and veers far off the main tourist routes.
The following two options are more expensive as they require light aircraft flights: Firstly there is the truly incredible Schoemans’ Skeleton Coast safari. A fly-in safari staying at three different locations in the region, this trip accesses areas that can only be reached by air and the scenery is absolutely spectacular. The second option is a fly-in trip to the luxurious Serra Cafema Camp overlooking the Kunene River on the Namibia/Angola border. This is one of Namibia’s most remote and dramatic camps and from here you can explore the region on nature drives, boat trips and on quad bikes.
Find out more about tailor-made trips to Namibia
Namibia is a country of deserts, dunes, canyons and hundreds of miles of deserted coastline. Its most famous for places like Etosha National Park and the Skeleton Coast.Read more about Namibia »
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