Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Himba People of Northern Namibia

August 29, 2010

Hair braided in mud, leather skirts and shawls adorned with beads and shells, and skin glowing an orange-red hue from the ochre butter mix rubbed all over their bodies characterize the traditional Himba people of Northwest Namibia, one of the iconic ethnic groups remaining in Africa. Being isolated up in the Northwest corner of the country, many of the overland tours of Namibia skip the long journey here, but our group didn't; one of the reasons that I opted for our particular tour. As we drove up from Kamanjab and our amazing cheetah (and giraffe) encounter, we continued along with long stretches of scenic oblivion, one parched landscape after the next. Getting into the small city of Opuwo, we could tell that we had entered the realm of another culture. Walking through the aisles of the supermarket and down the few streets of the town, topless women with leather skirts, braided locks of hair and orangish skin passed by, going about their everyday activities along with others from the town dressed in Western wear. In addition to them, a few other women were dressed in full-Victorian outfits with huge, colorful dresses covering themselves completely from top to bottom with their wide skirts, along with matching colorful hats, announcing their presence with a wide T-shaped piece in the front, said to resemble the horns of cows that are so important to many of these people.

Although they mostly began as the same group, the nomadic Himba people have made an effort to preserve their traditional dress, while the Herero group branched off when missionaries came one to two hundred years ago, opting for the ultra-conservative long dresses and hats of the Europeans that influenced them, though the many layers of clothing and heavy dresses are far less practical for such a harsh, hot climate, particularly in the brutal summers. We arrived in town in the mid-afternoon and set up camp before heading back to the town center to pick up Queen Elizabeth, the robust, regally named woman in her 40s that would guide and translate for us as we entered one of the traditional Himba villages. Though she was not actually royalty, she grew up in the area and now serves as a guide for groups that come through and want to interact with the local people. We had stopped by the main supermarket in town earlier to find her and arrange a pick-up that afternoon, as she's never too far away from that spot.

Heading into the dry, rolling hills of dust and scrub, we moved on to a dirt road taking us towards one of the small villages in the area. This village is mostly just a few extended families, consisting of a few thatched huts of sticks in the main area, along with more huts stretching out in the distance in either direction, fronting a small hillside in one of the nondescript locations along the empty road. Depending mostly on cattle and farming for their way of life, the Himba people are sometimes nomads, adjusting themselves to one of the harshest living conditions in the world with so few resources and so little water around. Along with a donation to the village, we also brought supplies, handed out to each of us to give to the chief as we entered the village. Being given the large bag of maize meal, I balanced the massive bag of grain on my head for just a few seconds, trying to imitate Queen Elizabeth and her large basket of beaded jewelry and bracelets balanced effortlessly on her head. As we entered the tiny village, one by one, we greeted the chief and offered our gifts, mostly food and basic supplies, as he shook each of our hands, supporting his right arm with his left hand behind his elbow or bicep, as is the respectful custom in some parts of Africa. He did not stand up, however, as he had broken his ankle recently in some sort of incident with a donkey, though our guide seemed to think that this put him in a better mood for our visit, happy to have something to do instead of just sitting around.

Walking into the middle of the dusty square, a few women and their children sat around the backs of their houses, smiling and greeting us as we approached them, trying to get to know them and take pictures of their unique style. The women braid their hair with the ochre butter and herb mix, resulting in a beautiful looking sort of mud dreadlock, finished off with small tufts of untreated hair at the very end of each long, thick strand. Though they wear nothing to cover their chests (much to the delight of a few of the older men on the tour), they do have a few other articles of clothing including leather skirts, belts and sashes, some of them decorated with shells and beads, all colored in the distinctive burnt orange that permeates everything in this land. Around their ankles, rows of stacked bracelets are woven together, said to protect the women from snake bites while walking around the bush. In addition to their dress, Queen Elizabeth explained to us that their hair styles say a lot about the women, changing from different ages, when they get married and when they have children, sporting styles from a few shorter looks to the long locks that we saw on many of the mothers. The men from the village were off trying to find food, so our interaction was solely with the women and children, who slowly came out more and more after we arrived. Another immediately identifiable trait of the women is the skin tone, glowing a dark orange, after being covered with the ochre butter mix to help protect themselves from the potent sun, and probably for cosmetic purposes as well. The mix also emits a strong, though not unpleasant, odor, adding to the character of this unique, largely intact ethnic group.

Though isolated, this village was no stranger to cameras, smiling and posing for us, with many of the adolescents (and the chief) turning things around and even having a few chances to take pictures of us with our own cameras. We were also shown a demonstration on how the women prepare and grind maize for food before we all entered a tiny hut where Gursheen, one of our willing group members, was outfitted in the traditional outfit and smeared in the ochre butter mix. While we hung around, a few of the smaller children came up to me and a few of the other men, begging us to swing them around by their arms, laughing in delight every time, though passing them off to someone else was the only way to get away from the insatiable children. Next, we entered a circle formed by about 30 of the women seated around the center of the village, giving us a chance to buy some beaded jewelry, bracelets and pots made in the village as a way to support the group. Finally, we finished our afternoon under the setting sun as a semi-circle of about 15 women formed near us, clapping and chanting in traditional songs. Then, one at a time, a few of the women came out into the circle, stomping, clapping, spinning and swinging their long hair with exhibitions of their traditional dances. A few minutes later, Gursheen and Jennifer were pulled in for a quick little dance, and I knew my time was coming. One solitary woman came out into the circle, slowly, indirectly making her way over to me, trying not to be too obvious, though I could feel it coming. She pulled me out in front of the group, and I tried to follow along, stomping, clapping and swinging my arms as I imitated her movements as the crowd cheered me on. Though it felt like a long time, it was over soon enough, and the dancing (and my attempt at it) was finished. We said our goodbyes and filled up huge buckets of water, draining the supplies we had from the truck for the villagers who filled assorted tubs and jugs with any available water, some pushing their way to the front, others content to wait in the back. Leaving the village behind, we continued to talk about the fascinating group on the way back to our camp, recounting the brief interactions we had and asking a few more questions of Queen Elizabeth before dropping her back at the market and going back to the camp for the night.

(Me and the chief hanging out. Upon entering the village, we each dropped off a small gift for the people and greeted the chief before going into the small arrangement of huts around the dirt field.)

(We picked up our translator/guide, Queen Elizabeth, at the local grocery store where she usually hangs out, and then we went into the dirt roads to find the village. She's much better at carrying things on her head than I am. That's a huge bag of maize meal balancing precariously on my head before I handed it off to the chief.)

(One of the cute little girls of the village, up against one of the wooden, circular huts. As you can see, she has a unique hair style that indicates her age/status in the village. Not to be confused with updating your Facebook status.)

(The women of the village use a combination of ochre and butter to make this red/orange mix that is rubbed all over their skin to give it a brilliant glow and protect themselves from the hot sun. The mix is also used in making braids in their hair.)

(While walking around the tiny village, a few of the more outgoing teenagers wanted a chance to try out the cameras, so here is one of the girls taking a picture of Simon with his camera. You may have guessed this, but Simon is not one of the girls sitting on the ground in the corner of the picture, but a member of our tour group just out of the frame.)

(The Himba people strive to maintain their traditional culture and dress, while a closely related group in the area called the Hereros were elaborate Victorian dresses and hats that must be incredibly hot during the summer.)

(After a chance to look at some of their crafts, they began some chanting, clapping and traditional dancing. Sadly, I was pulled up to join in the dance with this one woman who was frantically stomping, clapping and circling around in her traditional dance. I tried to follow along, but I imagine it wasn't a pretty sight.)

(Some of the local women clapping and singing as the lady on the right does some turns and spins her braided hair around. That hair twirl was one of the moves that I couldn't quite replicate.)

(The baby has rock and roll and teenage angst in her future.)

(The young boys loved being swung around and lifted in the air. It was fun for a while, but the only way you to get them to stop was to pass them off to someone else. Passing off the insatiable children is a good parenting technique, too, for anyone taking note.)


Craig said...

What happened to your right arm in the last picture? Cheetah attack?

Derek said...

Yeah, cheetah attack, but I fought it off. Or maybe the Himba girls like to rub that red/orange mix on peoples' arms. You decide.

Anonymous said...

I am writing from the Museums Association of Namibia. Could you contact us on our email address. It is We are producing a Handbook on preserving our environment and cultural heritage and are interested in talking to you about one or two of your photographs.

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