The Himba are semi-nomadic pastoralists who live in northern Namibia, mainly in the Kaokoland region, which means “distant land”, before the arrival of the German and Dutch colonisers.
Despite the fact that they were forced to take refuge in this arid land, the Himbas have always perpetuated their ancestral traditions.
Their ancestors come from the Hereros tribe, still present in Namibia but having made the choice of modern life following the forced evangelization of European colonisers.
Chased and stripped of their primary wealth, their herds, they had little choice but to become hunter-gatherers, a real dishonour for these people so proud of their way of life and in constant communion with nature.
It was at this time that the bravest among them, faithful to their traditions, took the name of Himba, which means “beggars”.
Despite all these hardships, the latter have always succeeded in reconstituting the herds that characterise them and make them dedicated breeders of their livestock.
Although some men have made a choice to wear clothes while maintaining their traditional way of life, women are particularly keen to respect what their mothers bequeathed to them.
They are the owners of the herds of cows and goats passed on from mother to daughter. According to tradition, they inherit a white shell as an adornment, an important symbol of fertility.
The women are very flirtatious and spend several hours a day getting ready. Although they have no problem with nudity, they remain modest and take care never to reveal their ankles: the most intimate part of the body among the Himba, which they hide with the help of jewellery.
The wealthiest women can bear 10 to 15 kilos of ornaments, such as bracelets, necklaces, goat skins or head coverings.
Himba women are not allowed to come into contact with water throughout their lives.
If this may seem unthinkable, you should know that hygiene is a very important aspect of daily rituals that women indulge in.
Their whole body is coated with an ochre powder, a mixture of hematite and animal fat that will protect them from the sun, drought or even cold. They also take care to use fragrant barks and use them as fumigation to ensure their intimate cleanliness.
Their hair is also coated with ochre from adulthood, and their hairstyle changes in appearance depending on their age (childhood, first menstruation, marriage, etc.).
Meanwhile, men await the passage to adulthood, represented by circumcision during adolescence, to wear a large braid at the top of the head. From then on, they are responsible for the welfare of the herds and take them to graze or water, while the women stay in the village to take care of the children, food and household chores.
The Himbas feed mainly on corn flour and milk.
They do not sacrifice animals only on special occasions or to welcome a friend from afar.
The quality of the welcome is very important to them, and they stop at nothing to please their guests. For example, it is not uncommon to see a Himba man offering a friend to “sleep” with his wife in their marital bed as a welcome gift.
The Himba are polygamous: men can have several wives, and women can change partners if they wish.
Their unique culture, 5000 years old, is constantly threatened by the progress of the modern world and mass tourism.
Their future is uncertain, and today there are only 10,000 Himba in Namibia.
School is compulsory, and going there allows Himba children to be offered a regular meal.
By going there, they must submit to the obligation to wear a uniform and to cut their hair. The education they receive diverts them from their traditions. Some choose to leave the tribe to settle down and enjoy more modern life.
Each Himba is free to make this choice once they become an adult, but there is little possibility of going back after such a decision.
How to meet the Himbas
Meeting the Himbas is certainly a unique and exciting experience.
Namibia is multi-ethnic. There are Boers (former descendants of the Dutch), Germans, Ovambos, the Kavango, the Damaras, the Afrikaaners, the San, the Caprivians, etc.
The Himba, on the other hand, are part of the Herero ethnic group.
Most travellers fall under the charm of the Himbas and particularly of women with very aesthetic tribal dress traditions.
It is possible to visit Himba villages in the northwest of Namibia. For this, several options exist to meet them:
- The concept of “living museums”. These are villages inhabited by Himbas, with a referent who speaks English. Tourists are welcome and can freely take photos, discover their culture and ask questions. Through their presence, they support the community by paying the visit and participating in different activities. This virtuous system allows you to live an authentic and framed experience.
- The visit to a village with a Himba guide. Here, the guide facilitates exchanges and limits cultural oddities. You are asked to give the village chief a gift (the gift consists of corn flour, sugar and a bottle of oil). This option gives work to a local guide and feeds the community.
Nevertheless, this system can limit the authenticity of the exchanges which may seem "interesting", for example, if the gift does not correspond to the expectations of the Himbas.
- Improvised visit to a village. The cultural codes are very different from ours, so the traveller can feel discomfort, and his hosts will not necessarily know how to react to their sometimes too-intrusive visitors. Would we like to find ourselves in the presence of strangers who invite themselves into our living room without speaking our language ?
People of semi-nomadic pastoralists, the Himba devote themselves mainly to their cattle.
It is such an important part of their lives that the highest compliment you can give to a woman is to whisper in her ear she looks like a little red cow !
“The Himba song”, myth or reality ?
A dreamy story is circulating on the internet about the Himba people.
It is the story of a tribe where a child's birth date is not defined on the day he comes into the world but when the idea of his conception germinates in his mother's mind.
When a woman decides she wants a child, she goes to settle at the foot of a tree and remains silent for a while until she hears the baby's birth song. She returns then with her companion to teach him this song, and it is together that they will sing it when conceiving the child. A Himba will hear the music of his birth all his life, from the beginning of his education to his marriage and funeral.
Over the years, the whole community learns this song to sing to him at each major stage of his life.
In Africa, there is an enormous diversity of practices and representations related to birth, some of which could vaguely come close to this legend. Nevertheless, to have discussed with several "guardians of Himba traditions", this mystified legend does not seem to be based on any ethnographic description.
About the photographer
Alexandre Sattler has been travelling the planet for 15 years, sublimating his encounters with his trained eye.
He went to meet the Himba people bringing bags of maize flour funded by the Regard’Ailleurs organisation to support the school canteen and to help the children in the schools visited.
It was also an opportunity to share a memorable moment for everyone by creating a cinema ephemeral through screening the film “Baraka”. The idea being to offer an opening to the world and its inhabitants, in places where children have few opportunities to discover other ways of life.