10. The Himba tribe

After an early breakfast in Kamanjab, The Wandelgek travelled east towards Outjo, but before arriving there he visited a traditional Himba village at Little Himba near Otjitambi.

From Kamanjab to Otiltambi

From Kamanjab to Otjitambi

Himba people

Himba woman in the distinct ocre colours ...

Himba woman in the distinct ocre colours …

The Himba (singular: OmuHimba, plural: OvaHimba) are indigenous peoples with an estimated population of about 50,000 people living in northern Namibia, in the Kunene region (formerly Kaokoland) and on the other side of the Kunene River in Angola. There are also a few groups left of the Ovatwa, who are also OvaHimba, but are hunters and gatherers. The OvaHimba are a semi-nomadic, pastoral people, culturally distinguishable from the Herero people in northern Namibia and southern Angola, and speak OtjiHimba (a Herero language dialect), which belongs to the language family of the Bantu. The OvaHimba are considered the last (semi-) nomadic people of Namibia.

Culture

Subsistence economy

The OvaHimba are predominantly livestock farmers who breed fat-tailed sheep and goats, but count their wealth in the number of their cattle. They also grow and farm rain-fed crops such as maize and millet. Livestock are the major source of milk and meat for the OvaHimba, their milk-and-meat nutrition diet is also supplemented by maize cornmeal, chicken eggs, wild herbs and honey. Only occasionally, and opportunistically, are the livestock sold for cash. Non-farming businesses, wages and salaries, pensions, and other cash remittances make up a very small portion of the OvaHimba livelihood, which is gained chiefly from their work in conservancies, old-age pensions, and drought relief aid from the government of Namibia.

Daily life

Preparing a meal...

Preparing a meal…

Women and girls tend to perform more labor-intensive work than men and boys do, such as carrying water to the village, earthen plastering the mopane wood homes with a traditional mixture of red clay soil and cow manure binding agent, collecting firewood, attend to the calabash vines used for producing and ensuring a secure supply of soured milk, cooking and serving meals, as well as artisans making handicrafts, clothing and jewelry. The responsibility for milking the cows and goats also lies with the women and girls. Women and girls take care of the children, and one woman or girl will take care of another woman’s children. The men’s main task is preoccupied tending to the livestock farming, herding where the men will often be away from the family home for extended periods, animal slaughtering, construction, and holding council with village headmen.

Members of a single extended family typically dwell in a homestead (onganda), a small family-village, consisting of a circular hamlet of huts and work shelters that surround an okuruwo (sacred ancestral fire) and a central enclosure (kraal) for the sacred livestock. Both the fire and the livestock are closely tied to their veneration of the dead, the sacred fire representing ancestral protection and the sacred livestock allowing “proper relations between human and ancestor”.

Clothing and hair style

streams of braided hair, coloured and put in shape with otjize paste.

Streams of braided hair, coloured and put in shape with otjize paste.

Both the Himba men and women are accustomed to wearing traditional clothing that befits their living environment in the Kaokoland and the hot semi-arid climate of their area, in most occurrences this consists simply of skirt-like clothing made from calfskins or increasingly from more modern textiles, and occasionally sandals for footwear, with foot soles often found made from old car tires. Himba women especially, as well as Himba men, are remarkably famous for covering themselves with otjize paste, a cosmetic mixture of butterfat and ochre pigment, to cleanse the skin over long periods due to water scarcity and protect themselves from the extremely hot and dry climate of the Kaokoland as well as against mosquito insect bites. The cosmetic mixture, often perfumed with the aromatic resin of the omuzumba shrub, gives their skin and hair plaits a distinctive orange or red-tinge characteristic, as well as texture and style. Otjize is considered foremost a highly desirable aesthetic beauty cosmetic, symbolizing earth’s rich red color and blood the essence of life, and is consistent with the OvaHimba ideal of beauty.

Hairstyle and jewelry play a significant role among the OvaHimba, it indicates age and social status within their community. An infant or child will generally have their head kept shaved of hair or a small crop of hair on their head crown, this soon is sculptured to one braided hair plait extended to the rear of the head for young boys and young girls have two braided hair plaits extended forward towards the face often parallel to their eyes, the form of wear being determined by the oruzo membership (patrilineal descent group), the style remains during preadolescence until reaching puberty. Some young girls, with exception, may also have one braided hair plait extended forwards, which means they are one of a pair of twins.

Young puberescent Himba girl...

Young puberescent Himba girl…

From pubescence, boys continue to have one braided hair plait, girls will have many otjize textured hair plaits, some arranged to veil the girl’s face, in daily practice the hair plaits are often tied together and held parted back from the face. Women who have been married for about a year, or have had a child, wear an ornate headpiece called the Erembe, sculptured from sheepskin, with many streams of braided hair, coloured and put in shape with otjize paste. Unmarried young men continue to wear one braided hair plait extended to the rear of the head, while married men wear a cap or head-wrap and un-braided hair beneath. Widowed men will remove their cap or head-wrap and expose un-braided hair. The OvaHimba are also accustomed to use wood ash for hair cleansing due to water scarcity.

Customary practices

The OvaHimba are polygamous, with the average Himba man being husband to two wives at the same time. They also practice early arranged marriages. Young Himba girls are married to male partners chosen by their fathers, and this can be as early as 13 years of age or otherwise at the onset of puberty. Among the Himba people, it is customary as a rite of passage to circumcise boys before puberty. Upon marriage, a Himba boy is considered a man, unlike a Himba girl who is not considered a fully-fledged woman until she bears a child.

Socially dynamic

Despite the fact a majority of OvaHimba live a distinct cultural lifestyle in their remote rural environment and homesteads, they are however socially dynamic, and not all are isolated from the trends of local urban cultures. The OvaHimba coexist and interact with members of their country’s other ethnic groups and the social trends of urban townsfolk. Especially those in proximity to the Kunene Region capital of Opuwo, travelling frequently to shop at the local town supermarkets for the convenience of commercial consumer products, market food produce and to acquire health care.

Tribal structure

Because of the harsh desert climate in the region where they live and their seclusion from outside influences, the OvaHimba have managed to maintain and preserve much of their traditional lifestyle. Members live under a tribal structure based on bilateral descent that helps them live in one of the most extreme environments on earth.

Under bilateral descent, every tribe member belongs to two clans: one through the father (a patriclan, called oruzo) and another through the mother (a matriclan, called eanda). Himba clans are led by the eldest male in the clan. Sons live with their father’s clan, and when daughters marry, they go to live with the clan of their husband. However, inheritance of wealth does not follow the patriclan but is determined by the matriclan, that is, a son does not inherit his father’s cattle but his maternal uncle’s instead.

Bilateral descent is found among only a few groups in West Africa, India, Australia, Melanesia and Polynesia, and anthropologists consider the system advantageous for groups that live in extreme environments because it allows individuals to rely on two sets of families dispersed over a wide area.

History

The OvaHimba history is fraught with disasters, including severe droughts and guerrilla warfare, especially during Namibia’s war of independence and as a result of the civil war in neighboring Angola. Between 1904–1908, they suffered from the same attempt at genocide during the Herero Wars conducted by the German Empire colonist government in German South-West Africa under Lothar von Trotha that decimated notably the Herero people and the Nama people during the Herero and Namaqua Genocide.

In the 1980s it appeared the OvaHimba way of life was coming to a close due to a climax in adverse climatic conditions and political conflicts. A severe drought killed 90% of their livestock, and many gave up their herds and became refugees in the town of Opuwo living in slums on international humanitarian aid or joined Koevoet paramilitary units to cope with the livestock losses and widespread famine. OvaHimba living over the border in Angola, were occasionally victims of kidnapping during the South African Border war, either taken as hostages or abducted to join the Angolan branch of the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN, army of SWAPO).

Religion

The OvaHimba are a monotheistic people who worship the God Mukuru, as well as their clan’s ancestors (ancestor reverence). Mukuru only blesses, while the ancestors can bless and curse. Each family has its own sacred ancestral fire, which is kept by the fire-keeper. The fire-keeper approaches the sacred ancestral fire every seven to eight days in order to communicate with Mukuru and the ancestors on behalf of his family. Often, because Mukuru is busy in a distant realm, the ancestors act as Mukuru’s representatives.

The OvaHimba traditionally believe in omiti, which some translate to mean witchcraft but which others call “black magic” or “bad medicine”. Some OvaHimba believe that death is caused by omiti, or rather, by someone using omiti for malicious purposes. Additionally, some believe that evil people who use omiti have the power to place bad thoughts into another’s mind or cause extraordinary events to happen (such as when a common illness becomes life-threatening). But users of omiti do not always attack their victim directly; sometimes they target a relative or loved one. Some OvaHimba will consult a traditional African diviner-healer to reveal the reason behind an extraordinary event, or the source of the omiti.

Since Namibian independence

The OvaHimba have been successful in maintaining their culture and traditional way of life.

As such, the OvaHimba have worked with international activists to block a proposed hydroelectric dam along the Kunene River that would have flooded their ancestral lands, 2011, Namibia announced its new plan to build a dam in Orokawe, in the Baynes Mountains. The OvaHimba submitted in February 2012 their protest Declaration against the hydroelectric dam to the United Nations, the African Union and to the Government of Namibia.

The government of Norway and Iceland funded mobile schools for Himba children, but since Namibia took them over in 2010, they have been converted to permanent schools and are no longer mobile. The Himba leaders complain in their declaration about the culturally inappropriate school system, that they say would threaten their culture, identity and way of life as a people.

Human rights

Groups of the last remaining hunters and gatherers Ovatwa are held in secured camps in the northern part of Namibia’s Kunene region, despite complaints by the traditional Himba chiefs that the Ovatwa are held there without their consent and against their wishes.

In February 2012, traditional Himba chiefs issued two separate Declarations to the African Union and to the OHCHR of the United Nations.

The first, titled “Declaration of the most affected Ovahimba, Ovatwa, Ovatjimba and Ovazemba against the Orokawe Dam in the Baynes Mountains” outlines the objections from regional Himba chiefs and communities that reside near the Kunene River.

The second, titled “Declaration by the traditional Himba leaders of Kaokoland in Namibia” lists violations of civil, cultural, economic, environmental, social and political rights perpetrated by the government of Namibia (GoN).

September 2012, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples visited the OvaHimba and heard their concerns that they do not have recognized traditional authorities and that they are placed under the jurisdictions of chiefs of neighboring dominant tribes, who make decisions on behalf of the minority communities. In his view, the lack of recognition of traditional chiefs, in accordance with Namibian law, relates to a lack of recognition of the minority indigenous tribes’ communal lands.

November 23, 2012, hundreds of OvaHimba and Zemba from Omuhonga and Epupa region protested in Okanguati against Namibia’s plans to construct a dam in the Kunene River in the Baynes Mountains, against increasing mining operations on their traditional land and human rights violations against them.

March 25, 2013, over 1,000 Himba people marched in protest again, this time in Opuwo, against the ongoing human rights violations that they endure in Namibia. They expressed their frustration over the lack of recognition of their traditional chiefs as “Traditional Authorities” by the government; Namibia’s plans to built the Orokawe dam in the Baynes Mountains at the Kunene River without consulting with the OvaHimba, who do not consent to the construction plans; culturally inappropriate education; the illegal fencing of parts of their traditional land; and their lack of property rights to the territory that they have lived upon for centuries. They also protested against the implementation of the Communal Land Reform Act of 2002.

On October 14, 2013, Himba chief Kaipka, on behalf of his region Epupa and the community which was featured in German RTL reality TV show Wild Girls condemned the misuse of Himba people, individuals and villagers in the show, and demanded the halt of broadcasting any further episodes as they would mock the culture and way of being of the Himba people.

March 29, 2014, OvaHimba from both countries, Angola and Namibia, march again in protest against the dam’s construction plans as well as against the government attempt to bribe their regional Himba chief. In the signed letter of the Himba community from Epupa, the region that would be directly affected by the dam, the traditional leaders explain that any consent form signed by a former chief as a result of bribery wasn’t valid as they remain opposed to the dam.

Anthropological investigations

Color perception

Several researchers have studied the OvaHimba perception of colours. The OvaHimba use four colour names: zuzu stands for dark shades of blue, red, green and purple; vapa is white and some shades of yellow; buru is some shades of green and blue; and dambu is some other shades of green, red and brown. It is thought that this may increase the time it takes for the OvaHimba to distinguish between two colours that fall under the same Herero colour category, compared to people whose language separates the colours into two different colour categories.

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