Having concluded a wonderful and memorable two days at Etosha National Park in Namibia, our group headed for Kamanjab to visit a “traditional” Himba village.
The Himba are an ancient indigenous group of herders and the last traditional tribe in Namibia. Since the 16th century they have lived in scattered settlements throughout Namibia and parts of Angola, leading a life that has largely remained unchanged.
I have to say that my overall experience visiting this village was unfortunately not a great one. Whilst it was of course hugely educational, I couldn’t help feeling the village was established purely to attract tourists and it left me feeling quite uncomfortable and in a strange way detached from what was going on.
At the beginning I took a few photographs but even that stopped after about 20 minutes, so for a photo travel blog there’s not going to be much to see I’m afraid !
The Himba are descendants of the Herero people, and continue to speak a dialect of the ancient Herero language. They are predominantly livestock farmers, breeding cattle and goats in what is largely a rough and arid landscape.
They are probably one of the most photographed tribes in the world, for the Himba looks are everything. Their appearance tells you everything about their place within a group and what phase of their life they are at. This includes intricate hairstyles, the clothing, and jewellery specifically chosen in accordance to the tribe’s hierarchy.
But the most distinctive aspect has to be the application of a paste, known as otjize. This is made from a mixture of goat fat, herbs and red ochre which is rubbed on the skin, in their hair, and also on their clothing. Some say this is applied to protect the skin from the sun and insects, but I think it’s an aesthetic thing, a traditional style make-up if you like. It’s only the women that apply the paste, men do not use otjize.
Himba marriages are arranged with a view to spreading wealth. Once married, the women move to the villages of their husbands where they then adopt the rules of the new clan. Himba men are not monogamous and may have a number of wives and children residing in different homesteads. Interestingly women are not monogamous either and may also have a number of partners.
The village is made up of small circular huts surrounding a large circular enclosure where livestock and a holy fire is kept. I walked around the village for some time, seeing women go about their daily chores; making belts and jewellery, grinding red ochre for the otjize paste, working on their elaborate hair styles (which takes over two days apparently), before being invited into one of the huts.
Inside the hut hung ceremonial clothing and a few everyday items; a pillow made of wood, makeup boxes, and the items needed to make a smoke bath with aromatic herbs. Interestingly the Himba never use water to bathe.
The whole experience for me felt just a little weird. Whilst pitched as a visit to an authentic traditional Himba settlement, it had the feeling of being an exhibition for me. Others in the group had a similar feeling, and as tourists it’s hard to know what to do in such situations.
It was of course very interesting, and I appreciate this village will benefit from the money that no doubt the tourist trade brings to the area. But I’m equally sure it also distances them from their traditional lifestyle which will at some point in the future cease to exist.
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